From spring 2023 at its sites in Linz and Traisen, the voestalpine Foundry Group will become the first steel foundry in Europe to work more sustainably with the aid of welding robots. The robotic welding systems are still in trial operation. This leap into the future will not only increase productivity and quality further, but will also create new professional development opportunities for employees.
The mood at the voestalpine Foundry Group is one of excitement and anticipation, plus a little pride. Although terms such as automation and digitalization can sometimes make people feel uneasy, the project team under Project Manager Erich A. knows from the trial operations that the robotic welding systems reduce the workforce’s load, improve working conditions, and result in a more resource-efficient production process.
Sensation in production welding
Together with KUKA, a leading supplier of intelligent automation solutions, robotics specialist Mabotic, and the voestalpine SFM mechatronics department, the voestalpine Foundry Group has developed a fully automated welding process. What makes it so special? For the first time, it has been possible to automate the production welding process. What does it look like? The grinding undercut on the cast steel component is scanned. The path planning is independently calculated via a program and sent to the robot controller. The subsequent welding process is then fully automatic. The essential quality criteria can be guaranteed.
“With the new robot welding systems, we have succeeded in copying the actions of a manual welder,” beams Erich A.. He can hardly wait for the systems to start up live operations. He has been managing “Project Robot Welding” since 2016/17, when the voestalpine Foundry Group began planning two professional robot welding systems at its two sites in Linz and Traisen.
"It is nothing less than sensational that this robot system can be used for production welding."
“We have only been working with our newly developed pilot system for two years. It has quickly shown us the must-haves for an optimal production process that can generate the best possible output for us,” states an equally pleased René S., who is responsible for welding supervision and plant operations.
Markus W., welding and application engineer for automation in GTP-A casting production, agrees. He summarizes the status quo from his point of view: “It’s all very complex. We are only at the beginning of our journey, but it is already incredible to see what is possible.” Markus is virtually the key user of the system on site, having been brought on board as a the operator right at the start of the project. He completed his apprenticeship as a general welder at voestalpine before working in the foundry for many years where he qualified as a foreman in 2009. As an experienced welder, he understands both the challenges of the job and the market requirements.
Manual welding remains indispensable
The voestalpine Foundry Group will continue to rely on manual welding in the future. It is only the job requirements that will change, and that is a good thing, because activities such as system operation, robot programming, and application technology make this a profession which is fit for the future. Automation is intelligent when it combines human input with the power of machines.
“Welders are already highly sought-after skilled workers, but the additional qualifications will make our trade a profession with a future,” says Project Manager Erich A. “We train our employees intensively on working with the welding robots. Anyone who is interested can learn to develop the parameters for the robot control or to operate the system. The training in the apprentice workshop is constantly being adapted to reflect these developments.”
The improved working conditions and the additional tasks in robotics programming and operation are also expected to make welding apprenticeships more attractive.
"Today, we are better than the competition because we work more accurately and precisely—our productivity and quality are our competitive edge."
Our path to a green future
We are upping the pace of emissions reduction. greentec steel from voestalpine is Austria’s largest climate protection program. Starting in 2027, this program will reduce Austria’s annual CO2 emissions by almost 5%. 2024 marks the start of the partial shift from the blast furnace to the electric arc furnace (EAF) route—once unresolved funding issues in Austria are clarified.