Countless times over his 22-year career, Kevin McWhirter has walked into a client’s shop to find a very expensive piece of robotic welding equipment sitting in a corner, unused and collecting dust, because it isn’t working right.
Typically, the company has been sold equipment that’s either wrong for their purposes or hasn’t been properly calibrated, leaving the company out a lot of money and frustrated by the experience.
It’s those negative incidents that make people leery about the applications for automation, despite the advantages it can bring to industry, said McWhirter, a welding engineering technician and president of Autonomous Welding Inc. (AWI).
“People are afraid to make those purchases because they’ve heard so many bad stories because of bad implementations,” he said. “I want to make sure that when they buy something, they’re not going to have that horror story machine that’s going to be mothballed in the corner.”
Originally from Timmins, McWhirter completed the welding engineering technician program at Northern College before leaving the city to start his career in 1995. Over the next decade and a half, he worked for a number of firms, including Hobart and Motoman, before launching his own company in Fergus, just north of Guelph in southern Ontario, five years ago.
AWI offers automated solutions for fabricators and manufacturers of welded products in a range of sectors. McWhirter’s primary clients are in the military and mining industries, but he also works with companies in the power and forestry sectors, as well as on more general applications.
“A lot of the customers that I work with are job shops, so they supply product to a lot of different industries themselves,” he said. “So they might be doing mining products, but they also might be doing logging products or whatever customers they find that need some parts automated.”
Earlier this year, a desire to be closer to family prompted McWhirter to move back to Timmins, and he’s now looking for industrial space to set up his shop, as well as new clients across the North who can benefit from his services.
When implemented properly, robotic welding can be a game changer for companies looking to up their production and make their operations more efficient, but it’s a misconception that automation is only beneficial to clients producing large volumes.
“Automation can be applied to pretty much anything,” said McWhirter, who recently earned his International Welding Technologist designation.
He specializes in servicing existing equipment, adjusting the technology to make a poorly functioning machine work again, and returning for ongoing support. But his true passion is the design and implementation of full robotic welding systems. He’s a whiz at designing from scratch programs that can perform highly specific functions.
For one client in the mining industry, McWhirter designed a program that can do welds on an entire family of parts. The program engages the robot in identifying the geometry of the part, take its measurements, and adjust the program positions to a rough position, and then the robot fine-tunes a search to find the part.
It took McWhirter six months to do the programming, but the application can adapt to any part in the entire product family. That program has now been running successfully for five years, welding hundreds and hundreds of parts for the client.
“Even though they have a whole variation of different parts, it might take me a few months to create something, but if I create something that can handle their whole product range, then every time you throw a new style of part on it, the robot can just come in, figure it out and then weld it,” McWhirter said.
“Even if it takes you a little longer up front to set it up like that, now you have a smart machine that can actually do all this stuff."
Eventually, McWhirter envisions having a team of two to three people in place to help with design and sales at AWI.
The company has served clients in southern Ontario, Ottawa, Québec, and even Colorado, and now, with a move to Timmins, McWhirter is putting Northern Ontario on his radar.