Keep operations competitive
The welding industry faces a pressing challenge in the growing lack of skilled welding operators. This isn't a new problem. But it's an issue that many contractors, fabrication shops and manufacturing operations struggle with every day as they work to keep their operations competitive.
According to the American Welding Society, the industry will face a shortage of about 400,000 welding operators by 2024. This is due to a lack of incoming skilled welders, as well as the aging population of the current workforce. In the United States the average welding operator is 57 and poised for retirement.
The two primary ways for the industry to address the shortage are increasing the labor pool by training more operators and increasing productivity with the existing workforce.
In response to this challenge, welding equipment manufacturers are developing innovative technologies to make it easier and more cost efficient to recruit and train talent. Some of these same technology advancements can also be used to help re-qualify existing employees to build their skills.
Advanced welding processes also offer greater productivity through higher deposition rates and a stable, easier-to-control arc that can help reduce weld failures. Contractors, manufacturers and fab shops can complete more code-quality welds with their existing labor pool, easing the demand for operators.
In addition, some contractors form training and partnership initiatives with union organizations to help retrain current welders in higher productivity processes.
These efforts can help organizations adapt to the challenges posed by the labor shortage and establish a more competitive, productive operation.
Simpler designs, intuitive products
Equipment manufacturers are stepping up with easier-to-use and more intuitive solutions, which can help address the operator shortage.
Specifically, technology improvements have resulted in power sources with simplified interfaces. These make it easier to complete superior welds — even among operators of varying skills sets — and also to set up and operate the machines. Advancements include features like preset weld parameters that can be established with the push of a button, quick process changeover and point-of-use controls. The preset parameters are based on process wire type and diameter and shielding gas type. Systems can also limit options based on previous variables selected by the operator.
These technologies can provide exceptional performance, improve productivity and reduce rework. All of these factors help maximize labor hours and make the welding process easier for the operator.
These equipment advancements help in two ways. They allow employers to open the labor pool to attract more operators who can be trained to produce high-quality welds. Second, the productivity gains make the existing workforce more productive. In an industry struggling to attract enough skilled welding operators, maximizing the current labor pool is important.
Improve productivity with advanced procedures
Equipment advances and simpler technologies are important steps to help the industry address the operator shortage. It’s also important to look at business drivers and find additional ways to become more efficient.
Labor is a large portion of the cost of a weld in North America — about 80 percent of the cost. Therefore, finding ways to increase productivity is the biggest cost savings opportunity for these employers.
Advanced welding processes, like pulsed MIG or modified short-circuit MIG, offer greater simplicity and can be easily taught and learned. This speeds up training, making it easier for operators to gain the training and experience necessary to create quality welds. In addition, these advanced processes are more forgiving to variations in stickout and offer exceptional arc stability, which is easier to control and can help avoid weld defects.
Wire processes offer higher deposition rates compared to Stick and TIG, increasing productivity. In addition, advanced wire processes address previous quality issues regarding conventional wire processes, making advanced processes viable options for code-quality welds.
Once an operation decides to change welding procedures to take advantage of a more productive process, training new operators and retraining the existing workforce are often necessary. The new welding procedures and equipment must be certified. Also, operators must be certified on the new processes.
Growing training partnerships
More training partnerships and collaborations are forming to address this retraining need as operations switch to advanced processes and equipment to improve productivity.
One example involves the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (UA), a union affiliated with the national building trades that represents welders and pipefitters. The UA has partnered with a top national contractor to develop a program to proactively train already skilled welding operators in the new advanced procedures based upon the materials and parameters of specific applications and requirements for this particular contractor.
It’s an example of a major contractor understanding that it can switch to the latest technology and greater-productivity procedures. But without enough qualified operators to complete the jobs, it can’t fully realize the productivity gains and cost savings.
Some contractors are also working with technical colleges to develop training programs or building their own in-house training facilities. This allows them to hire employees and train them to meet specific welding needs.
Other training resources
In addition to these partnerships, many equipment manufacturers offer training centers and programs to provide expertise and resources for employers, contractors, unions, distributors and other end users.
Technology is also playing a role in training and retraining. Among the new technologies to help address the labor shortage are new systems for faster and easier operator training. One system on the market is designed to deliver a real-world, arc-on welding experience by using motion tracking technology.
The motion-tracking cameras provide immediate feedback on technique parameters during initial simulation mode and also during live arc training mode. The system uses a real welding power source with a MIG gun. With the push of a button, operators can experience a real welding arc while transferring the learned muscle memory and proper technique into a real welding application.
This type of technology offers a faster, more cost-effective method for screening applicants and training new welders. It's also an effective way to retrain current operators on new parameters. Welding operations can use this type of technology to maintain or update the skills of their current operators, by creating specific training assignments based on existing welding operations.
Keys to addressing the shortage
In the quest to recruit and train more welders — and retrain the current workforce — to meet current and future demands, technologies and equipment that are easier to learn and use will be an important part of the solution.
In addition, switching to more productive advanced welding procedures is another solution. It can help contractors, fabrication shops, and manufacturers and maximize the current welding labor pool. Understanding the potential productivity gains offered by advanced processes and new technologies can help organizations ensure that contracts are completed on time — and on budget.