KNOWLEDGE: The key to welding productivity?

Study's findings have different meanings across manufacturing sectors

PRACTICAL WELDING TODAY® JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2003

January 16, 2003

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In the year 2000 manufacturing, construction, and mining industries had $34.1 billion worth of welding-related expenses. At the same time more than a half million people in the U.S. had welding-related jobs -- and that's not counting self-employed and nonproduction welders.

In the year 2000 manufacturing, construction, and mining industries had $34.1 billion worth of welding-related expenses. At the same time more than a half million people in the U.S. had welding-related jobs -- and that's not counting self-employed and nonproduction welders.

Yet many companies haven't studied, or only somewhat understand, the economic impact of the welding-related processes they use every day.

These figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are included in "Welding-related Expenditures, Investments, and Productivity Measurement in U.S. Manufacturing, Construction, and Mining Industries," a study released last year by the American Welding Society, Miami (AWS,www.aws.org), and the Edison Welding Institute, Columbus, Ohio (EWI, www.ewi.org).

The report provides information on welding-related expenses and measurement of welding productivity in the welding-critical industries -- automotive, aircraft, aerospace, electronics, medical, light and heavy manufacturing, construction, and capitalized repair and maintenance.

But not all of the major findings apply to these industrial groups in the same way.

Analyzing the Findings

The following seven statements, taken directly from the report, are deemed its major findings. Depending on whom you talk to, these findings evoke a different response.

1. Most firms have not studied, or have only a minimal understanding of, the economics associated with the use of welding-related processes.

This assertion is based on how central welding is to a company's manufacturing processes, according to Charles Miller, senior vice president and research director at Insight*MAS, a management consulting firm in Dublin, Ohio (www.insightmas.com). He was the principal researcher for the study.

"For example, heavy industrial or structural manufacturers have a better understanding of the economics associated with welding," Miller said. "When it's less of a critical factor, they have less of an understanding."

Another reason this finding might be accurate is that welding is a complicated process with many variables, from the materials welded to the consumables used, and from the joining process selected to the tooling needed, said Bruce Albrecht, who served as an expert on light industrial manufacturing for the study. He is vice president and general manager of light industrial products at Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Appleton, Wis. (www.MillerWelds.com). The economy has affected how companies look at all manufacturing processes.

"We're in a pretty challenging economy, which changes how we manage business," Albrecht said. "A team has to rally around the process and see what needs to be improved.

They need to ask, "What are the total costs?' and then target the big-cost items in the process. Then they need to ask fundamental questions about why they do certain things in manufacturing."

Miller agreed that attitude is everything where welding economics is concerned.

"The ones who understand how you generate value in the final product and their manufacturing processes will look at the inputs of welding," Miller said. "Heavy industrial and construction companies think, "If I weld it, it's going to cost more in the short run, but in the long run, it's going to be more lightweight and therefore of more value to the customer, which means that I can make more money because I can sell it at a higher price.'

"The bottom line surrounding economics is that there's a lot that manufacturers can learn about their manufacturing processes to best utilize their assets and produce the best product," he said.

On the other hand, Duane Miller believes that the construction industry, while it might not measure welding productivity in the same way as other sectors do, is aware of welding's economic impact. He is manager of the Weld Technology Center at The Lincoln Electric Co., Cleveland (www.lincolnelectric.com), and was a construction expert for the report.

"There are two classes of construction companies: shop fabricators and field erectors," he said. "Shop fabricators supply structural steel for buildings and bridges. They cut, they drill, and they weld. Field erectors erect buildings and bridges. They are highly cognizant of the cost of welding because the rate at which welding is done dictates how fast the building will go up. These people are very schedule-restrained. They may not know the specific cost of welding one joint, but a lot of field erectors measure how many pieces of steel they can place per day, so they know how many joints they need to weld per day."

2. Most firms do not evaluate the role and contribution of welding in the complete manufacturing process.

As with the economics of welding, manufacturing companies in which welding is not a critical process don't evaluate its role.

"Welding is not primary to our business. It's such a very small piece of our puzzle that it's not helpful to track it," said Jim Harris, senior staff welding engineer at Ashland

Specialty Chemical, Columbus, Ohio (www.ashchem.com). He was the study's expert in repair and maintenance.

The same is true for automotive component manufacturers, according to Kurt Hofman, vice president of RoMan Manufacturing Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich. (www.romanmfg.com), and president of RoMan Engineering Services, Madison Heights, Mich. He participated as an expert in this field for the report.

