Thinking about the differences between an old rotary phone and the newest smartphones available today is one way to illustrate how technology is constantly evolving and improving in most areas of our lives. This is true in the welding industry as well — as new technologies provide greater productivity, quality and ease of use.
The fabrication and manufacturing industries continue to evolve, as they are faced with a growing welding operator shortage, changing regulations and materials and shortening project timelines. These factors are challenging companies to seek out new technologies and solutions that can help them stay competitive, maintain the highest levels of quality and productivity and meet customer demands.
Welding equipment manufacturers are responding by bringing new technologies to market that will ultimately help companies better serve their customers — and save them money. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution for any welding operation, these manufacturers are increasingly creating more flexible welding solutions that suit both large and small companies and provide them with better options to be more competitive and successful. More productive welding processes and easier-to-use, intuitive welding machines also make it easier for contractors to maximize the available skilled labor pool and complete jobs on time.
Whether a company is welding with stick, TIG, MIG or flux-cored processes, there is equipment and technology available designed to improve productivity, quality and safety — and some solutions that are designed specifically for oil and gas and pipeline welding applications. There are many issues and benefits for companies to evaluate when considering an investment in new welding technologies or a switch in welding processes.
Address the Skills Gap
The United States anticipates a shortage of approximately 400,000 skilled welding operators within the next five years, which poses a significant threat to the fabrication and manufacturing industries as companies strive to meet continued customer demand. As a result, enhancements in welding technologies are being designed to:
• Simplify and reduce training time.
• Allow entry-level welding operators to complete more complex welds with quality results.
• Give skilled welding operators more efficient tools to support high productivity.
Advanced welding processes can compensate for changes in stick-out, torch angle and travel speeds, to assist skilled welding operators in making quality welds. Since such power sources offer improved arc performance, they also give entry-level welding operators the ability to deliver a better weld faster, with less training — and they provide companies a new way to attract more in-demand, skilled welding operators by offering them easier-to-use equipment. The cumulative result is greater productivity for the companies without a sacrifice
Consider a Switch in Processes
A switch to new welding processes can offer significant productivity gains without sacrificing weld quality in many oil and gas applications. This can be especially beneficial in field welding applications because nearly 80 percent of the costs associated with welding in the field are related to labor.
Advanced welding processes, including pulsed MIG and modified short-circuit MIG, offer high weld quality and increased productivity and efficiency by way of travel speeds that are three to four times those of TIG or stick welding. These processes are commonly used in the fabrication shop and are now available in machines designed to meet the demands of jobsite and field applications.
A modified short-circuit MIG process anticipates and controls each short circuit, then reduces the available welding current to create a consistent metal transfer. This precisely controlled metal transfer provides uniform droplets, creating only small ripples in the weld puddle and producing a consistent tie-in to the sidewall. Along with its ability to maintain the same arc length regardless of stick-out (within limits), this process makes it much easier for welding operators to control and manipulate the puddle, and to quickly and easily learn to create uniform, high-quality welds.
One such modified short-circuit MIG process available on the market can be used for the root pass in pipe welding in many applications. This process provides the ability to create a thicker root pass of 3/16 in. or greater — enough to eliminate the need for a hot pass in many cases and to support the heat input of pulsed MIG or flux-cored welding for the fill and cap passes. Using a modified short-circuit MIG process also allows for the elimination of a back purge in some cases with stainless steel and chromoly, thanks to the change in torch angle, calm puddle and tapered nozzle.
Pulsed MIG offers the benefits of better fusion and fill at the toes of the weld, higher travel speeds and deposition rates and shorter changeover time, since the same wire and gas can be used with advanced MIG processes. Pulsed MIG is also more tolerant of variations in the tip-to-work distance.
