Beating the welder shortage, recession blues

New welding gun, torch technology aimed at helping fabricators

PRACTICAL WELDING TODAY® MARCH/APRIL 2002

March 14, 2002

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Seven OEMs of welding torches and guns talk about fabricator challenges and how they see gun and torch technology changing to help them in the future. Some challenges fabricators face are a skilled welder shortage, an economic recession, and welder safety.

Skilled welders are hard to find. The economy is in recession. Production is down. And in the midst of these concerns, fabricators are concerned with welder safety.

These issues are not new to welders and fabricating shops, but some say that such challenges are at an all-time high. These days torch and gun manufacturers are trying to provide faster, more economical, and ergonomic technologies to help welders produce more, and quickly. In many cases, technology has been considered for replacing people when their ability to meet these goals is slowed by unproductive processes.

Fabricator Challenges

Today fabricators must reduce costs and use production time more efficiently. For some fabricators, this means investing in technology that will help make this happen.

However, many fabricators don't want to invest in their operations right now because they're seeing a decline in orders. Failing to invest can cause more problems than it solves, according to Thomas C. Conard, president of ABICOR Binzel Corp., Frederick, Md., a manufacturer of semiautomatic, automatic, and robotic gas metal arc welding (GMAW) guns, gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) torches, and robotic peripheral equipment.

"Long term, because of the welder shortage, fabricators will need to understand the advantages of robotic applications and automation and the necessity to invest in the right technology. That investment requires knowledge of what technology is available and how best to utilize it to achieve the maximum future potential," Conard said.

While automation has been a goal since the early 1980s, maximum output is a major concern now that fabricators have started and continue to increase the use of welding robots, said Joseph B. Cusick III, president of Pac*Mig Inc., Wichita, Kan., a manufacturer of pressurized, air-cooled robotic, automatic, and semiautomatic welding guns, GMAW guns, and GTAW torches.

"Smaller manufacturers are seeing the benefits of a robotic cell that can consistently weld with the aid of one skilled operator. Now the focus is maximizing the output from each robot. This requires better equipment that can hold up to the demands of faster cycle times, higher deposition rates, and the additional heat required to keep up with the production demands," Cusick explained.

To maximize robot use and minimize cost, it's also important for fabricators to choose the right machine for the job and the time it will spend welding.

"Cost reduction means the ability to provide equipment that is robust and can withstand higher current and heat inputs," said Steve Sumner, manager of marketing product development at Lincoln Electric, Cleveland.

Obviously, not every fabricator has a fully automated welding line; however, it's still important to make welding torches and guns versatile to help welders learn how to use new technology quickly and effectively. According to Eric Frei, GTAW product manager at Weldcraft Welding Equipment, Burbank, Calif., manufacturer of GTAW torches, consumables, and accessories (www.weldcraft.com), welders need a more versatile torch when using a GTAW power supply. Portable and fixed weldstations, for example, should have quick-change torches and accessory hoses, he said.

Welder comfort also can result in higher production. While this might appear to be common sense, ergonomics is a key component of research some OEMs are conducting when they're considering what products to market, either to prevent lost time in cases of repetitive-motion injuries or simply to make tools easier to use and, therefore, more comfortable.

"If you can make the job easier or ergonomic or more comfortable, then the operator is going to be less likely to complain about that job," said Mike Sammons, product manager at Miller Electric, Appleton, Wis., manufacturer of arc welding equipment.

Addressing the Issues

While it helps for fabricators to choose the right equipment at the right price, working with fewer skilled welders still presents challenges and requires creativity, Conard said. Anticipating the continued challenge of finding skilled welders, ABICOR Binzel is investing in engineering products that help fabricators automate. Such products—for example, a specialized wire feeding system designed for aluminum applications—are meant to reduce cost and inventory while increasing uptime.

Conard said he hopes shifting to automation also will encourage youths to enter the welding profession.