"Many of the manufacturing companies are inherently nonwelding companies -- it's not their core competency," Hofman said.

Even though his company doesn't track the contribution of welding in repair and maintenance, Harris said its importance to their business is not downplayed. Instead of tracking the contribution of welding to their work, they track and monitor weld quality.

"We buy welding equipment to stay in business," Harris said. "Tracking the weld quality is directly proportional to our reliability, and our reliability is the key to our remaining competitive."

For firms that do evaluate the role of welding in their manufacturing process, Albrecht said it's important to focus on the operation as a whole rather than how one process affects the work.

"I think what you measure is what you improve," Albrecht said. "If you measure the wrong things, you improve the wrong things. You have to look at the big picture, and improve the important things. In other words, work on the big hitters as a team, You have to bring all departments together from manufacturing to purchasing to uncover all costs and find solutions, such as automation. You may have to make trade-offs in the costs, but in the end it reduces the overall costs."

3. U.S. manufacturing firms that (a) understand the role and contribution of welding in the complete manufacturing process and (b) understand the economics associated with welding-related processes are competing successfully.

Getting everyone to understand the importance of welding and properly evaluate processes can be the keys to success, especially in companies that rely heavily on joining, according to Charles Miller.

"It takes a focus on understanding what's going on in the manufacturing process and the trade-offs and how they affect the end product," he said.

"If you don't understand welding, you don't understand the economics associated with it. That's a global problem," Hofman said.

4. There are no consistent measures of welding productivity currently being used in establishments where welding is a critical enabling technology.

Because the criticalness of welding varies across manufacturing sectors, consistent measures of welding productivity have not been set up to address welding quality so that every industry sector can adequately evaluate its processes, according to some participants in the study.

"As a business owner, if I decide it's important enough to measure, it's to meet specifications of quality, contain costs, or make sure that the welding process is not a bottleneck," Charles Miller said.

Measuring welding productivity can be done for more than one reason, he added, so the measurements will vary based on the reason for measuring it. Because of this, consistency doesn't exist.

Also, he said, many companies don't measure welding because it's not a financial constraint, not because it's a small part of the process.

5. The shortage of qualified operators, technicians, and engineers in the field of welding is a potential threat to some U.S. industries.

Although the way manufacturing firms understand and evaluate their welding processes may be inconsistent, those in various industry sectors have one consistent opinion: No matter how critical welding is, the shortage of qualified welders is significant.

On the Gulf Coast when shipbuilders bring in extra projects, it's difficult to find enough qualified welders, according to Charles Miller. And shortages are for welders as well as welding technicians and engineers, he said. For example, too few engineers in the field have studied welding in enough depth to be welding engineers.

"Each year that goes by, the shortage gets worse," Harris said. "There's a need for vast improvement in welding educational programs with emphasis placed on the full spectrum of welding education programs. This improvement should also include raising the bar for the qualification and certification of welding instructors."

And the shortage isn't going to go away with an increase in automation, Albrecht pointed out.

"It's a big deal even if you automate, because you still need qualified people to run the operations. It's a real threat," he said.

For now the best way to address the shortage is to give all workers knowledge, Hofman said.

"Companies need to be mentoring young engineers to be experts and foster the in-house expert idea and spread it throughout the company," he said. "Right now you have to go to third-party consultants for that expertise."

6. Nearly one-half of the establishments studied reported that their welding-related training needs are not being adequately met.

Another trend that many industry sectors can agree on is the need for training. Manufacturing companies know that training is key to creating a skilled work force, but how to get people trained well enough for a variety of welding operations is a struggle, some experts said.

Companies' opinions that their training needs are not being met is a reflection on how educational agencies are training welders before they're hired, according to Charles Miller.

"Businesspeople would like to have people trained to the level they need at their doorstep," he said. "In reality, they can find an entry-level welder, but they know they'll have to train that person."

And from the time a welder walks through the door of a company, supervisors have to decide the best way to train that welder for their specific applications. Economics plays an important role in this decision, according to Hofman.

"One of the problems we have today is cost associated with in-house training versus sending people out to seminars," Hofman said. "And enthusiasm is needed to grasp the content, especially if being involved in welding is a new responsibility. People tend to gravitate toward [technologies] they're comfortable with."

Albrecht thinks training should begin in the public school system -- long before a welder even starts to look for a job -- but with the industry's help.

