“You can easily purchase high-performance welding automation “turnkey” without needing in-house welding expertise, because the integrator is “the expert”.” Really? That’s a familiar idea. But is it true, or… is it just a manufacturing management myth?
It’s a MYTH.
Chances of success? Probably less than 10%. That’s how you purchase poor to mediocre welding automation performance, like most of your competition has, which usually produces small profit margins. Is that the solution that will REALLY help you survive and get stronger? If it’s seemed like every launch is a new Vegas gambling junket, you may not be far from the truth: 10% odds on bringing home a profit doesn’t sound very appealing. Still want to try it again?
Instead, why not try the rare “high-profit expertise” approach? Let’s compare. In this valuable article I’ll cover:
- Three Foundational Welding Automation Principles.
- The Two Successful Paths to achieving high-performance welding automation.
- Three classic reasons that welding integration suppliers can rarely deliver world-class “turnkey” welding automation results.
- Five suggestions on how to pick an excellent welding automation designer/integrator and achieve great results.
You buy or create automation for two basic reasons: to improve profit & quality, or because a customer demands it of you for those very reasons. So why not be hugely successful at it? Why not say goodbye to painful, lame launch results? Why not aspire to be so successful in manufacturing automation, that you trounce your competitors? Why shouldn’t one of your biggest challenges be developing strategies to hide how profitable your welding operations are from your nosy customers and envious competitors?
To be most successful in welding automation, the first two questions to ask are “what is our path to the best long-term profits, and what will it take to get us there?” Because I have repeatedly achieved that in complex welding automation, and created cultures of effective Continuous Improvement, I have some solid answers for those questions. But to explain, I need to build the foundational principles – because they are invisible on the radar screen of most company management.
First, let’s realize a simple point: whatever the Pepsi machine says in the display window is how much it costs to get a bottle or can out of the machine. If the goal is high-profitability, high-quality welding automation that gives you a competitive advantage, then there are some coins required to get there. Don’t dare think you can save money by cutting critical “options” from the purchase order: that’s like watching a manager beating on the $1 Pepsi machine and demanding a drink for their customer when they only put in 75 cents. Don’t create such embarrassment… decide upfront to pay the price for success.
Instead of looking for ways to cheat the cost of success, which creates a high risk of project failure or tiny profits, look for low-cost opportunities to innovate and make the automation even more profitable than the proposal said it would be.
Increasingly, companies either turn to the lowest automation bidder or get bid revisions to pull out valuable content… which should be an immediate red flag for lower profitability and higher risk, shouldn’t it? Every “automation house” will tell you their customers like great results but are rarely willing to pay for it. For example, say that smarter content would give them another $35k/yr profit, but the customer’s launch manager “can’t” spend the $6k difference in capital cost that would cost them $50k and a few days of retrofit downtime to upgrade later. Result: the failure to invest $6k becomes a permanent annual loss of $35k in profit.
That’s only a small example that barely scratches the surface, yet three small examples like that would pay the entire cost of a Smart Welding Engineer (SWE), year after year.
Foundational Welding Automation Principle #1:
High Performance World-Class Welding requires the extensive oversight and input of a Smart Welding Engineer.
A great welding engineer works hard and long through the automation launch process while juggling current production needs, because he’s birthing and maturing a baby that he doesn’t want crying in the middle of the night for months. He looks at it from the operator perspective, the quality perspective, the DFSS and DMAIC Control perspective, the profit perspective, and the maintenance tech perspective, keeping in mind the welding physics that must be balanced, controlled and faithfully served in predictive process maintenance. He breathes detailed expertise into the launch so that it will quickly ramp up into a new benchmark for profitability and quality. He knows that a highly successful automation launch will allow his company to leap ahead in profits, gain stature with customers, and have a new vantage point to envision design improvements.
I ran across a thought-provoking article that points to a huge difference in the final implemented profitability of automated systems: how easily do real humans run it at reliably high-efficiency in the challenges of a real production environment? The article is here: The winning team: Men and Machine. Jochem Donkers summarizes the heart of a Gary Kasparov article by saying “average people in combination with machines and good methods of interfacing between computers and people are performing better than the competition.” He also mentions evaluating the superior “interacting approach between human intuition and brute calculating power (Quintiq). The main idea behind this solution was that humans could make changes and see immediate response from the algorithm. This approach facilitates a iterative cycle when it comes to creating schedules and adjusting them when the knowledge of the future becomes more precise or unexpected events occur.”
Donkers was revealing the brilliant profitability strategy of investing in control systems that have been engineered to contain real-time expertise that can deal with all the complex variables that a real expert knows are going to change. Then he summarized in the final paragraph: “Firms that want to lead the industry by creating sustainable competitive advantage need to combine human intuition and creativity and brute computing power to eliminate human errors. Companies that manage to find the right interaction between the two will outperform their competitors that depend solely on humans or computers, or those that depend on the combination but did not manage to get the interaction between the two right.” Exactly. In other words, breathing expertise into a strategic automation system can yield results with a breath-taking competitive advantage when the human interface is well executed.
