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Tele-manufacturing: Leveraging Skilled Workers through Remote-access Operations

March 17, 2021

Tele-manufacturing offers the ability to accurately transfer manual skillsets from local personnel to remote automated systems. EWI has been innovating in tele-manufacturing over the past two years by developing a tele-presence welding system. Tele-welding allows a worker to operate welding equipment from a remote location while still in control of the welding process and torch movements. By providing a functional system for “distance welding,” tele-welding supports workers – whether they are younger, older, or have a physical disability – who may not otherwise be able to serve productively in manufacturing and helps address today’s chronic shortage of skilled welders in the labor pool.

The EWI-led joint research team of Newport News Shipbuilding, General Dynamics-Electric Boat, Robotic Technologies of Tennessee, and Visible Welding is currently completing a Navy-sponsored project through the National Shipbuilding Research Program (NSRP) to develop a mechanized welding system completely controlled by a worker who is remote from the welding site. The worker receives feedback from the operation and its environment via welding sensors, arc view cameras, and a real-time livestream of the entire process. The mechanized equipment can be operated through a control tool such as a computer mouse, haptic stylus device, or welding torch-like device attached to a desktop robot.

The first phase of this project centered on researching and developing technologies that could be combined into a system capable of welding from a remote location with the operator in complete control of the process. A proof of concept was demonstrated in May 2020 in which welding was completed at EWI headquarters in Columbus, OH, by operators located in New England. Click here to see a video demonstration of the system.

The second phase of this project has centered on integrating down-selected technologies onto both a mobile platform and a portable cobot arm. The method chosen for operator control is a haptic stylus device attached to a desktop PC that translates user motions across the LAN or the internet onto a remote Universal Robot. Kinematic equations have been used to transfer the same motions from the stylus to welder-intuitive movements on the robot, including both travel and work angle control. Speed change, a tricky aspect of the system, has been accomplished by relying on the haptic feedback to help determine when the user was pushing harder or slowing up in a certain direction. The haptic feedback also helps the operator stay within travel limits of the robot and alerts him of the joint geometry. The final step of this project, planned for May, will include validating the technology with remote welding demonstrations on selected shipyard applications.

EWI is currently reviewing other manufacturing processes to adapt for tele-manufacturing. If you want to learn more about this technology or are interested in working with EWI on the R&D, contact Connie LaMorte at [email protected] or 614.688.5247.