Welding Forges into the Future
Welding Forges into the Future
Answers from a survey of industry leaders give valuable feeedback on the state of welding for the year 2000 and beyond.
By Andrew Cullision and Mary Ruth Johnson
The pulse of the welding community beats strongly heading into the 21st century and overall projections for the future are generally optimistic, but a few gray clouds roam the horizon. Those sentiments were expressed by respondents to a recent Welding Journal survey. To get a firm feel for that pulse of present and future conditions in the world of welding, the Editors queried AWS Sustaining Member companies, which include producers of a variety of welded products, providers of research and design services and manufacturers of welding equipment, consumables and accessories.
The Editors would like to thank all those who took the time to put down their thoughts and ideas on paper. The responses were diverse, direct and, most of all, very interesting. Those questions and a summary of their answers are presented below.
Do you believe welding will be used more or less in the next decade? If more, where do you see the growth? If less, why do you believe so?
The majority of respondents feel welding is here to stay and will be used more in the future, although many qualified their answers, and there were a few dissenting voices as well.
Steve Sumner, manager marketing product development, Lincoln Electric Co., replied positively, "Welding will continue to be used more in the future because it has proven to be a productive and cost-effective way to join metals." He went on to speculate that "the consumer welding market will continue to provide opportunities for growth," with home improvement and the retail infrastructure to support it becoming a "burgeoning market." One respondent felt that for cost-competitive reasons industry will continue to replace mechanical joining with semiautomatic and automatic joining processes, giving a definite boost to welding. David Landon, corporate welding engineer, Vermeer Manufacturing Co., said, "More, because welding is the most effective way to join materials for structural integrity. Growth will be in alternative materials such as plastics, composites and new alloys." Phil Plotica, senior V.P., sales and marketing North America, ESAB Welding and Cutting Products, replied, "Overall, I expect welding growth will keep pace with growth in the GNP. Some specialized segments, such as aluminum, will grow faster than others, while the continuing developments in nonmetallic materials will slow some segments."
The feeling that growth will be in specialized areas was repeated often. Areas that were mentioned included welding automation, GTA welding because of the increasing need for accuracy and precision in welding new metals; GMA welding with mixed gas shielding; sheet metal industry; construction industry; infrastructure repair; transportation industry; marine structures; aerospace; and automotive, especially its use of aluminum alloys.
Some feel the growth will primarily be in countries with emerging economies, while the growth in the United States will be relatively stagnant. Terry O'Connell, V.P. sales and marketing, Genesis Systems Group, commented, "The U.S. welding market is flat to declining. Growth is expected in Mexico and other developing countries. Labor shortages in the U.S. will contribute to a steady growth in the robotic welding market." Joe Scott, president, Devasco International, Inc., echoed the sentiment, "Less in the U.S. with expectations of a slight decline in the economy, as well as the continuing transition to a service/information economy. Outside the U.S., growth is expected as economic stability returns to troubled regions and their need for infrastructure grows."
The perspective of some, though, is that welding will be used less in the future. Chris Anderson, product manager, Motoman, Inc., opined, "There will be less welding in the next decade. The number of welded products will remain the same, but designs will be more efficient to minimize the amount of welding."
What is the overall business climate for your company for the next year? Do you expect an increase in business or a slowdown?
On this question the replies are overwhelmingly positive with 70% indicating favorable business conditions for next year. Projections ranged from very strong to moderate growth. Companies mentioned backlogs of orders and the need to expand their sales force. One respondent projected a 4-8% growth in business, while others mentioned the improving conditions in Asia as beneficial to their companies. A few, although optimistic, noted that the slowdown in the oil industry has, and a decline in automotive could, hurt their businesses.
With the remainder of respondents, 15% felt business would be flat, while 15% definitely expect a slowdown.
Which welding process(es) will see an increase in use and which will see a decrease in use during the next decade?
There was much speculation as to which processes would see more use in the future, but almost unanimously the process chosen for decline was shielded metal arc welding (SMAW). A very few speculated a decline in the use of gas metal arc (GMAW) and gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW).
A significant group felt the continuous wire processes (FCAW, GMAW) would experience the most use. The GTAW process was the next most mentioned. One of the reasons stated for its increase was "the need for high-quality work on thin materials."
