Everyone interviewed for this article mentioned the same thing: At Fabtech they all noticed the optimistic, one even dared to say giddy, euphoria. With the election over, the manufacturing community is feeling hopeful.
“I was overwhelmed by the optimism of people at the show,” says Norm Sted, director of North American sales and marketing at Bug-O Systems. “I knew there was going to be this relief just getting the election over no matter who won, but it seemed overwhelming. People were excited to be talking about cutting and welding.”
Joe Ryan, market segment manager at Miller Electric Mfg. Co., concurs. “At Fabtech, I got the sense from the mood and the types of questions we were asked that the industry is planning for a rebound in 2017. I know it’s going to take a while, but I would say the outlook is positive for 2017 and into 2018. The phones have started ringing a lot more often, I’ll tell you that.”
While hopes are high, there is a tone of apprehension tempered by practicality.
“If all of this optimism will actually transform into orders and growth, we don’t know yet,” Sted says. “Typically, not much happens in the first year of a new presidency, but this is not a traditional presidency. There are so many unknowns. In other words, the optimism is not well grounded because nothing has really changed yet.”
Mike Mintun, The Lincoln Electric Co.’s vice president of sales, North America, is also hopeful but cautious. “I can’t comment on the optimistic outlook without touching on the impact of the new administration’s more business friendly policies. Fundamentally, the outlook is positive, but there’s not a lot of detail going forward. And this is Washington we’re talking about, so it is going to take time. There are a lot of wild cards, but we do remain optimistic about 2017.”
According a recent Zion Market Research report, the global welding products market was valued at $20.67 billion USD in 2016 and is expected to reach $32.63 billion USD in 2022, growing at a CAGR of 7.5 percent between 2017 and 2022.
A similar report from Persistence Market Research, “Welding Equipment Market: Global Industry Analysis and Forecast, 2016-2024,” provides a comprehensive analysis of the global welding equipment market. Global sales of welding equipment are estimated to be valued at $10.5 billion USD by the end of 2016, posting a CAGR of 7.9 percent between 2016 and 2024. The research firm believes the global welding equipment market is likely to witness sustained growth in the next eight years.
There are a few key factors driving welding product market growth, including the oil and gas industry.
“My feeling is that there will be a fall turnaround,” Ryan says. “I think a lot of refineries and petrochemical plants put off maintenance when the oil price was around $30 per barrel, but with oil above $50, now they can fund it.”
Mintun agrees. “In the latter part of last year, we saw the firming up of oil prices and we look for that to continue. As the price starts going up and there’s more confidence, we’ll see more of these exploration projects get the green light. Also, we could see a run-up in railcar manufacturing and pipelines to transport oil and gas.”
Another key driver for market growth is automotive. According to Ed Crum, segment market manager for advanced manufacturing at Miller, automotive will be in the one to two percent growth range, with new models fueling these numbers.
“The industry has had a lot of monumental swings over the years, but has proven to be more stable of late. When talking about building 19 million vehicles in North America, even a one percent shift is actually pretty substantial,” he says.
Crum has been all over the automotive sector in Mexico and noted the tremendous amount of investment made there in the last 10 or 15 years. “It will be interesting to see what happens with automotive in Mexico.”
Infrastructure is another area of growth potential under the new president. “Infrastructure in this country has been ignored for decades,” Sted says, “whether it’s bridges, power plants or the new power and energy sources coming on line. A great deal of infrastructure welding and cutting will be required in the next decade or so.”
Sted also notes steel imports have picked up, particularly rebar and also very heavy plate. Heavy plate imports indicate heavy construction such as shipbuilding and military.
“There are a lot of projects to replace aging navy ships and vessels,” he says, “and with this new administration, I sense we can count on military contracts increasing.”
As for general fabrication, “Any contract manufacturer I talk to has work,” Crum says. “Most of the local job shops are pretty healthy overall. That is one sector of the industry that is not necessarily slow because those shops diversify.”
One big challenge
All of these construction and manufacturing projects require some form of welding, from assembly production to new construction to maintenance and repair. But finding a skilled and experienced welder is not that easy.
The skills gap is still the most oft-mentioned challenge the welding industry faces. There will be a shortage of 372,000 welders by 2026, according to estimates from the American Welding Society.
“There are two components to the skills gap,” Mintun says. “Fewer and fewer people are entering into the business, and we also have an aging workforce. The average age of the typical welder is in the 50s, so we have some real challenges to face over the next 10 years.”
Schools, manufacturers and associations are combining efforts to address the skills shortage issue and ensure that as soon as workers graduate they can move into industry and be more productive with a greater skill level.
Overcoming challenges leads to trends and one obvious trend is to use robotics and automation as an answer to the skills gap. “I travel all over and the trend I see is that more and more fab shops want to go to robotics because they can’t find people,” says Zane Michael, director of thermal business development at Yaskawa Motoman.