"The responsibility falls on the industry and the schools," Albrecht said. "Industry needs to take more of a role in its communities; it needs to be outspoken. Industry people need to be working with schools before cuts are made. If cuts are made, manufacturers will then have to bring in training institutes for specific training."

7. Establishments relying on the use of welding processes are generally not actively pursuing additional automation of these processes.

Like the cost of training, an often expensive investment manufacturing firms must weigh is automation. However, if manufacturers aren't actively pursuing automation, it isn't because of cost alone.

"There's more interest in automation than ever, but it's still surprising to see how many people are not actively looking at automation," Albrecht said. "For instance, if you don't understand your welding costs, then you won't understand how automation can help you reduce your costs. Also, there's a fear factor with automation, so the system needs to be simple. Automation doesn't have to be a robot to work well for a manufacturer. A simple side beam may be just right for the job."

"In the majority of instances, there are many considerations for how to be more productive and generate more value for the customer," Charles Miller said. While one of these considerations may be automation, most manual welding operations already have flexibility, which is why some manufacturers shy away from automation at first, he said.

Because welding is critical in the shipbuilding industry, many companies in that sector are attempting to automate because so much of their end product is welded, he added.

But in the automotive industry, it's a different story.

"In the automotive sector, fewer companies are actively seeking automation compared to some of the other industrial sectors because they have what they want," he said.

But some automotive manufacturers still are considering more automation and applying it to their processes, according to Hofman.

"We continue to automate and continue to get more sophisticated tooling," he said.

Depending on the types of automation and the processes involved, various other industry sectors are considering automation -- cautiously.

"A lot of companies view automation as a major capital investment," Charles Miller said. "The primary approach is to step back and see how effective a leader in the industry is. If they can see that it's economically advantageous in the long run, then they'll invest in it."

"In one area, we're looking to automate a little more to increase productivity, but we're also looking at how much money we're going to put into it, and if we'll have enough business to pay for that equipment," Phil Grimm said of the storage tanks manufacturing industry. An expert for this sector, Grimm is corporate quality assurance manager of Modern Welding Co., an Owensboro, Ky., manufacturer of storage tanks (www.modweldco.com). "We want to invest and we want to improve, but we're going to watch our investments carefully."

In repair and maintenance, automation isn't that necessary, Harris said.

"Shielded metal arc welding is still the top process. We use automation, but only when it's practical," he said.

The same can be said for construction, according to Duane Miller.

"Automation is not an emphasis in shops or in the field for two reasons," he said. "One is because of the restrictions placed on them every day -- in the building industry, the fabricators don't make the same things day in and day out. The sizes of the members used in fabrication change from one building to another, and the buildings are of different sizes. The other reason is the lack of consistency in the dimensions of the members used. The structural steel shapes vary slightly, piece to piece, and when you go to assemble the members, you have variable fit-up, which makes automation more difficult."

European automakers are having different experiences with automation -- experiences that will eventually, if they haven't already, affect how domestic manufacturers regard automation.

"We're seeing automakers in Europe that are totally changing their processes," said Fritz Saenger, former director of international marketing with EWI and co-director of the study, "and I think American automakers will find themselves behind if they don't look into new technologies, such as incorporating lasers in more of their processes."

Opportunities for Improving Productivity

By identifying major trends in welding productivity and economics, members of the advisory panel for this study believe that it's possible next to detect opportunities for improving the welding industry.

"There's the tendency for companies to look at welding as a cost to be reduced, but there are some major exceptions in some manufacturers who are very productive," Saenger said.

One way to improve productivity, as Albrecht said, is to look at an entire process, from start to finish, and study what can be improved, how it can be improved, and at what cost.

Another way is for a company to review the improvements it has made and to determine how much progress has resulted. AWS hopes to establish reference points for improving productivity.

"The people in the industry identified the idea that there's an opportunity for productivity improvements, to get people focused on applications on the factory floor," said Richard French, deputy executive director of AWS and member of the study's advisory panel.

"I'm sure AWS committees will be looking at developing standards that will help the industry to measure the productivity of welding," he said.

No matter the methods for measuring welding productivity, however, it's clear to those in welding-critical manufacturing sectors that joining is key to their success.

"Welding is a terrific process for joining and can be integrated into punching and forming," Albrecht said. "Welding should be front and center and invested in." l

To read the study in its entirety, visit www.ewi.org/news/HIM.pdfor www.aws.org/research/HIM.pdf.





Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer

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