How the Columbus startup is using AI to help manufacturers close a growing labor gap
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the world has grown accustomed to labor market shortages. But in the welding industry, a shortage of workers — particularly the extremely skilled welders at the top of their field — has been identified for years. To help give manufacturers new tools to offset that labor shortage, Columbus startup Path Robotics is innovating the automated welding industry.
“Path is an AI robotics company specifically targeting the manufacturing industry,” said CEO Andy Lonsberry, who co-founded the company with his brother Alex. “Across the board, we’re trying to help solve the labor issues that U.S. manufacturers are running into. Our first focus in manufacturing is finish welding. We’ve created a smart robot that learns how to weld so that it can do the job of most human welders. Current robotics are really good at doing the exact same task over and over, and humans are good at doing different tasks every time. There’s no solution for the gap in between, and that’s what we’ve created.”
The gap that Path is working to combat is growing every year. The American Welding Society projects that by 2024, there will be nearly 400,000 welding vacancies in America, which Lonsberry said equates to $26 billion. In addition, he said the average age of welders is 55, and only 20 percent of the welding work force is under 35. Each year, the need for welders is growing by four percent. At the same time, the number of welders is decreasing by 7 percent. And because half of all man-made products in the U.S. require welding, bridging that gap isn’t just a need for the industry — it’s a need for the country.
“The world is literally welded together,” Lonsberry said. “It’s much easier to make standard materials in shapes like beams or squares or circles and then weld them together. So there’s a huge need and demand for that. But the world is also focusing more on custom and unique products. Mass manufacturing is becoming less and less desirable and 3D printing is becoming more popular. The only way to make lots of different things is with skilled welders who can adjust on the fly. So that need is only going to keep increasing.”
Automation often carries the connotation of replacing workers. So for Lonsberry and the team at Path, it’s important to point out that they aren’t working to replace anyone. Because of the size of that worker gap, their machines are meant to give manufacturers an additional resource, not take the place of workers.
“There is currently no way to fill that need with people, so we created a system as a solution,” Lonsberry said. “We are not taking jobs. Any customers that we talk to have come to us because they have jobs open and cannot fill them. It’s all about being able to sustain and grow, and we’re filling that void.”
Filling that void involves providing a wide variety of solutions and a long list of capabilities. Path develops custom-built cells that include the welding robots, cameras for analysis, computers and software, connectivity and more, and deploys those cells to companies who need them. The company can build cells that work on parts from very small to 80 feet in size. The system scans each part every time, analyzing unique attributes and differences for every job. The goal is to eliminate programming while allowing for complex work. It’s a platform built from the idea of Ohio’s manufacturing past, which informs the way Path operates.
“I was born and raised in Ohio, and my family had a machine shop in Youngstown where we built custom motorcycles, so I’ve been hands-on my entire life,” Lonsberry said. “I got a great background in what it takes to manufacture and how difficult it is to find really great, skilled labor. The desire to help manufacturing has been a part of the lives of me and my brother since we were children, and what we care most about is helping U.S. manufacturers continue manufacturing. We work with customers on every step of that process. There is basically no ceiling to what we can do.”
After starting with a team of three in 2019, the company already has about 250 employees. And Path’s high ceiling means the company plans expansion for more than just its workforce. In addition to launching a project this year that they can’t share just yet, Path has areas other than welding in mind — all with the goal of freeing up skilled labor to do more skilled projects. And to reach the heights they know they’re capable of, Lonsberry and Path are committed to Ohio, which they feel gives them a leg up on their competition.
“Ohio is where we’re from, and we started the company to help Ohio manufacturing,” he said. “But we also saw a huge advantage of being close to our customers. Great startups create a great product-market fit, and you have to understand your customer base well. About $6 billion in welding is done annually in Ohio, so the customer base is huge and we’re close enough to connect with them and learn about their needs without flying in from somewhere else. But the talent here is also exceptional. We have the perfect opportunity to build a really unique company.”