Of course, robotics has its benefits. According to Michael, a robot is approximately 4.5 times more efficient than a manual welder. They may travel at the same speed, but the robot is going to move to the next part much faster, and quality is going to be better and more consistent.
While robotic sensors have come a long way, a robot cell is generally more productive when it does not have to deal with part variations. Unlike the welder who has built in “adaptive control” and is excellent at dealing with part variations.
Mintun notes that while manual and semi-automatic welding is not going away anytime soon, “things that we didn’t consider for automation 10 years ago, we automate fairly routinely today. While automation is typically used in high-volume production, the ease of programming is probably changing what that definition of high-volume production is. And smaller shops are where we’re seeing the largest growth. We’re seeing more interest in automation in shops than we did say 10 years ago.”
Making it easier
Robotics and automated welding can’t be used in every application. Therefore, another trend in welding equipment is making equipment easier to use.
“For instance, you can’t get a robot to go out into a shipyard and climb down in a hull and weld stiffeners,” Sted says.
Sted’s company, Bug-O, provides environmentally rugged motion controlled equipment. The lion’s share of Bug-O products is used in shipyards and pipelines and other outdoor environments. The products are also used on large workpieces inside the shop, such as heavy fab equipment.
“We take the torch or the gun out of the welders hand and we mechanize it,” Sted says. “But it still takes a skilled operator to check the weld bead or see if the weld puddle is doing what it’s supposed to do. It doesn’t take that job away from the welder, it just makes it more efficient.”
Bug-O is continuing to evolve and bring smarter technology to its products and to industry for the next generation of welders. “When training new people, the education and experience curve can be shortened so it doesn’t take as long to replace the guy retiring with 10 or 15 years of experience,” Sted says.
Other companies agree with this same approach of making it easier for the new welder.
“With advances in technology, such as advanced pulse arcs, we can compensate for the nuances introduced in the welding process,” Crum says. “A 20-year-old machine can’t really compensate for all the things that the new operator doesn’t know, such as what to do at the beginning of the joint and what the contact tip distance, torch angles and travel speeds should be.”
In addition to using advanced welding technology, manufacturers are simplifying the equipment.
“Today, operators can get to welding faster with simple user interfaces that require minimal training,” Crum says. “So instead of being riddled with hidden menus or multiple knobs like on legacy equipment, just a few fundamental elements are needed to set up the equipment.”
That is kind of a mantra for Miller. Anytime the company introduces a new product for the welding market, it’s expected to be easy to use.
Another trend for the welding industry is further expansion by manufacturers and fabricators into high-strength and exotic materials.
“Most companies today are fairly adept at welding mild steel, but industry is pushing the envelope into materials that are more challenging from a welding standpoint,” Mintun says. “In automotive, for example, the chassis is traditionally made with high-strength, low-alloy steel, but now it’s being made with thinner steels to reduce the weight, and they’re coated to provide corrosion resistance.”
Crum agrees there is a trend in automotive toward new products coming to market made with lighter weight, exotic steels, such as martensitic and boron. Even in the general fabrication space there is use of multiple materials. Product designs are changing and aluminum is growing as well, and stainless is growing for its corrosion protection properties.
“Another trend in auto is more brazing taking place,” Crum says. “The materials are getting so light and thin, welding may cause a case of burn through.”
These newer materials create challenges from a welding standpoint. One of the things Lincoln and Miller are doing is developing machines that are more versatile in terms of the material being welded.
“It used to be that you would buy one machine to weld everything, but the machine characteristics were really optimized for one process and material,” Mintun says. “With today’s advanced power sources, we custom tailor the output waveform mode so we have a mode for welding mild steel, a mode for aluminum and a mode for cored wire. The machine makes those adjustments internally. We’re delivering better quality welds by taking more of the guesswork away from the operator.”
Miller is providing more flexible products to the end user as well. “We’re making our equipment more flexible so rather than just being a steel-only MIG machine, now we have one machine that runs the full gamut from stainless to steel to aluminum.” That lends itself to lower capital expenses for the companies, as well.
From an equipment design standpoint, Ryan says a continued trend is toward inverter power source technologies for weld process capability and performance as well as a reduction in size and weight and improved power consumption. Miller still offers traditional transformer-based welders, “but our development activities, as well as our competitors, are really a transition toward inverters,” he adds.
Also, reducing or eliminating pre- and post-weld processing is always on trend. Conversion from traditional processes to wire processes means fewer starts and stops, which leads to less grinding. And spatter control is a big part of reducing weld cleanup.
And that leads to another trend: understanding and considering all the aspects of the welding process, not just arc-on time. “The thing about welding is that it’s absolutely, without a doubt, the sum of all parts,” Crum says. “The equipment, the operator, the consumables – there is no silver bullet.”
