The fabrication and manufacturing industries are constantly evolving, challenging companies to seek out new technologies to help them stay competitive.
From the introduction of new materials to an increased need for welding automation, weld data monitoring and more, changes are driving companies to acquire solutions to help them maintain the highest levels of quality and productivity.
Welding equipment manufacturers are responding by bringing new technologies to market that will ultimately help these companies better serve their customers — and save them money. Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for any welding operation, these manufacturers are increasingly creating more flexible welding solutions that suit both large and small companies, and provide them with better options to do better business.
Given that the industries they serve are in a state of constant flux, too, the goal is ultimately simple: to invent and offer welding technologies that will grow with companies, allowing them to address both today’s needs and the demands of tomorrow.
New technologies strive to address growing skills gap
The United States anticipates a shortage of approximately 400,000 skilled welding operators within the next five years, which poses a significant threat to the fabrication and manufacturing industries as companies endeavor to meet continued customer demand. As a result, enhancements in welding technologies are being designed to:
• Simplify and reduce training time
• Allow entry-level welding operators to complete more complex welds with quality results
• Give skilled welding operators more efficient tools to support high productivity
Specifically, welding technologies are making it easier for welding operators of varying skillsets to make quality welds — even with the presence of changes in stick-out, torch angle and travel speeds common to those newer to the process. Since such power sources offer improved arc performance, they also give entry-level welding operators the ability to deliver a better weld faster, with less training — and they provide companies a new way to attract more in-demand, skilled welding operators by offering them easier-to-use equipment. The cumulative result is greater productivity for the companies without sacrificing quality.
The integration of advanced welding processes, like modified short-circuit MIG, into these machines is helping to further maximize welding operator training and performance efficiencies. This process, in particular, anticipates and controls each short circuit, then reduces the available welding current to create a consistent metal transfer. This precisely controlled metal transfer provides uniform droplets, creating only small ripples in the weld puddle and producing a consistent tie-in to the sidewall. Along with its ability to maintain the same arc length regardless of stick-out, this process makes it much easier for welding operators to control the puddle, and to quickly and easily learn to create uniform, high-quality welds.
By comparison, standard short-circuit MIG technology presents a more unpredictable short circuit, as well as a more turbulent puddle, which can be difficult to control, making it more difficult for less skilled welding operators to master.
Simplified user interfaces on welding power sources are also emerging. These help take the guesswork out of programming the machine, and some even show full words and descriptions on an easy-to-read digital display, eliminating the potential for confusion over welding terminology, shorthand and acronyms.
New materials call for new technologies
The demand for new welding technology is also being driven, in large part, by the introduction of new materials to the industry — materials being used at times to reduce the overall weight of finished products, and lower product and production costs. This trend is affecting a variety of sectors. For example:
• Traditional low carbon steels are being replaced in the heavy equipment industries by high-strength steels (HSLAs) or those ranging up to 85 ksi.
• Advanced high strength steels (AHHS) with mechanical properties as great as 140 ksi are being used for automotive components combined with galvanized coatings.
• Many general fabricators are using increasing amounts of aluminum and stainless steels, as well as other non-ferrous and more exotic materials in their product designs.
Although many of these new materials improve the quality of the final products, they also pose new challenges when it comes to the welding process. Higher-strength steels, typically used at thinner dimensions, are generally more sensitive to cracking than mild steels. That creates the need to preheat or establish new weld methods to control the heat during the weld process. Galvanized coatings used on thinner sections of steel provide good corrosion-protection characteristics, but they can also cause increased spatter levels along with sub-surface porosity, leading to additional quality and productivity challenges.
Burn-through and distortion are a risk with thinner materials, too. In addition, aluminum is prone to stress or hot cracking during the welding process combined with the challenge of preventing the oxide layer from being introduced into the material.
Welding equipment manufacturers are responding to such challenges by providing dedicated welding systems for specific materials, as well as more advanced welding processes. Pulsed MIG welding and synergic systems, which also incorporate this specific technology, are good examples to address the more specialized needs of emerging materials.
Pulsed MIG welding is a modified spray transfer process in which the power source switches between a high peak current and a low background current between 30 and 400 times per second. During this switch, the peak current pinches off a droplet of wire and propels it to the weld joint. At the same time, the background current maintains the arc but has such a low heat input that metal transfer cannot occur. This action allows the weld puddle to freeze slightly to help prevent burnthrough, minimize distortion and reduce instances of weld spatter compared to a standard spray transfer process, which continuously transfers tiny droplets of molten metal into the weld joint. Such technology has proven effective in welding higher-strength steels, as well as galvanized steels.
Increasingly, welding equipment manufacturers are also offering synergic welding systems to address the needs of welding materials like aluminum. These systems use an operator-friendly, Pulsed MIG welding technology that communicates completely between the power source, feeder and gun. With a standard Pulsed MIG system that is not synergic, a welding operator may change other settings if he or she changes the wire feed speed. Conversely, with a synergic system, a change in wire feed speed by the welding operator means other settings are automatically adjusted by the machine. As wire speed increases or decreases, the power level increases or decreases to maintain a constant welding arc, providing greater control for better weld quality.
More competitive landscapes drive change
The many changes within the industry underscore the fact that there is an increasingly more competitive landscape. Companies are trying to do more and more with their current resources — even if those resources are smaller than in past years — and they are striving to maximize their capital budgets to maintain and reduce costs. An increasing number of companies are turning to two key technologies to help: welding
automation and welding information management systems.
While the trend toward automation has been on the rise for several years, it continues to gain momentum as companies seek greater throughput and a more competitive edge, at times with fewer employees to help. Increased Lean initiatives are also supporting this shift, as companies seek ways to reduce bottlenecks in their operation, optimize workflow and create a more efficient overall welding operation.
Welding equipment manufacturers are making it easier than ever before to implement automation by offering pre-configured weld cells that allow companies to adapt the systems to a wide range of applications and welding operation sizes. In addition, they are offering readily available welding operator training and engineering software programs that simplify programming and the process of designing automation-ready parts — all of which make it easier to implement a robotic welding system.
Businesses of all sizes and capabilities are beginning to benefit from these pre-configured robotic welding cells — both large and small companies, those familiar with the technology and seeking to expand, and those new to automation. The result is the same: cycle time and utilization efficiencies gained through arc on-time and deposition rates that deliver faster overall production, with less variability and improved quality. Additional benefits include:
• A reduction in over-welding
• Improved first-pass weld quality
• Precision for complex welds or materials
• Less scrap and rework
• Lower overall costs
Welding information management systems are also becoming more popular as companies seek to stay ahead of the competition. These systems provide real-time data from the weld cell to help companies improve productivity and quality, and drive continuous improvement within their welding operations. These solutions automatically collect and report arc starts, arc-on time and quality performance based on amperage and voltage, among other factors, empowering companies with the data they need to make changes, become more competitive and increase profits.
With insights from an information management system, companies can assess welding performance information in real time and track both productivity and quality. They can also better identify trends and bottlenecks, potential operator training needs and learn how to best optimize welding production.
From here and now to beyond
At a time when the fabrication and manufacturing industries are as competitive as ever, it is vital that companies continue to explore new technologies that can help them stay profitable, productive and ahead of the curve. It is equally important that equipment manufacturers keep bringing to market new technologies that will help these companies adapt to and overcome the challenges of this ever-evolving landscape. Whenever possible, companies should consider adopting new technologies that will grow along with their operations and empower them not only to address the needs of the present, but also the demands of the future.