A look at Northwest Steel Fab's revolutionary robot

Michael Brock

Northwest Steel Fab in Deer Park recently added a fitting and welding robot to its arsenal.

Installed since August 2019, the machine is what project manager and estimator Josh James calls “the most revolutionary product for our industry of structural steel fabrication.” According to James, the machine is one of the first in the United States.

Using a high frequency water-cooled welder, it fits and welds up to 60-foot steel beams “with amazing accuracy, speed, quality and eliminates injuries,” James said. The machine fits about four times faster than a human, and is 20-30% quicker than a human welder since you can only weld up to a certain speed.

There’s a master robot and a welding robot; they work independently but sync 600 times a second. The welding part cleans, greases and recalibrates itself; the operator also serves as the machine’s quality control. James said they haven’t had a single failure or piece out of tolerance yet since installing the machine.

James said customers love what they have seen so far, and the company is moving more material through its building than ever before. He said Northwest Steel Fab’s fitters and welders are also fond of the machine.

“We can just fit with this machine and create a whole bunch of welding work,” James said. “So we’ll only fit on some, and create a ton of work for welders to do.”

Because of this, the robot has actually created jobs for the company.

“Most of our automation has created work,” James said. “It’s sped up the specific area that it’s doing, but it’s created a need for more people because we’re moving more stuff… All the steps before and the steps after are having a hard time keeping up.”

The fitting and welding robot— which cost between $2.5 and $5 million—is just the beginning for the steel fabrication company. James said he sees multiple in their future, with the first coming “probably within a year or two.”

“We’re always looking to automate to reduce costs and to create a company that’s forward thinking,” James said. “What’s the next thing out there, what can increase our efficiency, what can cut our costs. And it’s not [just] about cutting costs and being more efficient, it’s about a better quality product consistently.”