Pulsed MIG welding is a modified spray transfer process in which the power source switches between a high peak current and a low background current between 30 and 400 times per second. During this switch, the peak current pinches off a droplet of wire and propels it to the weld joint. At the same time, the background current maintains the arc but has such a low heat input that metal transfer cannot occur. This action allows the weld puddle to freeze slightly to help prevent burn-through, minimize distortion and reduce instances of weld spatter compared to a standard spray transfer process, which continuously transfers tiny droplets of molten metal into the weld joint. This also makes it possible to weld in all positions, which is important for applications that require overhead pipe welding, for example. Such technology has also proven effective in welding higher-strength steels.
Remote Control Technologies
Another solution that provides significant productivity and quality benefits is remote control welding technology, which allows welding operators to make adjustments quickly and easily at the weld joint. This is especially beneficial in field applications.
The ability to make process changes and parameter selections at the weld joint helps significantly minimize downtime that welding operators spend traveling back and forth to the power source. This results in more arc-on time, which helps welding operators complete more welds and achieve higher overall productivity. Remote control technologies also offer benefits for welding operator safety, by reducing trip and fall hazards. This can especially make a difference on expansive jobsites, where welding may take place hundreds of feet from the power source.
Remote options specifically optimized for stick and TIG welding are available, providing the ability to remotely change process and polarity, set actual amperage and detect improper connections, all without the need to swap weld cables. Another feeder option is designed specifically for traditional and advanced wire processes, offering the ability to weld up to 200 feet away from the power source with no special cables — a much greater distance than cabled solutions allow.
This technology also makes process changeover easier, which eliminates the need to “get by” with less-than-optimal settings and helps reduce weld defects and associated rework.
Contractors who have converted to newer remote welding technologies that eliminate the special control cable usually required with traditional remotes have found this enhanced capability both more efficient and appealing to operators. A remote control technology that eliminates the need for a special control cable saves the time and hassle of cable management and reduces jobsite clutter, which helps improve safety for operators.
Advantages for the Bottom Line
Investing in new welding technologies and making the switch to advanced wire processes can help companies reduce rework due to quality issues, significantly improve productivity to better meet tight project timelines, and address safety concerns by reducing trips to the power source to adjust weld parameters.
In addition, available technologies and processes are designed to be easy to learn and use, so welding operators can be more quickly trained and on the job. This helps companies expand their skilled labor pool in less time, compete for more jobs and complete projects faster to meet demanding timelines.
A switch to welding processes that make it easier to produce code-quality welds can also result in less scrap related to stub loss and less rework — saving time and money.
For Exterran, a leading provider of natural gas compression solutions around the world, the return on investment in the form of increased productivity and maximized labor hours was swift and significant.
In just the first few months after standardization to new welding machines and advanced wire processes such as modified short-circuit MIG, Exterran saw production and volume grow significantly at its Brittmoore facility in Texas. Overall throughput grew 24 percent (comparing year-over-year numbers) and productivity was up 22 percent — with the same group of employees.
Thanks to this productivity increase, return on investment for the new welding system at the pipe shop was just over two months.
Surpassing production and output targets did not come at the expense of weld quality for Exterran.
The equipment improvements and standardization addressed issues with lack of fusion in the welds the facility had been seeing, leading to a 2 percent improvement in weld passage rates, which are now consistently above 95 percent for the pipe shop.
Just as they did for Exterran, the benefits outlined above can impact the bottom line and differentiate a welding operation, so it can remain competitive in a time of economic difficulties and industry changes.
Consider the Benefits
When a company is open to new technologies and welding processes, it can help them proactively manage critical industry challenges and reap productivity and quality benefits.
Some of the features offered in welding systems with these advanced technologies include point-of-use control; push-button welding parameter adjustment up to 200 ft away from the power source; arc consistency regardless of cable lengths; and advanced welding processes that make it easier for operators to achieve code-quality welds — even in challenging jobsite environments.
In considering these changes, it’s important to work with contractors or internal welding departments to outline a testing plan to ensure quality and productivity goals are achieved. Welding equipment and consumable suppliers can be helpful in the process of considering such an investment. These solutions can help companies better adapt to challenges facing the industry and establish a more productive welding operation.