Take filler metals, for example. Procurement agents trying to save two or three percent buy a lower-quality filler metal. The wire creates too much spatter and requires additional work. It ends up costing more in labor than that material per unit costs per pound for the wire.
Those from the abrasives side of things agree.
Rick Hopkins, senior product manager, Weiler Abrasives Group says, the biggest challenge with customers is getting them to truly understand the best products to use for their applications and why.
“They just continue to use the same old product or whatever the purchasing agent gives them,” he says. “It’s a challenge for all of us in the industry in that there are so many products available that can help increase productivity and reduce downtime. So it really comes down to a matter of us coming in and looking at the application and truly understanding the finishing requirements so we can make a serious recommendation on what product to use.”
It can be a challenge to convince a user who has been very satisfied with the product(s) that they have been using for several years may not be the most efficient or effective products for the job. As creatures of habit, change can be difficult on several levels.
“It is a challenge for all of us in the industry,” Hopkins says. “For me, it comes down to getting to know the user and really understanding the individual user’s process and finish requirements so that I can make the best possible recommendation. There are often times many options available that can significantly increase productivity and reduce downtime.”
Maria Cartier, marketing manager at Pferd Inc., says her company is also focusing on saving costs on the overall welding process versus just the individual product cost.
“One specific area Pferd is focusing on is incorporating innovations into our product development process that address operator health concerns such as noise and vibration. Our goal is to provide increased value to the operator, from a health and safety perspective, and to the process itself, by providing products that increase efficiency and reduce various forms of waste. This all has a real impact on overall manufacturing costs.
Along those lines, we’ve also developed a cost savings tool, which our sales and applications teams use to demonstrate opportunities to achieve cost savings with our products. It’s a tool that highlights how several factors, not just the cost of the abrasive itself, impact overall costs and ultimately the bottom line.”
Big data gets bigger
Looking at the overall process also leads to another big trend – big data.
One area most major manufacturers are looking at is how to use the data generated by their machines to help them make better welds.
“This could be something as simple as keeping track of the welds in a database so if something goes awry, they can go back and look at it,” Mintun says. “The real art though is to have these smart systems trained so when they see something that doesn’t look like it’s supposed to they send an immediate alert to a supervisor or the operator that something is not right with the machine or the process.”
Companies are doing this already, but the adoption rate has been pretty limited, he adds. Mintun sees big data being used mostly in the automotive space and in the heavy fab equipment.
“But there will continue to be more and more interest and more effort in that area to make those tools simpler for the operator. As time goes on, big data will become mainstream and an expectation from all of our customers.”
Just like robotics, it starts with the big guys and trickles down. Kathie Poindexter, senior manager, product marketing at Epicor Software Corp., says adoption from smaller outfits is growing.
“There’s no doubt that Industry 4.0 will have ramifications throughout the manufacturing industry and a majority of manufacturers agree that what is being referred to as the fourth Industrial Revolution will have a big impact on the sector,” Poindexter explains. “Industry 4.0 calls for a future of agile, affordable manufacturing fueled by technology enablers, such as the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, cloud computing, mobile devices and big data. Both small and large manufacturers will benefit from these capabilities and, in fact today, they are becoming more affordable and within reach of small manufacturers.
“Take for example the impact of the cloud; what makes it so exciting for the small manufacturer is that cloud computing technology levels the playing field against larger manufacturers,” she adds. “Previously, enterprise resource planning and manufacturing execution systems were designed to accommodate large manufacturers, required substantial upfront investment for the software, the infrastructure to run it and the IT resources to maintain it. For today’s small manufacturers, cloud computing options are far simpler to implement and require less time and fewer resources to ‘go live’ with no huge up-front capital investment.”
One last trend that can’t be left out is additive manufacturing. “There is a lot of interest in additive manufacturing and welding is certainly an additive process,” Mintun says. “For Lincoln, it is an exciting opportunity. We’re doing a lot of R&D work in this area. The commercial applications are still limited, but I think that will continue to grow as more people find opportunities for the process.”
ABB Inc. is helping move metal additive manufacturing out of the traditional, small-area processes and into big envelopes where an industrial robotic arc welding system builds up the part. ABB’s Edward Moritz from the discrete automation and motion division, Robotics Business Unit, says additive manufacturing is coming on board – and fast.
“The process is evolving quickly, and it just enables more material to be placed at one time with high quality,” he says. “Just five years ago, you couldn’t place as much material with as high quality.”
One of the trends in additive manufacturing is producing a high-value, complex part that is needed that day. For example, military aircraft carry so many tons of spares. If they could just print one, the weight and space savings would be phenomenal.
Another AM application is aftermarket sales. If a part is not manufactured anymore, additive manufacturing can be used.
Moritz even mentioned customers making their own end-of-arm tooling for testing with AM. They can make it that day versus going through a local tool designer.