April 15, 2008
A new grant program promotes education for the welding technician. The program focuses more on welding theory behind the various processes--and less on hands-on training.
Welding's complexity stands out in metal fabricating, and learning it doesn't happen overnight. It takes repetition and concentration. It takes an understanding of metallurgy and chemistry, as well as knowledge of good joint and product design. It takes management and organizational skills that, combined with welding knowledge, can make the best use of welding technology.
But can one person do it all?
Few can, and that fact lies at the heart of the skilled-labor shortage in welding, according to sources. As a trade, welding requires three personalities: the hands-on welder, the manager who knows how to get the most out of a welding operation, and the engineer who develops processes and products that make the best use of welding.
Community colleges train welders on specific processes and procedures as needed by local industry. Institutions such as The Ohio State University, LeTourneau University, and the Colorado School of Mines offer higher education in welding engineering. But what about the middle manager, the welding technician who knows the processes enough to manage a group of hands-on welders, work with automated equipment, and, at the same time, communicate welding knowledge and organizational ideas to engineers and upper management, people who may or may not have a background in welding? According to sources, this kind of welding technician holds qualifications that industry covets, but many have years of experience and stand at retirement's doorstep. Who will fill their ranks?
Some are attempting to answer that question by rethinking traditional welding education, which has focused on one of two areas: the hands-on approach, championed by community colleges and technical schools, and theory taught by undergraduate and graduate programs. Few, however, offer both.
Exceptions do exist. Schools like Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Mich., offer students hands-on training of manual, semiautomatic, and robotic processes along with theory as part of two-year Welding Technology Associate in Applied Science degree and four-year Welding Engineering Technology Bachelor of Science degree programs. The trouble is, there aren't enough Ferris States.
"The world needs more Ernie Leverts," said Ken Smith of Lorain County Community College, Elyria, Ohio.
Levert, a Lockheed Martin welding engineer and past president of the American Welding Society, graduated from a vocational high school, spent time in the Navy as a hands-on welder, then went on to Ohio State to earn his welding engineering degree. Levert and others like him represent the exception, Smith said. Typically, hands-on welding attracts those who enjoy hands-on work, while engineering draws those who enjoy theoretical thinking. What the industry needs, Smith said, is someone who can see eye to eye with both.
With this in mind, Smith and representatives from the American Welding Society, Ferris State, Texas State Technical College, the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and elsewhere started the National Center for Welding Education and Training—Weld Ed for short—funded by the National Science Foundation. Lorain CCC has become the program's organizational hub, with Smith as principal investigator and project coordinator, but the program is open to schools across the country. Weld Ed's aim: Make available more courses that include weld theory, metallurgy, and process knowledge and facilitate an idea exchange between participating schools through teacher workshops, conferences, and online Webcasts.
"This four-year project, which started in July 2007, is designed to increase the number of welding technicians in the United States," said Jeff Carney, Weld Ed adviser and welding engineering technology department chair at Ferris State University. "The role of the community college is to provide skilled training for local industry, and they've done that very well. But industry is asking for a little bit more." Industry not only needs that hands-on welder, but also those who can multitask, perform quality assurance, and apply welding theory to an overall operation, he said.
"You have a traditional challenge in getting engineers and hands-on-oriented people to see eye to eye, and you never will," Smith said. "I'm not just talking welding; I'm talking all disciplines. I've got a degree in industrial technology. I see practicality needs to be there, but at the same time I see the need for theory. I'm the proverbial 'man in the middle.' I can see both sides, and here we're trying to figure out a practical approach [to meet industry needs]."
The program focuses on educating someone who's not necessarily a hands-on welder, not a welding engineer, but a little of both. Organizers hope that graduates will go on to land jobs as weld technicians who manage welding operations, be it a bank of automated robot cells, a group of hands-on welders, or a mix of the two.
There's a practical side too. Welding labs cost money, and ones with robots cost even more. When school administrators choose between spending money on desktop computers and investing in welding power sources, computers usually win. With Weld Ed focusing on classroom work, instructors can teach more about welding processes, spread awareness, and perhaps spark more curiosity and interest—for less money.
