Welding. You can’t get much more industrial than that, can you? Likely conjures up images of a blue collar, safety-clad worker earnestly joining pieces of metal together as heat flashes and sparks jump around. (Or if you have a penchant for 1980s’ movies, then maybe a picture of dance-loving Pittsburgh steel-mill welder Jennifer Beals in Flashdance comes to mind.) Welds may be all around us every time we go into a stadium, up a skyscraper, or on a rollercoaster, but most of us rarely give them a second thought or stop to consider how critical their integrity is to our safety.
While we often read of the demise of traditional manual jobs, there is actually a shortage of skilled welders, especially in advanced economies. In the US, for example, the American Welding Society predicts a shortage of no less than 400,000 welding operators by 2024, with the supply-demand gap a consequence of an ageing workforce (average age of a welder is 57) and an inadequate supply of new entrants to the profession over the last few decades.
One outcome of this situation is that welding equipment manufacturers are striving to make machines that are easier and faster to set up and operate by new recruits, and which deliver high quality first-time welds so as to reduce the extent of productivity-sapping rework. And Industrial IoT technology is beginning to play an important part in delivering and facilitating these advances and improvements.
As I found out at last month’s Smart Summit Asia event in Singapore, one welding equipment supplier embracing IIoT is Kemppi, a privately held company from Finland with annual sales in the region of $145 million and more than 650 staff across 16 different countries. CEO Anssi Rantasalo, who presented (“Connecting Devices to Transform Businesses”) in the Industrial Internet track chaired by ARC Advisory Group, said he realized some years ago that remaining purely as a machine supplier was not a good long term strategy for the company and the foray into IIoT forms part of Kemppi’s approach of adding value and becoming more entwined in the customer’s business, beyond that which a conventional equipment sale normally allows.
Aside from the lack of qualified welders, which Mr Rantasalo calls the “number one headache” for the industry, other current welding challenges include: the low visibility into operations – how to ensure that only qualified persons work on the weld and that the process is carried out to the required welding procedure specification (WPS), which is especially important when welding materials such as high strength steel that necessitate staying within a very narrow heat corridors; and a quality assurance regime that relies heavily on post-process sampling by methods such as NDT (non-destructive testing) – which can result in significant repair costs if weld deviations such as low penetration are found.
At last October’s EuroBLECH 2016 metalworking technology exhibition in Hanover, Germany, Kemppi launched the X8 MIG Welder, which Anssi Rantasalo refers to as an “IoT welding machine”. It connects to Kemppi’s WeldEye welding management software, which is hosted in the cloud and provides real-time insights and control of the welding process.
For example, upon login, a welder without the requisite qualifications is not allowed to start welding and, similarly, if he selects the wrong gas the machine will not start. “The cloud knows what we’re going to weld and how it should be welded. The welder just needs to operate the machine and not make any more adjustments,” explained the Kemppi CEO in his Singapore presentation.
WeldEye, which can be integrated with other Kemppi and non-Kemppi welding machines, also acts as a quality controller by accumulating process performance data and comparing with the planned performance and relevant international welding standards. This transparency means that defects can be detected much earlier and rectified immediately, reducing repair costs and improving productivity; Kemppi quotes a figure of 40 percent reduction in welding repair rates. Automated documentation is another time-saving feature of the welding management software.
Making a comparison to the real-time data collection and analysis that takes place trackside during Formula 1 racing, Anssi Rantasalo says that, similarly, all the necessary data about the welding process can be collected, monitored and documented, with every variable traceable. “You go from guessing to knowing, preventing mistakes from happening, and maximizing productivity without compromising safety.”
While machinery manufacturers (OEMs) are increasingly adopting Industrial IoT technology in order to stay connected to their assets out in the field and enable more sophisticated aftermarket services, it is interesting to learn how an industrial equipment supplier like Kemppi is using IIoT in a different way – enabling in-process enhancement based on real-time performance and operational data and thereby helping customers meet some of the challenges associated with today’s welding industry environment.