If you manufacture welded assemblies, it’s no longer optional to be excellent in the welding processes. You’ll have to move quickly toward welding excellence to survive.
The business reality is that welding is – by far – your most complex process, involving more sciences and physics and variables than anything else you have. So no matter how good he is, your non-welding-engineer probably cannot enable you to survive. He certainly can’t enable you to take leadership in your manufacturing segment. If you’re going to make money in today’s flailing manufacturing economy, you must understand what your UWE is capable of vs what he is not capable of, and limit him to appropriate roles and authority. How do you do that? By hiring the real expertise that’s needed to guide him, further develop him, protect you from the self-serving interests of your supplier salesmen, and fill your profit gaps before you drown in red ink and close your doors.
But how? You don’t have 5 years to find your way across the financial desert by trial and error. How can you quickly make the critical changes you need without splitting your tribal welding culture into factions warring and squealing for authority and recognition? For 20 years I didn’t have a solid plan to answer that question. Now I finally do.
Here’s my answer, what I believe is the pivotal “missing key”: You need to define to your organization what a core-technology structure of excellence has to look like, and specifically explain the tiered functional capabilities and roles of operators, technicians, A.S. engineering techs, and B.S. engineers. (What!? Hang on – just give me two minutes and I’ll make sense of it.)
Operators – they efficiently run machines that make quality assemblies.
Learning curve: 6 weeks to 6 months.
Welding Technicians – they maintain the machines and processes by following written PM and machine recovery procedures they’ve been trained on, which re-establish optimal welding conditions and parameters.
Qualifications: Experience, training, testing, and aptitude.
Learning curve: 6 to 18 months.
A.S. Welding Engineering Techs – these lead techs represent strong hands-on welding training and experience that can quickly capture the respect of welding techs. They also have the strength and depth to work with or manage welding system maintenance personnel, and can quickly and accurately troubleshoot many welding process or equipment problems.
Qualifications: Graduate of a formal 2-year program of intensive hands-on training in welding, fabrication, tools, inspection and quality, with some light scientific foundation.
Learning curve: 10 to 24 months
B.S. Welding Engineers – Hired for their demonstrated achievements of expertise and welding culture leadership, they are able to stabilize, optimize, and continually improve processes by a process of establishing procedures for process recovery, process PM and process change, and training techs. Further, they should be working with the quoting and design and integrator teams to improve the processes and launches right up front, committed to putting “lessons learned” right into the next launches to continually make them better. Once a good process expertise team is trained on procedures, they will have more time to devote to achieving “closed-loop” excellence in the new-product launch process. In time they’ll also be able to identify the design weaknesses in welding equipement that’s responsible for some downtime and/or welding quality problems, and to investigate and select updated welding technologies and equipment with superior performance.
Qualifications: 4 to 5 years of formal engineering education from one of the nation’s three programs, studying the sciences and physics of fluid dynamics, chemistry, materials, manufacturing methods and processes, industrial efficiency, structural design and stress, controls, electricity, electronics and heat transfer, which includes 3,000 to 4,000 hours of welding-specific training in metallurgy, weld testing, quality, processes, process control, techniques, training, and specifications.
Learning curve in your culture/environment: 18 to 36 months depending on experience and roles.
Now, there’s some overlap there between A.S. and B.S. Welding Engineering capabilities that you’ll need to sort out based on your industry, products and operations. So don’t take that overview as an absolute map. But here’s the point, and why I believe this may be the missing key in welding manufacturing:
Most manufacturing cultures today have completely lost all comprehension of what roles and functions that the process tech, engineering tech, and engineer fill in a company. Think your company doesn’t suffer from that? Maybe it MOSTLY doesn’t, but a chain or team is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Fourteen months after “implementing” new standards for “effective weld length” to make us more profitable, and training all the operators, we found that the supervisors and quality techs were ignoring the new standards and still requiring longer welds. The disconnect was based entirely on a 16 month old e-mail that the president sent after a UWE heard a rumor of the coming change and asked for his uninformed opinion.
Without explanation of these differences in functional roles and educational training, welding cultures easily grow to assume that what separates these three groups is mainly the “expertise” of experience and who trusts them or drinks with them after hours. But more problematic is the issue of welding authority. Accomplished or established cultures of welding quality will NOT transfer welding authority to anyone unless it is officially and clearly instructed by company management AND makes sense to them. How do you argue with well-intentioned people who are intent on protecting quality and profitability? To be effective and rapid, the transfer of welding process authority has to done by the recognized executive officer, accompanied by an explanation that is based on both scientific education and experience, not one or the other.
One degreed welding engineer with over 10 years experience in welding and maintenance was told that his year there wasn’t long enough to be qualified, and that the lead welding tech had the authority because he had worked about eight years to get where he was, rather than take the “easy route” of getting a degree and having someone hand them a position. We were stunned speechless, as if we had suddenly stepped into a welding “twilight zone”: their viewpoint was so surreal that we shook our heads for days, frustrated, with no idea how to frame a gracious response – much less change the culture.
In an environment of false assumptions, welding is a world of tribal knowledge and tribal elders that can be uncomfortably similar to the “Survivor” TV series. That’s why finally having a solid explanation is so liberating: it throws facts on the table, lays a practical and scientific foundation for organizational structure, gets you out of the hot-seat in tribal disagreements over the omen of a shooting star, and enables you to start putting together a cohesive high-performance team.
OK. So you’ve explained that to your welding department, and visually mapped it out for them. That’s your new foundation to build on. Now you can bring most of your team on board and launch visionary change by repeating a simple explanation several times over many months as you introduce new phases / changes / improvements with your SWE (Smart Welding Engineer). It goes something like this:
“We want to not only survive this economy, but to build financial strength in the company through high quality and high profitability. This plan will strengthen our core competencies by strengthing our teams’ scientific knowledge in each of our most critical processes. That will enable us to perform at levels of quality and efficiency that we’ve never been able to reach or sustain. We need to develop more technical expertise in our stamping, our bending, and our (etc) operations as well, but ultimately we’re selling our expertise at making welded assemblies, and welding is our most complex process. So you are the key. This is a great plan for all of you, because it allows you to do what you’re best at while having a chance to grow further than you could before, but without management expecting things from you that you have never been trained or equipped to do.
It’s great that these changes won’t be easy or comfortable. It’s great that they take wisdom, expertise, cooperation, and determination to develop a high-performance team. Why? Because almost none of our competitors will be strengthening their core technical expertise like this. Very few of them are capable of it. But I believe you are. And that’s why we’re going to win.”