"It [automation] projects an image of advanced technology, more engineering, and a gold-collar job rather than down-and-dirty welding. There is high-tech welding shown in such films as 'Star Wars.' This type of welding exposure encourages new, young talent to the welding industry," Conard said.

Another trend is for equipmentmakers to design guns and torches with maintenance in mind, because they know that these items will be abused in shops and at job sites. Sumner said he sees his customers trying to squeeze everything possible out of their equipment to try to reduce costs.

"They tend to run [torches] hotter—to get higher deposition rate or travel speed to go faster and lay down more metal in shorter periods—and run them longer to delay purchasing a replacement, putting a greater burden on maintenance and longevity," he said.

The challenge then becomes how to design torches and guns so that components can be replaced easily and last a long time, Sumner said.

Sumner said Lincoln Electric is considering new materials for gun handles and alternative materials for the front-end parts of the guns—materials that will move heat away from the arc and keep it away from parts that can wear. The company also is implementing ways to channel heat away from the arc by using higher-heat-capacity alloys for its front-end parts.

Frei said that air- and water-cooled flexible torches with a modular design can increase configuration options for the welder. These higher-amp torches are designed to achieve higher weld speeds. A quick-connect system for torches and accessory hoses allows quick change without tools for increased production and maintenance ease.

Before flex torches with modular, interchangeable heads were introduced, torches were rigid, with fixed head angles that limited the welder's accessibility, Frei explained. If an application demanded a different torch configuration, the only option available was to purchase a new, rigid, fixed-head torch configured with a different angle and head size.

This was costly from an equipment inventory standpoint and caused downtime while the welder or electrician changed out the torch on the welding machine.

"The welding applications of today can prove to be very diverse and challenging. Welding torch configuration options are more important now than ever and will continue to drive torch designs," Frei said.

Relating to welder comfort and ease of use, Miller Electric's GTAW torch head features scalloped indentations on the right, left, and top sides for finger placement. For precision operators who hold the torch like a pencil, this shape can increase control of torch movements while reducing hand fatigue.

"The torch falls into the hand much the same way an ergonomic pencil does," Sammons said. "We hope it will encourage more benchtop operators to hold the torch by the head, as that often increases precision and makes it easier for operators to maintain weld consistency throughout the day."

For operators using GTAW to join pipe, many of whom hold the torch by the handle, the back of the handle features a recess in which operators can rest their thumb.

For comfort when using the GMAW process, the company manufactures guns that have a curved handle that corresponds with the curvature of the arch made up by the carpal and metacarpal bones in the palm. The handle is constructed of plastic that weighs approximately 3 oz. and has antislip ridges.

A trigger lock is included to alleviate trigger finger. These features have been implemented in response to customer demand for more comfort and better ergonomics.

The welding guns also feature common consumables across the product line that include quick-release contact tips and one-turn, screw-on nozzles. These can reduce consumables inventories, improve maintenance, and ease service.

In addition, equipment and technology are evolving, resulting in more reliable tools for undesirable jobs required in fabrication. Examples include an automatic tool changer that, coupled with a welding robot, can run 24 hours a day. An operator or another robot can change tools periodically, without ever closing the robotic cell.

Conard said these technological advancements are a result of customer demand.

"For instance, the auto industry endeavors to remove weight from their vehicles without lessening their durability. With plastic and aluminum, as well as other lightweight alloys currently available, new technology is required because the welding process is different than welding with mild steel," Conard said.

New Technology in Use

As trends in technology and the economy shape how fabricators are investing and exploring possible improvements in safety and productivity, OEMs are seeing developments that might help fabricators produce more, safely, and with fewer people.

One development is the ability to program robots outside the workcell.

"It is now possible to program a robot in the comfort of one's office. With 3-D software that is extremely accurate, one can reduce the programming time and the number of modifications required once it's put in the real working environment," Conard said.

