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Sparks fly as BAE Systems brings innovation to welding

Soldiers with the North Carolina National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 113th Field Artillery Regiment, fire newly fielded M109A7 Self-Propelled Howitzer Systems at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, May 20, 2021. (U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Mary Junell)
BAE Systems implemented a ‘first of its kind’ welding robot for improved quality and consistency on multiple combat vehicle production lines.

Lifted several stories above the production floor, an aluminum vehicle hull is welded together as sparks rain down below. This mighty, automated piece of equipment gets right to work, flipping the hull around numerous times and into various positions as it fastens together the body of what will soon become a combat vehicle.

Meet the advanced and cutting-edge robotic welding system BAE Systems has employed on the production line to optimize the welding process. It is currently being used on two major U.S. Army combat vehicle programs: the M109A7 Self-Propelled Howitzer (SPH), M992A3 Carrier, Ammunition, Tracked (CAT) and the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV).

Funded by the U.S. Government, BAE Systems engineers collaborated with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Wolf Robotics to develop an Agile Manufacturing Robotic Welding Cell customized for aluminum structures that comprise the combat vehicle’s hull.

Manual welder stock photo

“First system of its kind”

“We’ve never put aluminum welding on a system of this magnitude and capability for a hull structure ever,” said Ben Hall, principal engineer at BAE Systems’ York facility. “This is literally the first system of its kind, I’m not aware of any other system in the world with this type of robotic capacity for this type of specific application.”

Prior to welding automation, large aluminum pieces that form the hull were hand-welded together, requiring numerous weld passes at each seam to build the hull. Hand welding requires the welder to hold the weld gun with both hands, pull the trigger to feed wire into the weld joint that creates an arc. The gun is then moved over the metal slowly to create a weld. The number of weld starts and stops in a single seam is based on the length and reach of the welder’s arms. The further a welder can reach, the less he or she needs to stop and start again.

The incorporation of an advanced automated welding system not only reduces the number of weld starts and stops, but also decreases the number of weld passes required compared to manually performed welds by increasing the input energy and weld filler wire diameter. This process provides a higher efficiency, more consistent and repeatable process that yields high quality welds.  For example, in specific long seam welds, it requires a total of 32 hours to manually complete the weld. The automated welding cell reduces long-seam welds to about three hours.

Noticing an opportunity to expand the capability of robotic welding, the weld engineering team at BAE Systems leveraged lessons learned, past successes, and capabilities gained on the AMPV robotic system and programmed them into the robot to enable the system to weld the hull structures of the M109A7 SPH and its companion M992A3 Carrier Ammunition, Tracked (CAT) vehicle.

“The robotic process is completely automated,” said Andrew Stern, engineering and robotics automation lead at BAE Systems’ primary combat vehicle manufacturing hub in York, Pennsylvania. “Once the vehicle is loaded into the robotic cell and all the safety devices are closed, the robot will orient the vehicle, validate the proper vehicle was selected, then begin its operation.”

Robotic welder stock photo

Cutting-edge Technology

Enhancing the weld process, the robotic system increases efficiencies to consistently deliver a quality vehicle to the customer. The benefits of this weld system paired with its cutting-edge technical innovation and advancement has allowed the robotic weld system to be recognized as an award winning addition to the production line.

The robotic weld system was recognized as the recipient of the 2020 Defense Manufacturing Technology Achievement Award, an annual recognition program sponsored by the Joint Defense Manufacturing Technology Panel (JDMTP). It recognizes individuals from government and the private sector for outstanding technical accomplishments that further the achievement of the Defense Department’s mission.

BAE Systems plans to continue to innovate welding processes within the next year by incorporating a third robotic system into its weld school program that can be used for training, process development, and qualification. The goal is to inspire the entire BAE Systems team to continue to find new ways to improve production processes and ultimately make better, stronger vehicles to keep our soldiers safe.