Lowering the learning curve
Virtual system kick-starts weld training
A Pennsylvania crane fabricator relies on virtual weld training to kick-start weld training for new hires.
Manitowoc Cranes—Shady Grove, located in Shady Grove, Pa., is a brand rich in tradition and history. The manufacturer of mobile hydraulic cranes has been a staple in the industry since 1947 and offers all-terrain, rough-terrain, truck-mounted, and industrial cranes.
Fabricating these machines requires a commitment to the craft and an impeccable attention to detail. It also requires a lot of welding, which is why Shady Grove employs anywhere from 400 to 450 welders at a time. When you’ve got roughly two weeks to train nonwelders or welders with minimal experience and get them certified and ready to hit the shop floor, there isn’t a whole lot of room for error.
When Jake Sensinger, manager of weld process engineering at Shady Grove, brings in new welding employees, he does so with the knowledge that the training they receive on-site will most likely be their first contact with welding.
“We’d like to see folks come in with at least one year of welding experience; however, oftentimes we end up getting folks in here with experience that ranges from nothing at all to possibly only a month. So, basically, we’re training someone who is coming through the door who has never even touched welding before,” Sensinger explained.
All new hires must undergo training that lasts two weeks, eight hours per day, and includes classroom sessions and hands-on welding. The program is fast-paced, intense, and tough, but Sensinger said motivated individuals who have a desire to learn can and will find success, whether or not they have any prior welding experience.
Most of the welding performed is gas metal arc welding (GMAW) in the flat position. At the end of the two-week training period, welders must become certified in AWS D1.1.
Virtual welding systems have been around for several years and have proven that in the right environment they can help beginning welders develop muscle memory and, in some cases, attract young welders to the trade. Manitowoc management took notice of the virtual welding boom and began searching for a system that could potentially assist their weld instructors in pushing beginning welders through the training program faster.
Like in many other training programs, new welders at the facility learned the old-fashioned way—by running a bead on a plate and acquiring muscle memory and technique through hours of repetition. That worked all right, said Sensinger, but that method does have its disadvantages.
“A trainee could run a fillet weld for eight hours and not get a single one right. And if that’s the case, then all of that material he worked on is considered waste.”
The company learned of the Real-Weld Trainer™ from an equipment distributor and purchased two systems in June 2012. Developed by EWI of Columbus, Ohio, the training device is unique in that it has an “arc-off” function and an “arc-on” function that are interchangeable with the flip of a switch. Whether in arc-on or arc-off mode, the system digitally records motions and measures and scores welding technique, providing important feedback to welders and welding instructors.
An LCD positioned eye level with the welder provides a visual of his parameters so he can correct and adjust things like torch angle and travel speed during the weld pass. Sensinger explained that developing the muscle memory of holding the torch and maintaining the correct torch angle to the workpiece is one of the most difficult skills to teach a new hire. Having the ability to teach that during the arc-off mode gives the welder a chance to position the torch correctly based on preset parameters and see what it looks like without having a live arc and an autodarkening helmet in the way. If the welder’s motions meet all of the preset parameters, the LCD shows these parameters in green. If he doesn’t, he sees that immediately and can make adjustments on-the-fly.
“They can stand there and watch where their torch angle is in comparison to what the screen shows, so they get a true visual with just the dry runs. If they are trying to keep everything green, they will be watching their gun angle and watching the screen at the same time, versus trying to do that in the dark and learning it in the traditional manner.”
The feature that really piqued Sensinger’s interest was the ability to program the machine using his shop’s specific welding procedure specifications (WPSs), instead of using preset WPSs preprogrammed by the manufacturer.
“I can go in and set my own parameters to my own WPSs. Basically, what we weld to as far as welding procedures, I can put those requirements within that program, set my minimums and maximums, and I can widen them up and tighten them down so I can set up a series of stages within the WPS and then gear it down to where they fall within fairly tight tolerances. It will then gauge and plot out where they are within those upper and lower limits.”
The system is also equipped with the same welding gun and leads that are used on the shop floor, providing continuity as new welders transition from the RealWeld Trainer to a live setup.
Developing Accurate, Efficient Welders
With the two devices, Sensinger said his welding instructors can hammer home the same concepts early on without using any material. Instead of practicing on 50 or 100 plates per day per person, they don’t have to use any.
The systems have added a new dimension to the company’s ability to train new hires. Sensinger has found that the system has helped instructors train welders faster and has developed new hires into welders that are both accurate and efficient.
A large part of that is making the arc-off function as real as possible. Sensinger said welders must wear all of the same PPE as they would during live welding, the only exception being the welding helmet, which is fitted with a clear viewing lens instead of a standard darkened lens.
“With that experience, once they switch over into a real welding mode and add a dark lens to their helmet, they already have a basic idea of how to hold the gun and where it needs to be in relation to the workpiece. That’s half of the battle. The rest of it is learning how to figure out everything else in the dark, but all of that comes with practice.”
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