Fort Collins, Colorado
Robotic welding systems
The numbers are stark: According to the American Welding Society, the average age of a welder in the U.S. is 54, and the domestic manufacturing economy could potentially be thwarted by a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2025.
Akey and co-founders Doug Rhoda, Josh Pawley, and Aaron Bailey launched Vectis Automation to address this very problem. "There's a lack of people going into the industry," says Akey. "They can't find people to weld. It's even more prevalent with the smaller manufacturers."
Even when manufacturers can find welders, he adds, it's difficult to retain them. "It's tough for people to keep long-term employees who can maintain their production rate and their current throughput."
Vectis' patent-pending collaborative robot (cobot) welding tool targets small and medium-sized manufacturers. Unlike traditional robotic welding systems, it's portable, has limited power needs, and is a good fit for lower volumes. "Some of the smaller shops don't have 480 [volt] power," says Akey.
It's also lower-priced than the traditional welding systems, and Vectis offers both rentals and sales, along with rent-to-own packages.
The Vectis cobot is built with such off-the-shelf components as a Universal Robots UR10e, a Rhino Cart, and an air-cooled welding torch. While other companies are using the UR10e for welding applications, "I knew we could build a better product," says Akey.
The end result has "really opened a lot of eyes in the collaborative welding world," says Akey. "People need a simple-to-use system like this. . . . We don't want automation to be intimidating, because it really is for a lot of people."
The software is a big selling point, says Akey, noting that manual welders can typically transition to the system after a 15-minute overview. "A lot of our secret sauce is around how we make it easy to use on the software," he says. "It's fun to empower the everyday welder and manufacturer to be a robot programmer."
The cobot model makes for automation that enhances manpower, but doesn't replace it. "Our system tries to tackle the return on investment in a little bit different way," says Akey. "Opportunity costs go out the window if you can't get a welder. It is faster, but it's not built to be a 'lights out' manufacturing solution."
The system can boost a welder's productivity by a factor of "2X to 3X" while improving "reliability, quality, and repeatability," he adds.
Customers include RCI Metalworks, Noffsinger Manufacturing, and MT Solar. "We're not really limiting it to any sector or any manufacturing sector in particular," Akey notes. "We've had a full spread from small manufacturers to medium-sized manufacturers, and all of them have liked it and found a need for it and a specific place for it."
Because it pairs well with other automation, he adds, "It's helped enable ['lights out' manufacturing] more than disable it, so we're not out there competing against more traditional systems."
In the end, it's all about meeting the needs of customers. "Vectis means 'lever' in Latin," says Akey. "We really want to help manufacturers leverage our system and use it to their advantage, not be overwhelmed with it."
Challenges: "For our company, it's continuing to innovate and be one of the leaders in our industry," says Akey. "That's our goal."
Another Vectis challenge relates to maintaining superlative service levels: "We want to be the guys who solve the problems that are hard to solve, but make it easy for a customer to be able to reap the benefits of it."
Opportunities: Akey identifies a wide range of potential customers. "It's across the board," he says, noting a specific opportunity in U.S. companies reshoring manufacturing from Asia. "The virus has pushed a lot of people to rethink that."
Needs: Top talent and continued execution, says Akey, "We've hit every single hypothesis as we've gone through our business plan in our initial projections of what we think we can do with the product and where we can go in the market with it," he notes.