ShipConstructor Drives Automatic Welding Robots

(Image: SSI)

By Joseph Keefe

The last barrier to robotic shipbuilding has just
fallen. What comes next will be truly exciting.

It wasn't too long ago that SSI and Wolf Robotics demonstrated
some co-development which automatically drove a fully autonomous
welding robot to weld several ship panels. SSI develops Autodesk
based solutions for the shipbuilding and offshore industry
including ShipConstructor software, an AutoCAD based CAD/CAM
product line; and EnterprisePlatform, a tool for sharing product
data model information. For its part, Wolf Robotics has been
integrating robotic welding and cutting systems since 1978.

The collaboration was part of a National Shipbuilding Research
Program (NSRP) Computer Aided Robotics Welding (CAR-W) project
with U.S. shipyards. Prominent among those participating
shipyards was Bollinger, who today is testing that cutting edge
technology, hoping to be up and running by mid-year, as it builds
the U.S. Coast Guard's all-important Fast Response Cutters (FRC).

Defining the Objectives, Assembling the Team

According to SSI's R&D Manager Patrick David, the project
focused on looking for ways to reduce manpower costs, as well as
standardizing and producing better quality welds. He explains,
"The big problem for shipbuilding in terms of using robotics is
that there is a high degree of product variability. Even though
ships of the same class are going to be very similar, the
nitty-gritty differences are enough that it wreaks havoc on
trying to set up a purely automated manufacturing system/assembly
line." And, with those obstacles in mind, SSI, Wolf Robotics and
Bollinger Shipyards embarked on the remarkable project. And while
this effort, to date, isn't the end of the journey, it likely
represents a quantum leap forward in shipbuilding efficiencies on
this side of the big pond.

Bollinger Shipyards is a longtime and active participant in the
NSRP. This particular project began when Dennis Fanguy, VP of
Quality Management Systems at Bollinger Shipyards was contacted
by Wolf Robotics in mid-2014 to see if Bollinger would be
interested in leading the NSRP CAR-W project. "Bollinger agreed
to lead this project and submitted the proposal in September of
2014 and we were then awarded a contract to proceed in June of
2015," explained Fanguy, adding quickly, "The objective of this
NSRP project was to close the automation gap between domestic and
foreign shipyards by eliminating the core programming bottleneck
currently preventing broad industry adoption of robotic welding
automation."

The team then set out to develop software algorithms for high
impact weld types centered on robot reachability, collision
avoidance and auto-path generation kinematics that use electronic
CAD Model and Welding Process Planning data. A gap analysis of
the required changes between Bollinger's current processes and
the generic industry CAR-W process map was developed by the team.
Today, says Fanguy, "We are developing a roadmap of alignment for
other shipyards to follow. Finally, the project will attempt to
leverage and help develop an electronic infrastructure that
captures critical process knowledge (in electronic data form)
related to welding so that it can be electronically leveraged by
designers for Design For Robotics (DFR) applications, as well as
by process planners and engineers." Unspoken in all of that, it
is also true that process data capture and transfer of welder
knowledge is a critical risk associated with the aging welding
work-force and welder workforce shortage in the shipbuilding
industry.

SSI eagerly agreed to participate in the project. That's because,
Pat David told Marine News, "First and foremost, what
makes us unique in our own space is that we are an AutoCad based
product. There are far more qualified people out there who could
utilize this software. Secondly, our costs are much lower overall
as a product - more functionality, more capability, delivered to
a designer at a lower price point than any of the other options.
We're proactive, we have good relationships with the yards and a
lot of us used to work in these yards with the people that are
still there. We know what they need and why."

Beyond this, says David, SSI tries to be as agnostic as is
possible when it comes to data requirements. Dealing with data
built in other software would be a small step for the robot to
convert that data. He adds, "It's not a huge issue."

But before anyone spent any money, NSRP asked SSI and its
collaborative robotic team to clarify a couple of things. One of
those things was what kind of return on investment would the
shipyard see and how long would that take? David explains, "So,
we went to Bollinger to investigate what they were doing with
current weld processes so we could understand where we could
realize the most savings for them. We asked: what kind of welds
to you do, how big, how often, and what kind of manpower does it
take to accomplish that? We determined the most common type of
weld that would have the most impact against the lowest capital
cost to implement for the project. We targeted those types of
welds."

Nuts & Bolts: hardly …

Already up and running and producing real results in Bollinger's,
the workflow starts in ShipConstructor by automatically
identifying the welds in the ShipConstructor 3D CAD model. The
ShipConstructor user then uses an interactive 3D visual drawing
to configure the weld properties such as the weld standard and
includes weld breaks, weld pitch, etc. The weld information and
various other relevant data (e.g. geometry of panel to be welded)
is exported to Wolf Robotics via SSI's EnterprisePlatform. The
operator on the shop floor reads the files generated in Robot
Studio which runs a path planning algorithm that evaluates
several collision avoidance scenarios.