Don Connell, welding engineer, Detroit Edison, stated, "Any process that can be automated will increase." Landon also had the same perspective, "GMAW will increase along with automation." But he also speculated, "Low-fume generating processes will increase." The concept of increased use of automation at the expense of semiautomatic operation was voiced throughout.
The laser beam welding process was mentioned for future growth, and the specialized process friction stir welding was also targeted for expanded use. Other processes mentioned for increased use were resistance welding, plasma arc welding and capacitor discharge welding.
Do you foresee a shortage of skilled welders in your area of business during 1999; in the next decade?
Without question, the majority of replies indicated there is a shortage now and there will be a shortage in the future. The breakdown was 72% consider the situation problematic now and for the long term, 14% did not see a shortage and the remaining 14% either see no shortage now, but expect one in the future or see a shortage for 1999, but not for the future.
John Emmerson, president, Magnatech Ltd. Partnership, made a typical comment for those who see a far reaching problem, "There is a shortage of skilled welders everywhere in the world, and it is only getting worse as each year passes. Despite the fact that welding is used in virtually every industry, it seems virtually ignored as a manufacturing science. Connecticut [the state of location for Magnatech], for example, dropped its Vo-Tech welding classes in 1997. In addition, population dynamics in recent years in the U.S., Europe and Japan indicate that the next decade will see a much smaller number of young people entering the work force. This, by itself, will result in fewer welders."
ESAB's Plotica had a similar take on the situation, "There is a shortage of skilled welders now in most major market areas, and this shortage will worsen unless substantial programs are implemented to promote welding as an attractive career choice for young people."
Landon of Vermeer Manufacturing stated, "We have had a shortage for the past five years. I see no turnaround, and we will not see a turnaround until the establishment acknowledges welding as a viable career path. To meet our immediate demands, the company has developed its own welder training program. The company is also involved in proactive programs that make instructors at high schools and area colleges aware of welding as a viable career."
Connell of Detroit Edison, does not see an immediate problem, as he encouragingly stated, "There is a renewed interest in the boilermaker's welding program, bringing in a good influx of people. I don't foresee a shortage in 1999." Another respondent took a contrary view, noting a shortage of skilled welders in 1999, but projecting a leveling of demand in the next decade.
Julio Villafuerte, director research and development, Tregaskiss, had a slightly different perspective. "The need for plain skill welders will decrease slightly with the slowdown of manual welding. However, the need for welding engineers will increase dramatically as welding automation becomes more prominent."
Where do you see the use of welding automation heading in your industry?
If there is any one thing to bank on for the future, it is the increased use of automation in welding operations. There was an overwhelming affirmative from our respondents on this point, although it was not completely universal. The perspective of those few who did not see increased use might be expressing an influence from their particular industry. A structural steel fabricator mentioned the difficulty in automating for weldments that do not have a high degree of repetitiveness and variations in fitup and joint geometry. Another individual felt automation will not replace welding equipment for manual operations if the equipment is developed to be fast, safe and economical.
But by far the majority feel the same as Magnetech's Emmerson, who stated, "We see more and more companies of all sizes automating applications that were being done manually. Many are exploring their first use of automation, and the declining number of skilled welders will continue this trend." The lack of, or declining numbers of, skilled welders was frequently mentioned as reason for the growth of automation.
Philip Winslow, V.P. sales and marketing, Hypertherm, Inc., noted another often stated reason, "Usage will increase, primarily because of the consistency it gives to welding and cutting operations, especially with CNC (computer numerical control) and robotically controlled processes." Lincoln's Sumner was emphatic in his assessment, "Automation is the single most important growth sector in the welding industry. The drive for higher productivity and reduced costs will keep automation at the forefront." Other reasons for the increasing use of automation included safety and the effort to remove the welder from tiring, repetitive conditions and long-term exposure to fumes.
Chip Cable, president, Bug-O-Systems, isolated shipbuilding and the trucking and railroad industries as areas that will experience growth in automation. A fabricator of offshore steel structures has targeted automation for heavy tubular splices, plate girders and process piping. Small companies and job shops are anticipated to at least try robotics and CNC equipment.
In what areas of welding do we need more knowledge?
This question, more than any other on the survey, seemed to present some difficulties for the respondents. Fully a fifth either wrote "no opinion" or "no comment" or simply left it unanswered. And in the answers that were received, no clear consensus of opinion emerged. However, the following topics were each mentioned by several respondents:
- Safety and Health. The industry needs more knowledge and awareness regarding the hazards of welding, according to the respondents.
