Manufacturers producing large agriculture equipment, such as combines, planters and tractors, face a number of challenges, particularly because of the broad range of steel thicknesses used to manufacture their products. Thanks to smart features on welding equipment, however, manufacturers have the tools they need to increase productivity and quality, control distortion and create efficiencies otherwise unattainable.
Keith Sheffer, global business director for heavy fabrication at The Lincoln Electric Co., says a number of new welding technologies are geared for agriculture and heavy equipment manufacturers. The introduction of new innovations continues to increase every year.
“Never before has the pace of innovation been this great,” Sheffer says. “I’ve been in the business for more than 30 years. I’ve seen more innovation in the last 10 years than in the last 30 and it’s going to continue to grow.”
Understanding and effectively implementing these technologies is critical for big, well-known agriculture equipment manufacturers competing in a global market.
“Global competition is tough,” Sheffer explains. “You have to take advantage of the welding technology that’s out there. Great technology is out there and success in the global market boils down to who is engaged and who is embracing it.”
Different industry, different equipment
There are some similarities in the way welding processes are used in the automotive industry and the agriculture equipment industry, especially in the construction of the cabs on combines and tractors where materials differ little from the cabs of an average sedan. However, an assembly line at an automotive manufacturer can include a couple hundred robotic resistance welders that help spit out a car every 45 seconds. By contrast, manufacturers of agriculture equipment have welds that can take hours to complete. Because the amount of welding is far greater, welding becomes a critical component in the manufacturing process from a productivity standpoint.
Furthermore, about 75 percent of agriculture equipment involves 1/2-in.- to 1-in.-thick plates of mild steel. John Smith, applications and training manager at Miller Electric Mfg. Co., says heavy plate welding isn’t simple.
For instance, thick metal has “memory,” meaning anytime it is bent, the material bounces back to a certain extent, and the rate at which it returns differs per batch of material. Smith says one batch bent at 30 degrees might come back at 25 degrees while the next batch might come back at 27 degrees. The thinner material used in automobile manufacturing doesn’t respond in such a random way.
Lincoln’s Sheffer says one of the unique aspects of the agriculture industry is the range and combination of material thicknesses it welds. Welding thin to thin, thin to thick and thick to thick materials creates challenges for the operators and demands on the performance of the equipment. This is one of the primary reasons so many manufacturers in the agriculture business embrace new welding technologies that provide them with more flexibility and control of the welding process.
Perhaps the most popular piece of equipment coming out of Lincoln for the agriculture industry is the Power Wave S500 – an advanced process welder that is a digital inverter power source with the ability to do constant voltage welding, pulse welding and a variety of advanced welding processes such as Rapid Arc and Rapid X. Sheffer says the S500 has the ability to handle all of the thickness combinations well. With the use of processes such as RapidX (a special modified pulse process with a very short arc length), operators can weld faster with less spatter. Faster travel speed translates to higher productivity rates.
Another major issue unique to agriculture manufacturers is distortion. The welding times on thick plates drag on for many hours, and the heating and cooling of the plates results in distortion, which must be tracked for proper weld alignment. Given the man-hours spent on these long welds and the expense of the material being welded, keeping mistakes at a minimum is critical. Manufacturers are accomplishing this through advanced technology.
“The Power Wave technology also can play a big role in reducing distortion due to welding,” Sheffer says. “On a number of agriculture products, such as combines, controlling distortion is very important for downstream manufacturing and assembly and it can affect the overall appearance of the finished product.”
Miller’s Continuum series of power sources, which is among the newest products at Miller, is also popular with the agriculture industry, as is the Auto-Axess 675 because they feature advanced processes for automation applications.
A third issue in the agriculture industry that differs from the automotive industry is the type of labor required. Miller’s Smith says, by way of example, that in the auto industry, you can take a guy off the street and run him through eight hours of training on a MIG welder and put him to work. Agriculture manufacturers bring in welders with experience and then put them through six to eight weeks of training before they set them loose on a part.
“It’s certainly a liability issue,” chimes in Ross Buckley, global account manager at Miller. “If there is a weld fail out in the field that causes damage or injury, that’s a huge, huge issue. So, it’s not only about the scrap cost, it’s also about liability.”
