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Training & Education

Foresight

By Simon Engel

Addressing the challenge of properly educating current and aspiring laser operators and technicians

April 2018 - Officially, the laser welding process was invented in 1960, and although the technology is maturing, it still struggles for recognition of its full capability and credit for how it has improved the manufacturing industry.

Lasers affect the lives of millions of people each year. Most vehicles contain a large percentage (as high as 80 percent) of subassemblies that are laser welded. Almost all medical devices, including implants, are laser welded. That includes pacemakers, insulin pumps, ventricular assist devices, hip joint, stents and more. Electronic devices, including micro circuits and the touchscreen, depend a great deal on lasers.

In 2016, the sales of lasers and laser systems exceeded $14 billion. A Strategies Unlimited market research report released in August 2017 indicated that laser welding represented 20 percent of all laser applications in 2016—and its reach is expanding. Lasers now melt metal powders to create 3D objects. The same lasers and essentially the same optics focus the beam and melt thin layers of metal powder selectively to produce a piece part ready for immediate use. Laser additive manufacturing (LAM) was first tried in the 1970s, and the evolution of sophisticated computer programs makes it possible and wildly popular today.

As laser welding technology has morphed into a complete manufacturing package that is able to deliver finished goods, its definition has become broader—it is a laser fusion of metal(s) by optimizing the laser and machine parameters; and in the case of LAM, it is the selective fusion of metal powders to create the final product.

Workforce development

It is estimated that 30,000 laser welding machines are installed in U.S. companies. If each 10 laser units are staffed by 20 operators, two technicians, hde-tech2.jpgone engineer and one quality control person, that adds up to 72,000 jobs. But only a very small percentage of the people working with these lasers have received any formal training and qualification/certification in laser welding technology.

The American Welding Society (AWS) points out that “…modern welding is an increasingly high-tech skill.” Consultant Terry Wohlers estimates that “far less than 1 percent of practicing engineers and designers … have the appropriate knowledge and skills” for metal AM (Manufacturing Engineering, April 2017). Today, employees need skill sets and tools beyond leather gloves, face shields, filler wire and torches. They must manage computer-controlled welding operations, including LAM, but obtaining adequate training is difficult because there’s already a shortage of both instructors qualified to teach laser welding and people available to fill open laser welding jobs.

According to AWS, the U.S shortfall of (traditional) welders by the year 2026 will be 372,664. This number likely does not include welders who use lasers, and it may fail to include the technological advancements covered within this article. It may also exclude training for the next generation of welders and retraining for people already in a welding career.

Community and vocational colleges are trying to implement laser welding training but the administrative and curriculum inertia at many school systems means they are slow to hire experienced staff to teach such coursework. Often, funding from government agencies and the private sector is used to purchase equipment, rather than to upgrade the teaching staff and the instruction material.

Some four-year colleges offer classes in laser welding; however, typically the instructors of these classes may have some research and academic experience in laser applications but insufficient experience in manufacturing and laser welding.

Tips for academia

Welding technology departments at community colleges must add laser technology to the curriculum, provide training for the laser operators and issue academic credit. Experience indicates that at this level of training, laser equipment is not mandatory. The cost of starting a class would be under $100,000, including instructor training. Schools could choose to hire an experienced, qualified adjunct instructor for the first few semesters, as well. For efficient implementation, funding could be covered by internal funds and industrial partners, rather than government grants.

Manufacturing technology departments at community colleges should add laser welding and LAM technology to the curriculum, for credit, and provide training for laser technicians, so they learn how to control the laser and make adjustments to the software to achieve quality welds and quality LAM products.

This level of training would require students to have access to computers and software that can produce complete weld schedules. The same computers could produce documentation associated with welding and LAM, as recommended by AWS, ISO and other standards.

Colleges should also set up co-op programs with local manufacturers so students can obtain hands-on learning alongside classroom instructions. Schools might provide a model shop with a laser or take advantage of a private facility nearby, such as a MakerSpace, which offer access to lasers to members who pay a nominal fee. At least one community college in California started offering a similar structure last year.

Four-year colleges should embrace laser welding and LAM technologies on the engineering level, which would include metallurgy among other STEM subjects. Thus, the engineering student would learn to design products to be laser welded or printed. Both community colleges and four-year colleges could also offer short courses, 40 to 60 hours long, for credit or no credit, to train currently employed laser operators and technicians. Manufacturers of laser systems and related instruments could suggest their customers take these short courses, which creates educated customers. Laser system suppliers could also partner with community colleges to help fund their laser programs.

Laser metal fusion technology is open to people of all backgrounds and abilities. To perform laser welding, one can start the day with clean hands and standard street clothes and go home the same.

A better educated and well-trained workforce in manufacturing fields that use lasers will ensure the continued rapid growth of the industry, enhance the quality of the products and build valuable careers adapted to the future. FFJ

Simon L. Engel (simonlaser@hdetechnologies.com), president of HDE Technologies Inc., specializes in industrial laser applications. He worked at Caterpillar Inc., GTE Sylvania and owned his own business for 42 years. He has taught laser weld applications for over 48 years. He is vice chairman of the AWS C7C (laser welding) Subcommittee and has launched laser welding programs at community colleges.

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