The effort was an R&D project for SSI, says David, so the end
benefit for his firm is probably a little further down the road
than that which Bollinger is now enjoying. But that doesn't mean
that SSI isn't happy with what they've helped to accomplish. They
are. "The accomplishments here are very specific, perhaps not
readily apparent to someone who doesn't fully understand the work
flow or process of shipbuilding," said David, adding, "It boils
down to ShipConstructor outputting the geometric data - the CAD
model data that is created with our product, along with the
welding information that is also created in our product. You're
looking at the assembly that has to be manufactured and you're
looking at all the 3D model parts that you've created in your CAD
system. Along with just seeing the geometry that is there, we are
also able to identify within 'Shipcon' where the welds would have
to take place, as well as the type of welds that they should be.
That information is brought into the path planner on the wolf
side to plan all of the welds that the robot will perform. What's
significant here is that any variability on the production side
can be repathed very quickly on the robot side and with little
manual intervention and in a minimal amount of time. The path
planning software is that robust. The information is married into
one package, exported into the robot."

Bollinger is the only shipyard testing - and using - this
technology today. Bollinger bought the robots, got the overhead
gantries into place and rigged all of the equipment. And says
SSI's David, the success of the project at Bollinger has raised
enough eyebrows at other shipyards that the NSRP project's next
phase will involve more than just one robot.

Payback

According to Bollinger's Fanguy, the project team generated ROM
(rough order of magnitude) costs of the system concepts and
worked with Bollinger to develop ROI and payback estimates using
Bollinger's plans for implementation to apply timing to estimated
savings and utilizations. An adoption curve was applied to
reflect the rate at which CAR-W systems could realistically
ramp-up to expected production capacity. This adoption curve was
meant to capture the timing for organizational alignment,
information flow infrastructure, personnel training, etc. The
adoption curve used shows 0 percent adoption for 2015 during
development, 1 percent in 2016 with prototype systems, 20 percent
in 2017 for CAR-W production applications, and 80 percent and 100
percent in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Fanguy explained the numbers further, telling Marine
News
, "From a high-level, a $4.5 million investment in
robotic automation per yard ($72 million industry-wide) over a
three to seven year period (based on the development pace of
Computer Aided Robotics algorithms for high-impact weld types)
could elevate the industry to a point where 15 percent of the
welding volume in an average shipyard (estimated at 60 miles)
could be completed with robotics. This investment is projected to
save the industry in excess of $80 million annually at a return
on investment in excess of 100 percent once the robotic cell or
gantry is operating at full capacity by the second year."

To be fair, both return-on-investment and payback period metrics
are expected to fluctuate by yard based on the pace at which
robotic systems are brought to full production capacity.
Additional financial savings not addressed in this business case
include benefits derived from reduced welder ergonomic issues.
Costs associated with over-welding, including additional
man-hours, the increased ship weight, increased hours of material
grinding in the case of rejected welds, and other variables were
not considered in the calculation.

In the end, says Fanguy, the project team demonstrated core
competency with key technologies and the capability to execute a
complex, multidisciplinary development roadmap. He added,
"Significant progress has been made in Phase 1 toward realization
of a flexible, efficient, high-productivity robotic welding
solution for the U.S. shipbuilding industry. Opportunities to
transfer this technology to additional shipbuilding and, broader
defense applications continue to emerge. It is incumbent upon the
Navy, shipbuilding industry, and U.S.-based suppliers of these
technologies to provide a solution that will continue to place
the United States at the forefront of innovation and
manufacturing capability."

Looking Back, Forging Ahead

Asked where the technology and robotic welding would provide the
most value, Fanguy replied, "We believe that certainly it is
better suited for series build, but the intention at Bollinger is
to use this technology for part families that may not require a
series build contract to exploit the savings from this
technology. And, he adds, "Based on the high level of commonality
between the part families and weld types among both Bollinger and
other Shipyards, it appears that there are significant technology
transfer opportunities for technologies outlined in this
assessment report."

Pat David also thinks that the robotic approach has legs. In
fact, he insists, "One of the issues prior to this project when
using robots for manufacturing that had high variability was the
amount of time that it took to program the robot to do the weld.
Our ability to quickly generate that path - that information - is
where the savings lie. So those past problems aren't as valid as
they once were. A lot of folks are going to reconsider this
possibility now. Automated welding is nothing new. But, the
barrier to entry has been significantly lowered with and due to
this project."

David continues, "The biggest obstacle, hands down, is the
upfront capital investment." And he agrees with Fanguy, saying,
"This isn't just limited to series-build hulls - one-off projects
can significantly benefit as well. What used to take many hours
for the programmer or the robot to generate a path for the
welding now is exponentially faster than it used to be." That's
good news for boatbuilders. As NSRP continues to lead, and
shipyards and other stakeholders collaborate, everyone wins. That
reality has never been clearer.

NSRP CAR-W Project … at a glance

Funding / Project Schedule

Total Amount of the Agreement: $6,242,301 / Three Phases:

Estimated NSRP ASE Project Funding: $3,498,553 / Phase 0 (April
2015 - Julittle abne 2015)

Total Estimated Recipient Cost Share: $2,743,748 / Phase I
(July 2015 - July 2016)

Total Funds Obligated (Phase 0, 1, and 2): $3,498,553 / Phase
II (August 2016 - August 2017)

(As published in the February 2017 edition of
Marine News
)

Mar 6, 2017

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