Applied to welding automation, here’s the point:
Foundational Welding Automation Principle #2:
High-performance automation results (by which I mean consistency in high quality and high profitability) hinge on building (integrating) great expertise into the automation. This takes a Smart Controls Engineer, a sharp robotic integration programmer, and a Smart Welding Engineer working together to select and well-integrate good software with high-performance component systems of superior design. Examples: including invisible expertise to reliably start the arc and to initiate motion only when it’s truly established; combining expertly simplified yet powerful user interfacing with targeted training that teaches operators and technicians clear procedures to use in avoiding (preventing) defects and in easily recovering from all predictable machine and process errors.
Over and over and over, I have seen welding systems or automation results fail in those key areas: activating motion while the arc is still trying to start; interfacing that is confusing; interfacing that fails to provide clear recovery paths for the predictable faults/errors/problems that a true process expert can recognize during concept/design/build; system integration content and/or technical training that falls short of re-establishing controlled quality and functionality prior to producing defective parts; systems that enable the process but do not include process expertise. Point: these issues determine the upper “entitlement” levels of system efficiency, uptime, throughput, cycle-time, COPQ, and sustainable achieved quality.
Hint: creating automation of processes involving highly complex physics and sciences with multiple interactive variables (i.e. welding) without intimately involving a trained and experienced process expert is already doomed to mediocre results in a competitive market! How can the truth be any different? Is that really the kind of welding automation you want and need?
In 20 years I can only think of two successful paths I’ve seen to achieve high-performance world-class welding automation:
- Do your own integration/tooling/systems design and build in-house, led by or intimately involving your best welding engineering talent. (Then use that priceless opportunity to build in “closed-loop” lessons-learned improvements in every new-launch cycle.)
- Outsource the automation based on clear high-performance experience and technical purchase-contract content guided by in-house welding engineering, and task your own excellent in-house welding engineer to work closely with the integrator from the proposal stage through at least 6 months after launch, to make certain that optimal high-performance results are achieved “win-win” for the benefit of your company and the reasonable profit and professional treatment of your integrator/supplier. (Lowest multiple-project cost comes from working closely and efficiently with a great integrator, who can quote lower costs based on lower risks and less unknowns. Downside is that your best talent may be teaching your integrator how to help your competition, if they’ll listen — though they may not.)
To clarify, BOTH of those paths require you to have a good welding engineer on your payroll. Without one, I’ve never seen sustained world-class quality and profitability. I’ve seen some examples of good results, but not fabulous results to their potential, sustained.
Why is it that outside integrators can so rarely deliver true high-performance (world-class) turnkey results in welding automation?
(My apologies to integrators, but I set very high standards.) Three classic causes come to mind:
- Unless they have a really superb degreed welding engineer they can only enable moderate welding results;
- Unless they have a really superb degreed welding engineer with experience in the obstacles and nuances of getting high-performance results on assemblies similar to yours, it’s likely that only your internal expert welding engineer can provide the insights required to get high-performance results on a world-class level.
- Unless you have your own internal Smart Welding Engineer (SWE) who is tasked to ensure great results, you start off crippled.
First, you have no-one charged with identifying the best welding processes and approaches, rather than the approach that “everyone” is probably going to quote because it’s an easier sell of familiar technology. So it’s nearly impossible to successfully identify, approve and implement high-profit innovation.
Second, you have no-one capable of hearing and effectively responding to the integration supplier’s welding concerns & needs during design/build/run-off. Nearly always, this lack will force problems onto the integrator, miss great one-time opportunities, and lock painful-to-mediocre results into your financial and quality metrics.
Third, even if you have a great integration provider who wants to provide and can talk you into a high-quality solution, they’d be reluctant (and maybe nutty) to sell you newer technology that you won’t be willing and able to support: it will run great until you take it over, you’ll cause all your own problems, they’ll take the rap and headaches, and they may not be able to sell you anything else for a long while.
Foundational Welding Automation Principle #3:
Mediocre Inputs = Mediocre Output.
Without either internal or external welding expertise, the welding processes will be chosen on the basis of familiarity rather than profitability, the inherent process limitations/capabilities of the welding equipment will be chosen by the most successful salesmen, and the output results of the input variables will be whatever someone’s guesses give you. Doesn’t that sound like a perfect recipe for stressful, mediocre results? And yet if it’s “running good”, everyone will believe the process has been “optimized”!
Next, after 12-24 months of production results convince you that improvement should be possible, try making it a Six Sigma project and let them struggle and bog down without a welding process expert. (Remember that involving a process expert is a key foundational requirement for a SS team.) They’ll take too long to make a few small incremental improvements, then everyone will ponder why the improvements have vanished in 6 months. Once again, the cost of that SS team project would have paid for a SWE.
