The future of structural welding

January 13, 2004
By: Marty Rice


Like my history of welding article, this article is my small insight into the future of structural welding. Like I said before, if you are a history or English professor—and I'll add math professor to this group after my last miscalculation, pointed out by Ted Neff from Reynolds Engineering & Equipment. Inc.—you might want to stop reading at this point; again, it may not be pretty.

I've written in the past about how welding hasn't changed in 50 years, yet welding has changed big-time in the last 50 years. The reason this seemingly contradictory statement is true is that there are so many different welding processes. Some have remained virtually the same, such as stick welding, with minor modifications and improvements, while other processes continue to be invented or improved, such as laser, friction-stir, and plastic welding.


OK, so I'm driving by this high-rise, and I see a guy sitting on a beam about 20 stories high. He's looking out at the horizon with a cig hanging out of his mouth, and a smile on his face. It's payday Friday, an hour away from quittin' time, and he has a ringer1 coming.

He's been stick welding stiffener plates2 using 7018 low-hydrogen rods. As soon as he throws his tool belt into the gang box, he'll be hauling down 20 flights of stairs in about 20 seconds. He'll jump in his truck, stop and grab a six-pack, go home, take a well-deserved hot shower, and then take his wife out for a big ol' steak dinner.


Now let's flash forward about 200 years. My great- great- great- great- (you get the point) grandson looks up out of his future-mobile pickup truck and sees a welder about 20 stories high. She's (yep, there are a lot more women welding in the future also) sitting on a beam on a 500- story high-rise. (Buildings get taller as real estate prices skyrocket in the future.)

It's payday Thursday,3 and she's looking out at the horizon with a cig hanging out of her mouth (yep, people are still smoking!) and a smile on her face. It's an hour away from quittin' time, and she has a ringer coming.

She's been stick welding stiffener plates using 7018 low-hydrogen rods. As soon as she throws her tool belt into the gang box, she'll be hauling down 20 flights of stairs in about 20 seconds. She'll jump in her future-mobile pickup truck, stop and grab a bottle of wine (she doesn't do beer), go home, take a well-deserved hot shower, and then take her husband out for a big ol' steak dinner.

What About Robots?

Hey, wait a minute; this is the future, yet it isn't much different from the past. That's right, welding on high-rises ain't gonna change that much at all! I don't foresee anyone building a robot or machine that will climb around a building like a crazy ol' ironworker will.

Even if a robot could be engineered and programmed, there are just too many variables to consider—misaligned beams, too short or too long beams with holes not aligned with the gusset plates, etc. I don't give a dang how advanced we get, we can't program a machine to fix all the crazy problems a welder runs into on the job.

Now maybe I'm being too pessimistic about our future technology, but you have to realize what my generation was told. I was told in sixth grade that I'd be flying around in a magnetic car by now. I was also told that robots were going to take over all manual work. Heck, I remember hearing adults talking about how bad it was going to be with the loss of jobs, and that we'd all be in the poorhouse because of those dangfangled new machines. They said they might even get too smart and take over the world. Man, that scared the heck out of me! I pictured robots patrolling the streets looking for mischievous little kids like me to take to their robot jails.

Well, sure enough, a lot of technology has been "robotized," especially in the welding field. But I'd venture a guess that it is a very small percentage of the entire industry. And even with robots, a human must program, quality control check, maintain, and repair them.

I spoke with an engineer who said he preferred someone who had worked as a welder to program his robotic welding machine. Experienced welders have the feel for it and do a much better job of setting the programs correctly.

I'm sure there will be some improvements in structural welding, such as better welding machines, maybe a little more stable arc, and probably more flux-cored welding, but in my opinion, welding isn't going to change that much. It'll still be the basics of relaxing your hand; watching the puddle; and using the right travel speed, rod angle, and temperature.

Get the Lead out of the Way!

Maybe someone will invent a way to stick weld without having to drag hundreds of feet of that welding lead around. Wouldn't that be nice? That welding lead will hang up on anything. I literally fell off a three-story building once when my lead tangled up as I was walking a beam on the outside perimeter. Lucky for me, I landed on a scaffold just a few feet below. I noticed that some guys had seen me fall and were freaking out. I climbed back up, dusted myself off, and hollered, "I hate it when that happens!" After they figured out I hadn't really gone in the hole,4 they waved to me, but for some reason used only one finger.

They say you can jump out of an airplane with a section of welding lead on your shoulder and never hit the ground ... it'd tangle up someplace!

Will the Jobs Be There?

No matter what job you're in these days, you're probably wondering about its future. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook, the future for welding jobs looks promising but will fluctuate as industries prosper or suffer:

"Job prospects should be excellent for skilled candidates, as many potential entrants who have the educational and personal qualifications to acquire the necessary skills may prefer to attend college or may prefer work that has more comfortable working conditions. Employment of welding, soldering, and brazing workers is expected to grow about as fast as the averagefor all occupations over the 2000-2010 period. In addition, many openings will arise as workers retire or leave the occupation for other reasons.

The major factor affecting employment of welders is the health of the industries in which they work. Because almost every manufacturing industry uses welding at some stage of manufacturing or in the repair and maintenance of equipment, a strong economy will keep demand for welders high. A downturn affecting industries such as auto manufacturing, construction, or petroleum, however, would have a negative impact on the employment of welders in those areas, and could cause some layoffs. Levels of government funding for infrastructure repairs and improvements also are expected to be an important determinant of the future number of welding jobs."

What About the Money?

The BLS reported that the median hourly wage of welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders was $13.09 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.41 and $16.83. The lowest 10 percent had wages of less than $8.64, while the top 10 percent earned over $23.32.

Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of welding machine operators in 2000 were:

Motor vehicles and equipment: $16.16
Construction and related machinery: $13.72
Fabricated structural metal products: $12.77

Compare these wages to the median hourly wage for all occupations of $13.31 in the same time period as reported by the BLS. Considering I started out making a whopping $4.50 an hour back in the olden days, these wages aren't half bad!

No way can I predict how high wages will be 200 years from now. If I could do that, I'd be making a killing in the stock market. Oh, I could make a guess, but none of us reading this would be around to see if I was right! One thing I'd bet the bank on is that welding will be around, and it still will be a matter of relaxing your hand; watching the puddle; and using the right travel speed, rod angle, and temperature.

1. A ringer is a 40-hour paycheck. You don't want to mess up your 40-hour paycheck by missing any work.

2. Stiffener plates are put at various points of a beam to give it more strength and keep it from sagging. Everything on a high-rise is about load bearing. Columns distribute the building's weight to the ground. Beams take weight to the columns. A stiffener plate fits into the web of the beam vertically and beefs it up, which means you can use a thinner beam to carry the same load as a thicker, heavier beam. Add up all the beams in a high-rise and that makes a lot of difference both weightwise and moneywise. And when it comes to construction, it's all about the money, grasshopper!

3. In the future people have finally realized that the 40-hour workweek should be changed to 24 hours. Fridays are the beginning of a three-day weekend, and Mondays are off because, well, it's MONDAY!

4. Going in the "hole" is ironworker slang for falling off a building. Every year workers are badly hurt or killed going in the hole. It is one of the inherent dangers of working high steel.

Marty Rice

Marty Rice

Contributing Writer
High School Career Center in Texas
Marty Rice is a welding instructor at a high school career center in Texas. He is an honorary member of the Ironworkers Local 263.


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