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Robotics and automation in metal fabrication and automotive manufacturing: How to get started

A guide to the top three use cases for robots in the industry

7-minute read

Metal fabrication and automotive manufacturing are two important industries in Canada. Metal fabrication generated $42.4 billion in annual revenue in 2020, while automotive manufacturing revenue amounted to $112.6 billion. While the end products in each sector are very different, metalworking remains integral to the fabrication of most automotive parts. For this reason, a number of robots have the potential to benefit businesses in both industries.

Getting started with robots and industrial automation is especially critical in the metal fabrication sector, where many companies have been slow to adopt these technologies. The density of robots per 10,000 employees in Canada was only 71 in Canada, well below world leaders like France (118), Germany (130), Japan (170) and Italy (194).

The situation is different in the automotive manufacturing sector: Canada is a world leader in automation, with 1475 robots per 10,000 employees. But this high number hides a challenging reality: many small and medium-sized enterprises are lagging behind large businesses when it comes to automation.

Taking the next step in automation is imperative in both industries, especially for companies that rely on exporting in competitive foreign markets. The good news, however, is that getting started with robots can be easy and profitable if you choose the right project. According to a BDC study, 39% of the most productive businesses invested in automation compared to 18% of other companies.

This article presents the top three use cases for robots in the automotive and metal fabrication industries.

We have selected these technologies because they can be used by most companies in both sectors to accomplish a wide range of tasks and manufacture a broad variety of products.

The use cases are:

  • machine tending
  • material removal
  • welding

Machine tending

Machine tending is perhaps the simplest, most basic robot application. Machine tending robots usually do one thing and one thing only: load and unload a machine with parts or raw material.

They can also be programmed to accomplish other tasks, like:

  • Part inspection
  • Washing
  • Deburring
  • Sorting
  • Packaging
  • Gauging

In the metal fabrication industry, for instance, a machine tending robot may place an aluminum blank in a milling machine and remove the finished piece once the machining is done.

Machine tending robots can service most machines in the industry:

  • Lathes
  • Mills
  • Grinders
  • Laser marking
  • Press brake

While simple, machine tending has a number of advantages, from increased efficiency and product quality to reduced labour costs. It can also free up qualified employees so they can work on higher-value tasks. This is a significant advantage considering that new job openings for machinists in Canada are expected to outstrip the number of new job seekers over the 2022-2031 period.

Machine tending robots are a key component of lights-out manufacturing, a term referring to a production method requiring minimal human involvement on the factory floor—essentially operating autonomously, even in a dark and vacant factory. These robots are indispensable for running a production line overnight.

Since machine tending is a relatively simple application, with robot programming often doable in a matter of minutes, it is compatible with small as well as bigger production volumes. As a general rule of thumb, machine tending starts being useful when production batches are above 10 to 15 units.

Cost of machine tending robots

Machine tending collaborative robots systems typically cost between $110,000 and $200,000, depending on the options needed (squaring table, number of axes, accessories, etc.).

Industrial robots alone can be cheaper but since they are not collaborative, there will need an added amount for safety hardware, fencing and other accessories. Looking only at the robot, pricing depends mostly on payload, work envelope and task complexity. A small robot with of a reach of 0.9 meters, made for payloads of up to 7kg, for example, can cost between $35,000 and $50,000. A large robot with a reach of up to 2.23 meters, made for payloads of up to 80kg, on the other hand, can cost up to $115,000. Complete turnkey solutions will be range dependent, but you can expect them to be from $200,000 up to $500,000.

Material removal

Material removal robots refer to machines automating tasks such as:

  • Polishing
  • Buffing
  • Grinding
  • Sanding
  • Trimming
  • Cutting
  • Deburring

Finishing parts by sanding, grinding or deburring can be a dull and dangerous job. Robots, however, don’t fear the grind. For this reason, material removal is a good starting point if you are looking to automate processes on your factory floor. Not only will automating these tasks make your workplace safer, but it will also help reduce staff turnover and improve employee satisfaction.

Material removal robots can be profitable in a variety of production mixes and volumes, depending on the specific task you wish to automate.

Sanding and polishing, for instance, can work well in a high-mix, low-volume context since the task itself is very simple for a machine to accomplish. Programming the robot will be relatively simple.

Grinding, deburring, and contouring, on the other hand, are more intricate tasks. The tool end of your machine needs to follow closely every edge, surface and contour of the workpiece. For this reason, programming will be more complex and time-consuming. Higher volumes, and lower mixes, may be necessary to make the most of your investment.

Cost of a material removal robot

Most sanding and surface finish cobots systems will cost between $90,000 and $180,000. But some finishing tasks are much more intricate than others. As a result, a deburring project requiring high tolerances and complex programming, for example, might cost up to $800,000, or even more.


Welding robots comprise a wide range of industrial robots that can handle a variety of welding techniques:

  • Arc welding
  • Spot welding
  • Laser welding
  • Resistance welding
  • Tig welding
  • Mig welding
  • Plasma welding

Welding robots have a number of advantages. They can increase quality, efficiency and consistency, as well as improve workplace safety.

But perhaps the most salient advantage for your business is that they can help you deal with the labour shortage. There is expected to be a shortage of welders over the 2022-2031 period, with only 16,800 job seekers to fill 17,700 new job openings.

Among the three applications for robots presented in this article, welding is perhaps the one requiring the highest volume (and the lowest mix) to be profitable, at least, with standard industrial robots—a collaborative robot could be suitable for smaller volumes. Since programming can take a long time, depending on the complexity of the welds, you will want to reserve industrial welding robots for higher-volume jobs. For very small volumes, companies should turn instead to simple templates and hydraulic welding positioners, which will allow your welders to work faster and more ergonomically.

Cost of a welding robot

Collaborative welding robots can cost between $120,000 and $175,000. If you need a welding enclosure and an infeed system, the price can go up to $250,000.

A standard industrial welding robot, on the other hand, will cost around $350,000.

Don’t forget the cost of integration

A good rule of thumb is that a turnkey collaborative robot project will cost around two or three times the price of the collaborative robot itself, while an industrial robot project will cost around five or six times the price of the robot.

You don’t have to explore automation on your own

Find out how we can help you find and finance the right automation solution for your business.

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