For young adults considering a career in welding, questions abound. What will the career look like? Will the work be physically demanding or difficult? Will the job be stable and pay well? Will it be mentally stimulating or will it be monotonous? But most importantly, will it be a career to be proud of? Ted Coon, joining engineering supervisor for vehicle operations at Ford Motor Co., pondered those same things before beginning his career almost 27 years ago, and his advice to young adults today is simple.
“Go for it,” Coon says. “Work in welding is never boring. It’s constantly challenging. Specific to welding in the automotive industry, one of the cool things about it is you’ll be able to see the fruits of your labor every day when you get in your car and drive to work. Along the way, you’re going to work with some really talented people, which is another great benefit of getting into welding in the automotive industry.”
And Coon would know. In addition to finding stability and financial security during his 27 years at Ford, he’s found that a career in welding provides a lifetime of learning.
A rare path
Coon graduated in 1993 with a Bachelor of Science degree in welding engineering from Ohio State, which is one of the top and, in fact, one of the few schools in the nation to offer the four-year degree. Despite not having any exposure to welding in high school, he pursued the specialized path based on the belief that he would be afforded more opportunities after graduation.
“I knew I was going to Ohio State and that I would be studying engineering, but my decision to get into welding engineering was really just based on the fact that it was a unique field,” Coon explains. “Since I didn’t know what specific field I wanted to get into, I figured it’d be smart to get into something that’s rare.”
Just as it was for Coon nearly three decades ago, welding is still a smart path to follow. Welder shortages are widespread, meaning opportunities abound in a variety of industries, including automotive where Coon ultimately landed.
“As I approached graduation and started my job search, I was thinking about my future career based on the internships that I had at Westinghouse and Pratt & Whitney,” he says. “Those experiences coupled with the classes that I’d found most enjoyable led me to envision my career with a bit of tunnel vision.
“I’d only taken one course on resistance spot welding and thought, if this is what they do in automotive, I’m not going into that,” he continues. “But when I graduated, I found myself with an unexpected choice: I was offered a job at a small company in Cincinnati and was also offered a job at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn. At the time, I felt that Ford was the best choice for my long-term aspirations.”
In terms of his misconceptions about automotive welding, he quickly discovered that resistance spot welding was far from the only welding process he’d be involved in. As the years have passed and as the design of automobiles has evolved, the range of joining technologies required at Ford has grown. So clearly, his intuition paid off: The decision to work at Ford resulted in a lasting and rewarding career.
When Coon first started at Ford, a body-in-white was joined using MIG welding, fastener projection welding, drawn arc stud welding and, of course, resistance spot welding. Since then, laser welding, laser brazing and gas metal arc brazing have been added to the mix as well as new types of resistance spot welding.
“Depending on what vehicle is being produced, it’s going to have a mix of those various processes,” Coon says. “For example, not every steel body will have laser welding or laser brazing. They’re all going to have resistance spot welding, fastener projection welding and drawn arc stud welding, but whether or not the other processes are used will be dependent on the design and the specific vehicle program.”
In addition to the use of various metallurgical joining processes, Coon discovered that the use of mechanical joining was also expanding at Ford, which previously had been limited to a few closure applications, such as hoods and decklids. Mechanical joining, in fact, has become so prevalent over the years that the welding engineering department was renamed the joining engineering department. Self-pierce riveting, clinching and flow-drill screwing are three of the major mechanical joining technologies used at Ford today, but the company also relies on self-piercing clinch nuts and studs on bodies-in-white for aluminum.
“Our design team is constantly challenging us to not only use existing processes, but to also help them develop and prove out new joining processes,” Coon says. “Anytime the design team sees an opportunity to improve performance, reduce vehicle weight or maximize costs, we’ve worked closely with them to assess what new ideas or approaches we should be bringing into our shops.”
Unlike Coon’s initial perceptions of automotive welding, the options available to him and the joining engineering department are infinitely vast. On one body, there could easily be a combination of 10 to 15 different joining processes or more – this is especially true as a greater number of materials are being introduced into new vehicle designs.
“These days, it’s not just an all-steel body or an all-aluminum body; it could be a combination,” Coon explains. “An example of that is seen in the next-generation Explorer, which features a cast aluminum shock tower on the front end that is joined to other materials, such as aluminum and a range of steel grades. That front structure alone has 10 different joining processes involved if you count adhesives. It’s very complex, for sure.”
Matters of material
Throughout Coon’s career, the automotive industry has shifted to a variety of new materials, including the increased use of aluminum as well as the introduction of new grades of steel, such as high-strength steel and advanced high-strength steel, which emerged in the early 2000s.
“The changes that we’ve seen in materials have definitely presented challenges to us, but we’ve learned so much along the way,” Coon says. “As an example, I was involved in launching the first applications of dual-phase steel at Ford, which led us to make a significant investment in medium-frequency, direct-current (MFDC) resistance spot welding.”
No matter the challenge, Coon and the joining engineering department were ready and willing to take it on. In doing so, Ford was better equipped to incorporate new materials into its vehicles while simultaneously increasing quality.
“To address these new materials, we were significantly investing in MFDC spot welding and were also in the process of switching from pneumatic to servo-driven force actuators on our weld guns,” Coon says. “This was all happening as we were putting a lot of resources into ensuring that we could bring different advanced high-strength steel grades into the company, including boron steel.”
In regard to the benefits that MFDC spot welding technology brought to the table, engineers can easily set a weld schedule to achieve precise control over the time and weld current. The process also delivers significant cost savings as it requires less power to make a weld. In regard to the servo actuators, they too delivered major quality improvements, especially compared to the previously used pneumatic cylinders that could only cover a certain range of force.
Whether it’s new materials or new vehicle designs, the joining engineering department carries out intensive research and development to determine which joining processes should be deployed and when. The engineers also use American Welding Society (AWS) standards to help them develop their own internal standards.
Beyond the extensive research and education afforded by his time at Ford, Coon’s career benefited from the relationships he forged at AWS. Coon served as chairman of the AWS D8 Committee on Automotive Welding, the group that is responsible for the development of AWS standards on all aspects of welding in the automotive industry, from 2017 to 2019. He has also served as the chairman on a couple of the subcommittees responsible for releasing new process-specific quality standards since 2005.
“When you serve on AWS committees and subcommittees, you have the ability to interact with other engineers from competitive companies and understand what their standards look like and what they’re doing in their body shops,” Coon says. “It’s been rewarding to have a hand in developing specifications for AWS, and it’s been important to me to ensure that Ford is closely aligned to the industry standards that come out of AWS.”
Although Ford bases some of its internal specifications on AWS standards, the company ultimately produces its own specifications, procedures and training to a degree that doesn’t require its personnel to be AWS certified. Coon says, however, that “it’s something we’re always reviewing.”
This is especially the case with AWS’s new certified resistance welding technician credential, which validates that a welder has demonstrated knowledge about resistance welding principles, processes and equipment through a combination of education, experience and examination. Undoubtedly, it can be a valuable tool for any welder looking to transition into a career in automotive.
“Our team is incredibly diverse with engineers from eight different schools with seven different degree fields,” Coon says. “It’s a much wider mix of talent than where we were when I first came on board. Regardless of their area of expertise, everyone is focused on keeping Ford as a leader in joining in the automotive industry.”
The automotive world is constantly changing, and the rise in popularity in electric vehicles is serving as the next major sea change. Having had first-hand experience in the ways in which welding has evolved and changed since the 1990s, Coon is excited for what’s in store for the next generation of welders.