ABICOR Binzel has developed and recently introduced a master feed system designed for precision feeding of aluminum welding wire for high-speed robotic applications. The company also has an automatic tool changer designed to reduce downtime and has invested in twin-wire welding technology for faster travel speeds and increased efficiencies.

Some OEMs see versatility as the key to making life easier for fabricators.

"I see a lot of patent wars going on where the big companies [OEMs] put more effort into making parts that will fit only their equipment so operators have to buy exclusively from them," said Richard Mann, engineering manager for ZAP Plasmatherm, a Claremont, N.H.-based manufacturer and distributor of consumables for laser welding and plasma, GMAW, and GTAW (www.zapplasma.com). "This limits the choices for the fabricators out there who want the best power supply for their application, but the torches are incompatible with the other 50 machines that are already in use, and may not be available from their loyal local supplier or at a comparable price.

"This puts the job shop in a tough position, because while the industry's products may be improving, if they can't get a competitive selection of torch parts for a one-of-a-kind machine, then the cost of operating that machine may become prohibitive. Sometimes innovation is not a good thing, when done with the interests of the vendor rather than the job shop in mind," Mann said.

Future Developments

It is important for equipmentmakers to keep searching for better ways to manufacture products to reduce costs and improve ease of use and productivity. The following are additional developments some equipmentmakers expect to see in the future.

Tregaskiss. Senior Technical Director Julio Villafuerte said the company plans to introduce spatter-resistant consumables and nozzle-cleaning stations that use alternative cleaning technology.

ABICOR Binzel. Conard expects to see more modular products that can be mixed and matched to provide end users with more flexibility. Examples include robotic torches that are custom-made at standard prices with standard parts and low-maintenance, hand-held torches that allow the user to change the angle of the swanneck to a more desirable, less stressful position.

ZAP Plasmatherm. Mann said the most significant improvement in welding equipment has been the transition from old transformer-based power supplies to modern solid-state switching technology. He expects power sources to become more tailored to specific application and material requirements. He also expects them to become small, light, and portable.

Weldcraft. Frei thinks torches will have small electronic controls that give the welder more control of the weld at the source. Now most welders control machine functions at the torch with either a foot control or an additional remote control device for the torch handle, Frei explained, and most remote control devices on the torch handle require more hand and finger movement than a welder likes to give. Additionally, the foot control physically limits the positions that the welder needs to be in.

"The idea of having all of the control at the welders' fingertips offers the most versatility," Frei said. "The challenge is to achieve this without adding more hand and finger movement than necessary. Solid-state switch controls are small and offer a variety of options with a touch-pad technique built into the handle. This is currently standard on most torches required for the European market."

Lincoln Electric. Sumner forsees gun and torch technology focusing on smaller size, lighter weight, better ergonomics, higher current-carrying capability, and improved maintenance. Remote capability on the gun might make it possible to change welding parameters and processes.

Also, as aluminum becomes more widely used, guns and torches will become better and better able to weld it. Push-pull technology will evolve to feed longer distances and increase current-carrying capability because aluminum runs very hot.

Miller Electric. Product Manager Dave Hull said Miller is developing ways to make GMAW guns more ergonomic. In addition, its new gun line features heavy-duty nozzles that operate cooler.

Pac*Mig. The company's latest product line addition is a welding nozzle that uses a vapor that turns to steam when it comes in contact with the heat of the nozzle.

Maximizing Is Key

By investigating customer demand, torch and gun manufacturers have learned that fabricators need to produce parts quickly when they land jobs in an economic recession. But while it's important to make money, it's also necessary to find and retain qualified welders and operators and purchase equipment that can be used as comfortably as possible.

In some cases, though, fabricators are choosing not to hire new welders and not to replace old equipment. Even so, it's still important that they provide tools that are comfortable to use. All in all, maximizing what you have is key in personnel, equipment use, and productivity.

"If you have a happy operator, he's going to be more productive," Sammons said. "He's going to spend more time producing than he's actually going to be complaining. Therefore, productivity will increase."



Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer

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