The future is intelligence
Miller and Lincoln agriculture customers are investing heavily in smarter technology that has practically become standard in welding processes. Buckley says they are using Miller’s Welding Intelligence for two reasons: production monitoring and quality monitoring. This electronic weld data monitoring software falls in line with Industry 4.0 and the “Internet of Things,” which are more than simple catchphrases today.
Buckley says the software helps provide insights into what is happening at each welding station, allowing plant managers to see what’s happening on the floor overall. For instance, the Insight Core software is included in the Continuum line of power sources and allows managers to see factors such as how efficient their operators are, what the typical arc time is and the reason for downtime.
“If you ask a typical supervisor how much time the operators spend welding,” Buckley says, “a lot of them will say between 30 and 50 percent. In reality, it’s less than 20 percent.”
This is information that they now know because the software tracks everything.
Miller also has Insight Centerpoint, which is an active management system that offers real-time quality monitoring and is also available in the Continuum line. It tells the operator where to put the weld, makes sure there is proper gas flow, puts limits on voltage and wire speed amperage and tracks the length of the weld. If something goes wrong with the welding equipment, the software sends a text message or email to the appropriate people.
“It tells the operator instantly whether it’s a good weld or a bad weld,” Buckley says. “It’s great for new welders in training, but it’s also great for quality management.”
Miller can retrofit Insight Core to most older Miller power sources already in the field and can add Insight Centerpoint to nearly any power source, including competitive equipment.
Lincoln, says Sheffer, is also on the forefront of intelligent technology used in welding applications. The Power Wave S500 is equipped with a suite of powerful embedded software tools that optimize the procedures for every weld, resulting in greater productivity, quality and consistency.
One software option that has been particularly popular with the agriculture industry is Lincoln’s Weld Sequencer system, which provides an interactive video monitor display, providing a pictorial interface to the operator with instructions for every weld. Proper procedures, weld size, weld length and visual weld locations required for each weld are programmed and presented to the operator. This removes any guesswork on optimal procedure setting or required weld locations.
Running in the background, a productivity metric monitor logs each and every weld, including welding and non-welding time for the overall cycle time required for each part. Finally, the technology includes a weld quality metric that ensures the weld has been properly laid down.
“It’s checking the quality of the operator’s weld and comparing it to a known and acceptable quality standard,” Sheffer notes of the quality component of the technology. “More importantly, it’s checking all the weld performance characteristics in the welding machine. It’s looking at the welding process while it’s being performed. It’s looking at the behavior of the welding machine during the welding process to ensure the resulting weld is representative of a defined quality standard.”
Sheffer says agriculture manufacturers commonly design parts that consist of many short stitch welds, which can be easy to miss, especially if there are 100 or more per part.
“If an operator forgets to do just a few welds,” Sheffer says, “that’s a big problem –especially if this error is found after paint. The Weld Sequencer has been a really good tool for helping operators who don’t have the training, but it also ensures that they aren’t forgetting or missing a weld. For this reason alone, this technology is becoming very popular in the agriculture industry.”
Manual vs. robotic
Miller’s Buckley says the trend is to move toward automation, yet the robots are not likely to take over in agriculture manufacturing anytime soon. He estimates the agriculture industry is around 80 percent manual to 20 percent automated robot.
“If you actually look at the number of stations,” Buckley says, “I think you’ll see 80 percent manual.”
Miller’s Smith agrees with that estimate, adding that manual welders will always be needed because “there are welds that simply can’t be done with a robot.”
According to Lincoln’s Sheffer, agriculture manufacturers are doing everything they can to put their major fabrications under a robot, and for many reasons, including the lack of skilled laborers and the time it takes to train the ones they are able to attract into the industry. However, the biggest driver for manufacturers to adopt automated processes is to increase productivity and quality and reduce overall manufacturing costs.
“It is all about removing variability and controlling the welding environment both in manual and automated welding applications,” Sheffer explains. “The combined use of advanced welding technologies and automation is an effective way to compete in this global market. Actually, it is the only effective way to keep a competitive lead. The repeatability and the quality aspect is a driving factor. People are far more demanding today than ever before.”