"We wanted a curriculum from which you could teach welding ideas and concepts without the need for an expensive lab," Smith said. "[Weld Ed] courses will teach students about different welding processes, about heat flow and chemistry, and other physical properties [of the process] without ever having to strike an arc."
Smith admitted that "there has been resistance [from some]. We're not saying welders never need to have hands-on experiences. In fact, [this program will not] produce skilled welders. But they will have the practical background, they will understand the metallurgy and scientific side of things. They will be able to troubleshoot robotic welding and enhance welding setups."
He added that while the hands-on welder focuses on what happens between the welding gun and workpiece, the Weld Ed program's technician looks at an entire operation, focuses on work flow and procedures, and finds ways to discover more efficiency.
Technology has greatly altered the welding profession. While automation is seen as something manufacturing couldn't do without, it has thrown a wrench into the career path of some, Smith explained. Many who got into welding years ago because they enjoy hands-on work have seen such work become automated. Sure, they may adapt, learn robot programming, and continue to draw a paycheck, but their passion still may lie in striking an arc.
"Today's industry is shifting to the automated world," Smith said, "and it is in that automated world where the term technician comes into play."
Weld Ed hopes to find those students who can develop a passion for such hands-off work and learn more theory to get the most out of welding workcells. From the start, these students will want to be that technician who maximizes efficiencies of welding technology.
Sources are quick to point out that the Weld Ed program doesn't diminish the need for hands-on welding. "The world still needs production welders … and we need skilled welders who can meet specific industry codes and requirements," Carney said. The skilled-labor shortage exists at all levels of the welding profession.
What the Weld Ed program does do, Carney explained, is tap into an emerging labor force demographic: "If you asked a welding teacher who's been teaching for 30 years about the level of mechanical aptitude today versus 20 years ago, most would say [that students 20 years ago] had more." This doesn't mean students are less intelligent or motivated; they just grew up in a different environment. A generation ago kids grew up working on cars and learned to enjoy what hands-on work could accomplish. Today cars use a computer for diagnostics—no hands-on problem-solving required. For the hands-on person, where's the fun in that?
But computers can't automate everything, and if anything they have brought demand for critical thinking to the footlights. According to sources, Weld Ed organizers hope to nurture those critical-thinking skills for the next generation's weld shop.
A new class at the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology, Troy, Ohio, may be a harbinger of welding education. The course teaches welders who are moving into supervisory roles, and it culminates with an exam that grants the American Welding Society designation of CWS, or certified welding supervisor.
"It is similar to the certified welding inspector exam," said Hobart Institute President Andre Odermatt, "but with more of an emphasis on productivity and quality improvement."
Unlike courses funded by the Weld Ed program, the Hobart course primarily serves seasoned welders, some of whom already have a CWI designation under their belts. But both Weld Ed and Hobart programs focus on applying more welding science and process knowledge to make operations better and more efficient.
Odermatt explained that many welders advance to the supervisory ranks without any additional training, even though such positions demand starkly different thinking. A welder's work focuses on what happens between the welding gun and workpiece; a supervisor must focus on how to make a team of welders produce the best results as efficiently as possible.
As an example, Odermatt brought up the issue of overwelding. For a groove weld, a welder must fill that groove—the shape of an upside-down triangle—with consumables to create a robust joint. "You can make that triangle bigger or smaller," Odermatt said, "and each requires a certain amount of filler metal to make a weld, depending on thickness."
If given a drawing that leaves out the weld specifics (which is not a rare occurrence), the welder usually uses too much filler metal. "Some of this is common sense," he said. "More [filler metal] may seem like it will hold better, but that's not necessarily the case. The welder may be overheating the metal, which adds brittleness." Ensuring weld joints are just the right size—with the correct amount of filler metal—can ensure better quality and, at the same time, reduce consumable costs.
As part of overall manufacturing, "welding is often forgotten … It's, ‘Oh, by the way, we have to weld this thing,'" Odermatt said. "This has to change, and it is changing. It has to become part of concurrent engineering."
Helping that change, he concluded, should be the certified welding supervisor.
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