- Welding of the newer grades of high-strength steels, high- alloy steels and heat treatable steels. As one respondent put it, we need to "keep up the 'how to weld' information with the increase in 'new' alloys, which are becoming more difficult to weld."
- Automation. Respondents mentioned a variety of topics relating to automation. These included training in computerization and automation; information on short-run automation; and the need to create standard platforms for welding equipment, robot controllers, sensing devices and other automation peripherals.
- The basics. While you might think we know everything there is to know about the most widely used welding processes and materials, that simply isn't the case, according to the survey respondents. Industry needs "more practical application data relative to welding," said Anderson of Motoman. "While universities and institutions are doing basic research, they cannot tell you the best process and fastest speed for a 1Ž4-in. fillet weld."
Tregaskiss's Villafuerte summed up the feelings of several respondents: "We need to be able to transfer current welding knowledge to the factory floor. More trained professionals and dissemination of knowledge are needed."
What are the strengths of the welding industry? What are its weaknesses?
Although our respondents listed plenty of strengths and weaknesses for the welding industry, Plotica of ESAB, perhaps best summed up the two most commonly held opinions. Regarding the industry's strengths, he said, "We are a well-established, mature industry, with a solid track record in technology and process advancements." And as to its weaknesses, "We are not attracting enough young people into welding careers," Plotica said. "Welding is still perceived by many as a crude and dirty process."
While many saw the industry's maturity - the reputation of welded components for being reliable and economical, the industry's commitment to research and development and the dedication of its work force - as signs of its strength, nearly as many others saw it as a weakness. They believe the industry is set in its ways and slow to change. According to one respondent, the industry's strength is that the people involved in it are "slow to change, with a show me attitude." On the other side of the coin, he said, "Its weakness is that they're slow to change even after you show them." And while a number of respondents lauded the industry's commitment to research and development, others claimed it's too esoteric and takes too long to transfer from the academic level to the factory floor.
Thomas C. Conard, president of Alexander Binzel Corp., had another take on the industry's weak spots. He noted welding is not a separate industry in and of itself but instead makes up part of many other industries. The implication here might be that welding lacks a clear-cut image and direction.
What business improvements during the next ten years would be in your company's best interests?
As might be expected, there were nearly as many different answers to this question as there were respondents. These ranged from broad-based desires, such as a wish for growth in any field that uses metallic materials, to a more narrow focus, such as wanting increased use of electronic commerce and supply chain management. Better trained workers, improved communication techniques, designing for manufacturability and lessening the time it takes to get new products to market were all mentioned as in companies' best interests. Several persons called for increased automation.
Several respondents said a change in the government's role with regard to their operations would improve their businesses. This could occur either through less government involvement or through such things as restriction of imports, "reasonable environmental legislation that does not drive up the cost of doing business," tort reform in product liability and lower taxes.
"We spend a tremendous percentage of our income toward research and development," explained Emmerson of Magnatech. "The continuation of tax credits for small company R&D would be beneficial. We note that several of the Canadian provinces are very aggressive in nurturing technical innovation and the growth of small companies, and allow virtually all R&D expenditures to be written off against income. I believe there would be an explosion of new development and company growth if any of the state governments undertook similar tax credit programs."
What has to be done in the future to keep the welding industry healthy?
More than 50% of the respondents believe improving the image of welding so top students will be drawn to the industry and bettering training methods for welders and welding engineers are the keys to welding's future.
We need to "totally revise the public education system in the United States to acknowledge the trades as an acceptable alternative for students," according to Connell of Detroit Edison. This echoed the opinion of David Yapp, team leader, arc welding and automation, Edison Welding Institute, who said there needs to be "a radical change in education at all levels." He added, however, "This is not likely to happen without strong leadership and commitment."
In fact, respondents touched on a variety of aspects related to training - all with an eye toward welding's future. In the opinion of Jackie Morris, quality manager at Bender Shipbuilding & Repair Co., Inc., the level of cooperation between manufacturers and schools must improve so that manufacturers' needs are met. Genesis' O'Connell said the welding industry needs to do two things: "Enhance ease of use through technical training and technology advancement," and "concentrate on making welding the low cost, best performance choice for material joining." For the question regarding welding's weaknesses, Anderson stated it's "often not scientifically applied, which leads to overdesigned weldments and process parameters that are not optimized." Anderson touched on the topic again in answer to the above question, when he said, we must "continue to educate students on the basics of the process and how to implement it. (We must) teach the economics of welding to designers so they understand the costs of a weld."