If you feel your guys are “pretty good” at welding so you “don’t need a real welding engineer”, you’re mistaken. Being “pretty good” or having “lots of experience” is the equivalent of substituting tribal knowledge for science, or an Excel class for an MBA. Tribal mythology can never make up for the foundational lack of 3,000-4,000 hours in formal welding science training that an engineer has in those highly complex processes. That’s a mistake your mediocre competitors also believe: you’ll find critical perspectives here in Beyond Welding Divas to World-Class Success – Why 15 years of welding doesn’t make a Welding Engineer. It’s also a mistake that a trusted integrator might strongly encourage, so that they can manipulate you for highest pocketed profits rather than selling or delivering what’s best for your company.
If you have a good welding engineer but don’t trust him enough to ask, listen and back him up, then you are probably wrong on one of two counts: either you didn’t hire a Smart Welding Engineer, or you are not willing to trust welding decisions to your welding expert. Which one is your case, and what actions do you need to take to fix the problem before your profits suffer for it?
What about the difference between 2-yr A.S. and 4-yr B.S. Welding (or Materials Joining) Engineers? A.S. degrees are good for hands-on welding environments and can enable, sustain or manage established welding automation, but the B.S. degrees weave welding physics and basics on the other engineering disciplines into the picture, providing the deeper insights and broader viewpoints that are usually required to launch high-performance welding automation or achieve it through incremental continuous improvement.
What if you have looming deadlines, no welding engineer, and you need to pick a welding integrator that will deliver great results? Automation readers please add to this in the comments, but here are my Top 5 suggestions:
- If at all possible, start the process to hire a really good, sharp welding engineer. Study How to Hire the Welding Engineer You Really Need and Welding Engineer Salary Compensation Data to get the ball rolling. Why? Because your core business is selling your expertise at manufacturing welded assemblies. Am I right? Fact: the most complex processes in industry are the welding processes. How’s your core competency doing in your most central, most critical technologies? There’s product design engineering, but also process design engineering and continuous process improvement. Do you see how you can blow the doors off your competition if you start engineering your most complex manufacturing processes?
- Put together a clear results list of the measurables you want to accomplish and put in the RFQ and purchase agreement, and discuss them with the integration companies you’re considering. Pick their brains for ideas and suggestions, too. Understand fully what the quotes include. Get everything you want down clearly on paper then do a revised RFQ so that the quotes are all apples-to-apples. You may be surprised to find that the “expensive Cadillac cell” from the seasoned strong-reputation integrator is suddenly among the lowest bids.
- Ask each potential integrator for a list of the welding experience and welding education, and controls experience and education of their people, by name, who would work on the project. This can reveal more than you’d imagine. Some recent conversations have made me wonder if a quiet new trend might be coming: integrators hiring customer-seasoned high-performance welding engineers to maximize welding automation, rather than using techs or hiring and teaching recent W.E. graduates to program robots.
- Ask the potential integrator which key subsystem brands and models they would recommend for best performance on the project, and why. Specifically, which robot packages, and which welding technologies and welding systems. Why do they recommend them? No, really. Why? Welding system design & performance determines most of the risk for some major groups of weld defects. Is there another system that could give you a better competitive advantage for this application and your targets? Could they work with you to send parts to the two or three most likely welding system suppliers, and robot companies, to see what the cycle times and weld quality would look like, and what actual results the welding equipment manufacturer would agree to live up to? (Get it? You’re after real dollar-value performance that’s proven in your application – not content from the sales guy who talks the smoothest or who the integrator gets the big yearly volume discount bonus from.)
- Give your best people a top priority to handle the critical project meetings: the final concept review, the kickoff GD&T/tooling/gauging review meeting to ensure coordinated content, the initial welding tooling design meeting, the final tooling design review and signoff, the functional tooling review (90% complete), the HMI operator/maintenance screen content and layout, as many intermediate offline programming review and automation build review meetings as the integrator requests (at least two prior to a pre-runoff visit), planning meeting for systems training for welding techs, maintenance and operators, and about three system performance review gates after installation and through ramp-up. To the extent that your company “blows off” those or can’t imagine what to do in such meetings, you kiss away the “high” in “high performance”.
If all of that sounds like you badly need a Smart Welding Engineer, you’re seeing the light. (And I bet you know someone else who should read this.) If it sounds like ridiculously detailed overkill, perhaps the masterminding of thousands of details is why I’ve been able to consistently set new industry benchmark standards for welding automation performance, sustained at levels of dramatic improvement and large profit margins using detailed procedures and customized training. If you think you can’t hire because you’re trying to cut costs, that’s slow-motion suicide – I recommend a profit approach.
Why make the same classic “turnkey” mistakes in purchasing welding automation… mistakes that many of your competitors are still making? The rare high-profit expertise approach will deliver a level of success that the “low-cost” turnkey myth never can.
Brian Dobben – WeldSparks.