It’s well documented that the welding industry is facing some challenging times, and it’s only forecast to become more complex – the American Welding Society estimates that by 2024, the industry will be short 315,000 welders. Even today, the lack of skilled welding operators is hitting manufacturing operations, contractors and fabrication shops hard, and it doesn’t help that the average retirement age for a welder is 57.
Regardless of the reasons for the shortage, manufacturers need to respond. One way is to boost the workforce pool by educating and training new welders. Another is to increase productivity among existing welders. Both tactics can benefit from digital enhancement.
Finding the fit
As one of the world’s biggest welding OEMs, Miller Electric Mfg. LLC has worked with countless customers that have or are in the process of digitalizing their planning, assembly and finishing processes both upstream and downstream of their welding operations. These relationships have revealed to the team at Miller that many companies might, however, hesitate to digitalize the actual welding operation itself. “They may view welding as too highly specialized to incorporate into the digital integration,” Miller reported in a recent blog post.
Incorporating welding into a digital integration, however, is incredibly important. Not only does it provide visibility into the work at each weld cell, but it can also help when a company is looking to improve throughput and productivity. Data, including the use of filler metal, shielding gas and electricity, can be tracked as can voltage, arc-on time and part production.
Digital documentation is another benefit to digitalizing the welding environment. This is important because it offers an accurate record of just about every step a welder makes with the equipment they’re using. This keeps everyone accountable when exacting parameters are required and steps need to be taken to ensure quality.
Digital data can also be used to locate production problems. For example, when a welder makes an adjustment in their welding cell, that adjustment is recorded and can be used later for implementing improvements. Without digitalization, this adjustment goes undocumented.
Digitalization doesn’t just benefit current operations; it can also offer insight into future activities. If a company wants evidence that will help them make a decision about a capital investment to improve productivity or create a safer workplace, they can do a deep dive into their digital data and find the answers.
Staffing issues can also be addressed when digital data is collected and then analyzed. For example, imagine a piece of equipment failing during a third shift when there’s no one on staff with the right skill sets to fix it. If a company is focused on collecting and analyzing data, records will show a significant loss in arc time, which would lead to an investigation of what caused the issue. From there, a maintenance professional could be added to the third shift, increasing future on-arc time. Had a digital strategy not been put into place, the overnight loss in productivity might just slip through the cracks.
Data collection and analysis can also improve quality. Incorrectly performed or missing welds can lead to huge losses for a company – from a reputational standpoint and also a staffing standpoint as an employee will need to be hired or reassigned to visually inspect welds or make the necessary repairs before parts are shipped to customers. Fortunately, installing a welding intelligence solution, like Miller’s Insight Centerpoint, can keep bad welds from happening in the first place, which significantly reduces downstream costs. This is possible considering the software offers welders feedback in real time, providing guidance and control within the weld cell to ensure consistent quality.
Ask the right questions
Clearly, there are a lot of benefits that are afforded to fabricators when they adopt a digitalized solution. Before plunking down a chunk of change on a solution, however, there are some key factors to consider:
- Not all welding solutions are compatible with disparate brands. That’s why it’s important to implement a universal system or to standardize your equipment. Miller also offers a third choice: Implement a solution that monitors specific weld cells within your fleet and then find another solution to monitor the remaining equipment. According to Miller, “if all of your new equipment is from the same manufacturer and the old machines are the only outliers, it may be more practical to purchase new power sources to match your dominant brand.”
- The use of multiple welding processes can impact the type of welding information management solution you implement. If you’re using sub-arc, TIG, MIG and flux-cored welding, you need to make sure you’re bringing in a solution that can monitor all of them. Also, if you are required to have proof of weld quality, you’ll need to make sure traceability is part of the package.
- Don’t invest in more than you need. For example, some shops only need to monitor basic metrics, which requires entry-level welding information management solutions. But, if your shop has a need to calculate cycle times, troubleshoot downtime issues or get a deeper understanding of how productive welders are, consider a more complex management solution. An advanced welding information management system is also valuable in training new employees in a fast and cost-effective manner, which is an important component in battling the skills gap.
- If your shop utilizes manual as well as automated welding technology, you will need a system to monitor both. But, if you’re still in the process of growing, be sure to implement a system that will meet your needs today and in the future. Most growing shops will look at their two- to five-year plan and make their digitalization choices based on that.
- Some welding information management solutions are cloud-based while others are PC-based, so if you don’t have internet connectivity at all of your weld cells, you’ll want to lean toward the PC-based solution. Beyond connectivity needs, fabricators should also consider digital security risks and make arrangements for the various cyber security protections, including firewalls and guest networks. Some of the more basic, turnkey solutions are cloud-based, but the perk is that your organization is free of the usual management and administrative duties. The downside of a PC-based solution is that there is usually a capital expense involved, via new computers, monitors and keyboards at each welding cell. Also, regardless of which option you choose, there should be a backup plan should the ethernet cable or computer fail.
- If you’re going to be looking into the minutiae, such as the cost of filler metal in every application, look for a solution with auditing tools. These auditing tools can take into account everything from tracking deposition rates to downtime for non-welding activities. This can lead to getting a clearer picture of the source of your bottlenecks and various inefficiencies.
- Always assign a point person to the implementation process to ensure your welding information management solution has a chance at success. This person should be fully invested in making it work and serve as a liaison between management and the welders on the shop floor to help educate them on the benefits of the new technology. The point person can be a production manager, production supervisor, welding engineer or anyone with sufficient organization skills.
Steps toward optimization
Rather than jumping straight into the deep end, it’s OK to begin a digitalization project by dipping your toes in the water first. Find out what works best for your particular scenario and make small adjustments over time. Instead of digitizing the entire factory at once, Miller recommends starting with one area, such as one production line and then adding more optimizations incrementally. To gain even more control over the process, be sure to measure your progress. Establish a baseline so you know where you were and where you’re going.
Understanding this need, Miller’s Insight Core software assists in providing baseline data to help users gain more information about their operations. For example, the Insight Core software measures the arc-on time of each welder, establishing a productivity baseline and allowing you to make improvements and continue to measure progress. The software includes dashboards for easily identifying trends and developing data and reports that can be analyzed. The results can be quite eye-opening.
As a big example, some users believe they have a welding productivity problem, but they find through the digitization process that their welders are experiencing less arc-on time because they’re waiting on parts. In fact, many problems occur outside of the weld cell that will inspire management to totally rethink workflow.
In that regard, Miller’s Insight Centerpoint allows operators to track activity and inform the system when non-welding related issues are causing a bottleneck, such as waiting on parts. Gradually, users realize how many hours are wasted, propelling them to build a case for making changes. In some instances, users have found that bringing preassembled parts into the upstream process improved their productivity. Bringing in new equipment or outsourcing various tasks have also been solutions that have worked via information gleaned from Insight Centerpoint.
Overall, digitalization efforts can help businesses find expertise on the shop floor that before was only available from veteran staff. When every step in a workflow can be documented, management can ensure that procedures are followed universally in the shop – even without the presence of an experienced staff member. This is another area where Insight Centerpoint excels, as it guides the operators through the weld sequence in real time. Not only does this create efficiencies, but it also provides a faster, easier way to bring trainees up to speed.