Respondents also mentioned improved salaries for welders, staying ahead of environmental and health issues and more practical research and development as ways the welding industry can help itself stay healthy.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of your particular industry?
Overwhelmingly, the respondents to the survey said they were optimistic about the future of their industries. In fact, 92% of respondents indicated they are at least guardedly optimistic about the future. One respondent summed up his reasons this way: "Metallics will be around for a long time and they will need to be joined."
Much the same opinion was held by Lincoln's Sumner. "I am optimistic," he said. "Even though we are mainly tied to the steel industry, which has seen a slight decline, we have much more to learn about welding and furthering the process of joining metals. I believe products and services that the welding industry provides will continue to be in demand worldwide."
Paul D. Cunningham, president of Weldsale, indicated he was optimistic because "gains in technology via software and the Internet will help increase productivity in the U.S.A." Winslow of Hypertherm foresees a bright future: "If we improve our understanding of our worldwide customers' needs, we have a road map to unrestricted growth."
However, some respondents, such as Thomas A. Ferri, a welding process specialist with Airgas, expressed optimism while adding a word of caution. Ferri said he was "optimistic so long as we know our industry needs some changes." Morris of Bender said he was "optimistic in that shipbuilding and repair is a sound profession with an increasing market; pessimistic in that environmental restraints are greatly increasing operating costs and decreasing profit margins. There is a need for better dialog between industry and the private sector."
During the 1990s, the trend has been for company buyouts and mergers. Do you see that trend continuing and is it healthy for your industry?
Not all of the respondents answered both parts of the above question. From the answers received, three times as many respondents believed the trend for company buyouts and mergers will continue. Several stated, however, that the pace will slow from that of the early 1990s. Besides slowing down, "a certain degree of counteraction, i.e., divestitures, may also begin to take place," according to Plotica. "For the most part, the buyouts and mergers have been healthy by providing resources and growth opportunities to small- to medium-sized companies that would have not been possible otherwise." With regard to it being a positive trend, most respondents agreed with Plotica. In fact, three times as many respondents stated it is a healthy trend as opposed to those who believe it is not good for industry. "Every buyout and merger has victims and winners," one respondent said. "It also creates opportunities. Ultimately the industry does become more efficient, which is healthy."
It appeared, however, that respondents who work for welding equipment and consumables manufacturers rather than end users were more likely to consider it a negative trend. "The welding industry is getting smaller every year," one respondent wrote. Another said, "Who's left to buy without creating an antitrust monopoly issue?"
Landon of Vermeer presented a case for both sides. On the positive side, Landon said, "Larger companies have more resources for research and development. Also, mergers present a larger buying power and, in some cases, allegiances to manufacturers. Some of the buyouts that we are seeing, especially in the equipment rental industry, could be a real boon to our company." On the negative side, "less competition," he said.
While stating that "company buyouts and mergers can have very positive benefits for the industry and the consumer," Emmerson also put in a word of caution. "To use an overworked phrase," he said, "if there are no 'synergies' between a group of companies beyond the fact that they are associated with the welding industry, the risk is that the performance of small, newly acquired companies will suffer as their original owners bail out and no strong management fills the void."
Sumner voiced the opinion of several respondents when he said, "I believe that these consolidations have fostered an environment that is healthy for the industry with more focused competition between larger manufacturers. This competition is good for all of us to help move the industry forward and provide customer solutions."
Since time machines still exist only in the stories of H. G. Wells and other works of science fiction, no one can tell us exactly how welding will fare in the 21st century. However, the people who responded to the Welding Journal survey represent a cross section of fabricators of welded products and producers of welding equipment and related products. Together they offer a wide range of experience and knowledge. Answering the questions separately, in their respective cities, they still formed a concensus. They agree the future looks promising for welding. It remains and will continue to be a productive, cost-effective manufacturing method. However, steps must be taken to bring more skilled personnel into the industry, or changes must be made to accommodate for the lack of skilled personnel (e.g., welding automation). They also indicated the welding industry must embrace all of the modern-day technological tools to keep pace with the rest of the world.