Adopting automation

By Bill Atkinson, Tri Tool Inc.

Above: AWS President Dale Flood says growing welding technology applications have resulted in demand for sophisticated welding system operators.

Welding technology can mean something different depending on your industry and location

March 2018 - Dale Flood, newly elected president of the American Welding Society (AWS), has spent many years developing improved welding technologies and equipment as Tri Tool Inc.’s welding projects manager. During his travels, he has seen firsthand how embracing welding technologies can substantially improve business.

Flood’s efforts to advance welding span the world. On a trip to Thailand, he noticed the region no longer relies on outsourcing welding to North America. He believes this is due, in part, because these services have become more affordable for companies in emerging economies when they adopt advanced welding system technologies to compete more effectively.

FFJ 0318 welding image1

Flood was directly involved recently with the introduction of an advanced multiprocess programmable orbital welding system for Tech Offshore Marine Ltd. (TOM) in Singapore.

In particular, Flood observed a big increase in industrial fabrication in the shipyard industry. He found that fabrication work previously outsourced to the United States is now completed overseas. Piping systems, valve assemblies; large, prefabricated skid-mounts for power plants; modular oil refinery components; and processing plant assemblies—all are now manufactured in Thailand.

He wondered how companies found it more cost effective to construct major welded industrial units overseas only to ship them halfway around the world back to the U.S. for the final tie-in welds.

Automotive automation

Automated welding systems are proven successful on automotive assembly lines. In 2016 alone, 17,500 welding robots were installed, with estimates of as many as 2.6 million being installed by 2019, according to the International Federation of Robotics. When we see these welding robots operating with unrelenting speed and precision, we wonder what happened to the human welders. Were their jobs made obsolete by the rise of machines?

Flood reassures us that, in contrast to declining demand for skilled humans in the welding workforce, growing welding technology applications have resulted in demand for sophisticated welding system operators.

Previously, the prime focus was to provide skilled labor to replace workers lost to attrition. The need today and going forward is to create awareness that mechanized welding systems—even the robotic ones—will require tens of thousands of highly trained system operators and programmers. In reality, we are still in the dawn of that need. Flood suggests we need to promote the reality that, even in the digital age, the welding profession remains a fantastic career path with a future.

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Flood conducts training sessions around the world to teach students about welding equipment, including orbital welders.

Old paradigms

In order to successfully fulfill employers’ demand for skilled welders, new generations must be persuaded that the welding profession is transitioning from the hot and dirty, blue-collar trades of yesteryear to one where the majority of welds will be performed with computer and robotic assistance. People who embark on a course of study focused on digital welding control will find themselves in a highly lucrative profession with virtually limitless demand.

While the appetite for welding automation is strong within the manufacturing sector, including automotive, the piping and heavy construction sectors have been slow to adapt to the newer technologies. Flood believes this may be the result of companies facing uneven market pull being reluctant to make capital investments to modernize, because they are uncertain when payback will occur. Such hesitation can be costly. While reluctance is clearly costly in stable economies, putting off investment in high-performance welding equipment can be a matter of life or death for manufacturers in developing economies, according to Flood.

As for helping the workforce adapt to these systems, they generally feature intuitive control, multiple processes and user-friendly programmability to help deal with the skills gap problem.

Regional view

When one thinks about manufacturing in Asia, the prowess of the typical Chinese business model comes to mind. China’s market dominance is due to the proliferation of Chinese products that fill stores from wall to wall, many times at the exclusion of items that were traditionally made in United States.

The model has been replicated elsewhere in Asia and manufacturers across the region are fiercely competing for global business opportunities, particularly in the almighty U.S. dollar wherever possible. Despite their ability to leverage lower labor and regulatory costs, many such competitors would be wise to integrate practical, user-friendly welding process control to offset lower skill and experience levels.

Flood was directly involved recently with the introduction of an advanced multi-process programmable orbital welding system for Tech Offshore Marine Ltd. (TOM) in Singapore. Predominantly a fabricator to the offshore equipment industry, its managers understood the company must expand its horizons to pursue other production and welding opportunities.

TOM contacted a leading regional equipment distributor, Willie Chng of SSH Co., which arranged for Tri Tool to demonstrate the AdaptARC programmable welding system based on TOM’s requirements. Flood went to Singapore and after demonstrating orbital welding equipment involving multiple processes and materials, TOM purchased the system.

Despite the advantage of using the latest machinery, the company also understood the need to implement a vigorous training regimen before it could take full advantage of the additional capabilities—and the 400 to 500 percent boost in productivity—that the new welding system could offer.

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Operator instruction

For the next step, Jimmy Ray Madrid, senior Tri Tool welding specialist, flew to Singapore to assist with TOM’s operational instruction for the new welding system. Goutham Vijay, lead designer and engineer with TOM, set up and coordinated the in- house training.

Madrid says it’s an “amazing experience” to show welders—who typically have mastered a single welding process—the capabilities of an automated welding system. Although TOM’s welders are experienced, most are highly proficient with either the TIG (GTAW) or MIG (GMAW-S) process. Several had knowledge of Flux-Core (FCAW) welding but none had ever seen Pulsed MIG (GMAW-P) in operation. So it was an eye-opener to be able to bring together all these processes in a single system.

In situations such as this, it is important that OEM equipment suppliers provide additional safety and operational training support along with introductory instruction on weld program development, especially when that equipment represents a major leap forward for a growing company that customarily employed manual welding methods.

In his capacity as AWS president,  Flood is championing the society’s mission to promote the advancement of welding technology in its many forms. He will strive to increase awareness of the benefits of welding automation among students who are contemplating a career in welding, and among companies wanting to optimize their welding capabilities but which are cautious about budget limitations.

Whether it’s highly efficient automated robotic welders being installed in production plants, or small companies moving up to advanced orbital welding to more effectively compete, welding technology can represent decisive transformation for fabricators and manufacturers around the world. FFJ

Bill Atkinson is a writer and marketing specialist at Tri Tool Inc.



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