The lack of skilled welders has been attributed to several factors: an aging workforce, a lack of interest in the profession among young people and an increasing demand for welding services across various industries. Add the call to reshore jobs back to the United States, and we have a perfect storm on our hands.
Fortunately, several solutions have been proposed and are in process. Investments in vocational education programs are on the rise in tandem with a concerted outreach to the next generation. But, as more welders approach retirement age with each passing day, the clock is ticking.
No one understands this issue better than the American Welding Society (AWS). All hands are on deck at the organization as they work to promote the profession through educational programs, scholarships and internship opportunities, certification and marketing plans geared to young people to get them excited about the career.
AWS also partners with other organizations and stakeholders in the welding industry, including government agencies, educational institutions, equipment manufacturers and employers to address the welder shortage. A good example of that important work was highlighted in “Women in Welding Virtual Conference 2023: Automation in Manufacturing,” a recent webinar hosted by AWS and its partner, EWI, a nonprofit engineering and technology organization dedicated to developing, testing and implementing advanced manufacturing technologies.
Not only did the event showcase successful women in the welding industry, it also introduced several cutting-edge solutions that are being developed to aid manufacturers that just don’t have the welding workforce they need to complete the work they’ve been tasked with.
More than remote
While the virtual conference gave attendees a deep dive into a variety of solutions, this article will focus on the first speaker, Connie LaMorte, a principal engineer at EWI. LaMorte introduced the idea of tele-welding to attendees, how it was developed at EWI and why it’s such an important aspect of addressing the welder shortage.
LaMorte, an expert in laser-based vision, in-process monitoring and adaptive welding, has developed inspection and control solutions in a range of industries with an emphasis on weld-related defect detection. Currently, she oversees EWI’s innovations in tele-manufacturing technologies. During her presentation, she discussed the technology in great detail as well as the benefits of a tele-presence workforce for both the manufacturer and the actual welders.
So, what is tele-welding? To define it, LaMorte started with a definition of tele-manufacturing, what she said is the remote operation of machinery or a process. She put an emphasis on the control of that process being key.
“It differs from just plain remote operating of machinery because what we want to be in charge of isn’t the equipment; we want to be in charge of the process – the live thing going on,” she explained. “We do this by using smart sensors that are available today. In addition to the 3-D digitizing of an environment, LIDAR and other technologies that give us an idea of what’s going on, we use smart tools, like haptic feedback, that give us a way to immerse our worker into the environment.”
The project was launched with the help of the National Shipbuilding Research Program in the form of funds and support. In addition to addressing the shortage of welders entering EWI’s primary goal for the development of a tele-welding system included welder safety and comfort – being able to weld away from harsh environments and without having to crawl into small spaces. LaMorte said that, ultimately, her team wanted to develop a system that would allow anyone anywhere to be able to weld without being on the actual job site.
To accomplish these goals, EWI needed something that would convey the welding process and environment to the user and track the user’s movements. LaMorte said the first year of R&D was also dedicated to “figuring out what the welder wants to do.” She and her colleagues posed questions, such as: What is the welder’s ultimate goal? Does he want to weave? Does he want to change the torch height?
“Lastly, we needed to control the equipment,” she explained. “So, we looked at different ways to do that. In year two, we picked the most promising parts and put it all together to come up with the system.”
A tight ship
Right out of the gate, LaMorte and the team at EWI knew that they wanted to approach shipyards to help them address the problem of a lack of welders. It’s not uncommon for the welders at shipyards to have as many as 20 years of experience. The problem, however, is that as a welder ages, they can’t crawl up into the tight areas of the ship like they used to.
“We wanted to try to find a way to keep these guys employed,” LaMorte said. “If they could keep these experienced welders for another five years or so, without retiring, then they could continue to benefit from the skills that they already have.”
Regardless of age, welding from the comfort of a clean, air-conditioned office environment always beats out performing welds in the confines of a ship that is in the process of being built. So, EWI is making that possible for anyone that has a desktop or laptop computer with the EWI program running that’s hooked up to the hand-held device with haptics.
The only caveat is that someone needs to set up the cobot, camera and sensors on-site. The good thing is that the individual tasked with doing so doesn’t have to be a seasoned welder. Once that system has been set up, the seasoned welder will be able to remotely see what he’s used to seeing when he’s under the hood – the arc of the weld.
“And that’s really all he wants to look at because he’s an expert welder,” LaMorte said while showing the webinar attendees a video of the system in action. “Using the hand-held stylus device, when he’s ready to weld, he just presses the start button. He’s then watching that arc fuse so he can read the puddle like he’s used to. He’s moving his hand in a normal motion, which would be a side-to-side for a weave, and then making adjustments.
“The stylus device is providing him the sensation that he’s getting up and bumping into the sides of that weld line,” she added. “We offer haptics that let him know if his torch height is too high or too low. He can control the work and travel angle – essentially all of the things that an actual manual arc welder would want to change. And it’s not just the direction he could change, but also the speed; if he really wanted to go fast, the robot would respond extremely fast, and if he wanted to go slow, it would respond slow. This is how we were able to transfer somebody’s manual dexterity across the internet. When he’s done with that weld, it has the weave pattern that he’s used to making.”
In setting up the system, EWI used a Universal Robot UR5, which overall is relatively lightweight. Depending on a shipbuilders’ needs, that one person could be in charge of setting up several systems. And whether it’s during the system setup or the process of tele-welding, workplace injuries are greatly reduced.
Welding and beyond
After receiving positive feedback from the shipbuilders EWI worked with, LaMorte and her team moved on to new projects: a demo system to take to other shipyards and potential users as well as systems for tele-inspection, tele-gouging and tele-grinding. Each new system is based on the fundamentals of the tele-welding system, which includes the programming, haptic control device and automation.
“Keep in mind,” LaMorte said, “none of this works without a welding expert, so we’re making sure that the expert is at the center and then adapting how the program works because of how that process expert expects it to work.”
As an example, for the tele-inspection system project, which was funded by the Ohio State Department of Development, EWI changed the camera device considering the puddle view wouldn’t be the focus. For inspection purposes, the new camera required even higher precision. The camera also needed to move in more directions.
“With the tele-welding, [the camera] had to follow a straight path just like you would if you were welding,” LaMorte explained. “For inspections, though, you needed to be able to move it in any direction if you were trying to find something within a part – just as if they were holding it with their hand.”
To bring her presentation full circle, LaMorte reiterated the pain that manufacturers are feeling today with not having enough people to fulfill manufacturing’s demands. She also punctuated the need to transform welding and other hot-work processes into high-tech careers in the minds of young Americans. And again, she put an exclamation point on the health and safety aspect of tele-manufacturing.
“We keep our workers safe by protecting them from strain and potential of getting hurt on the job,” she said. “The over-arching thing is that we’re empowering people of all ages and of all physical limitations to be productive in manufacturing.”
And you don’t even have to live in a certain area, she concluded. “We retain our most skilled laborers, so somebody who might have an NDE certification can be at five different job sites in one day by using tele-presence technology. If you can imagine doing this across the internet, you don’t have to find, hire and train local personnel wherever you happen to be doing the welding. You could have your best welders live anywhere they want, and if we’re lucky, we could keep them welding for longer without retiring and losing that valuable skill.”