40 years of robotic welding and cutting – we’ve come so far

Today the robotics welding and cutting market makes up a large portion of robotics sales around the world, but its beginnings were very humble.

In 1974 ABB Robotics – then known as ASEA – introduced the first microprocessor controlled and electrically driven industrial robot to the commercial market. A year later we introduced the first welding package for that robot, complete with a positioner.

Back then the controller was the size of a refrigerator and the robot only had 5 axes–you can see a picture of the system above. By today’s standards it was quite limited in what it could do, but it was the start of what would become one of ABB’s core markets for industrial robotics.

This week at the 2013 Schweissen & Schneiden trade show and conference I was asked to give a talk that included a history of robotic welding and cutting as well as a glimpse into the future. While assembling my presentation it was an honor to be able to take a step back and see the significant historical contributions that ABB has made to the world of robotic welding and cutting.

Over time we have totally changed the trends in the market and now we have controllers that fit on a table top and provide vastly more capability as the “brains” of the robot. We are in a new era of robotics in which we can think about doing things like attaching a robot to another robot to provide incredible agility for welding in the tightest of spaces. Our robots now have 6 axes of movement, and we can control up to 36 total axes of movement from one controller for completely coordinated and synchronized motion.

The automated welding and cutting market has segmented into very specific categories of thin sheet material and heavy welding of thick plates – things like automotive and aerospace use thinner materials than things like yellow goods and agricultural equipment. And with this segmentation our robots have gotten faster, stronger, more reliable, easier to program, and more cost effective.

Through new innovations over time, such as introducing an external axis for positioning of the work piece, highly accurate software motion control, 3D laser vision, and PC-based programming, we have added more and more functionality to welding and cutting. In fact, it is certain that some of the things we take for granted in our modern lives would be impossible to produce without the help of robotic welding and cutting programmed using advanced 3D virtual simulation with our RobotStudio software.

We have also spent a large amount of time developing our VirtualArc software that allows our customers, with a very high degree of accuracy, to predict the exact quality of welds based on software simulations so that you can know exactly how the weld will turn out before any parts are even worked on.

Looking to the future, we see a significant trend developing right now in which the cost of laser welding and cutting systems are decreasing and that type of welding and cutting is experiencing huge growth. We think that by 2020 adoption of laser welding will directly result in the reduction of spot welding by 50%. Given how much spot welding is done when assembling car frames around the world, this is an amazing amount of change that will transform the industry and result in higher quality, lighter weight and stiffer vehicle frames. For the consumer that means reduced road noise, more cabin space, more protection in accidents and better fuel economy.

Aside from that, laser welding and cutting are simply cool. In fact, my son tells me Star Wars is coming whenever I show him a video of it. And it’s true, when it comes to welding and cutting the future really is here.

Learn more about our welding and cutting innovations at the ABB Schweissen & Schneiden portal.


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About the author

Jorge Isla

I've been with ABB for over 15 years working in different roles within the Robotics Business Unit. After starting as a service engineer, I'm now the Global Technology Manager for Welding and Cutting. I was born and raised in Mexico City, but have lived in many different countries while working with ABB and am fluent in English, Swedish, German and Spanish. My specialty is in using ABB's PC-based programming software, RobotStudio, to program complex welding and cutting operations. When I'm not working for ABB I play soccer, mountain bike and am a certified scuba diver.
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