On Shoulders of Giants – Part 1

Brian Dobben, a Welding Engineer… extraordinaire?

For over a decade I’ve puzzled over the enigma of my exceptional welding engineering abilities. But finally, it’s come into focus. Like a turtle on top of a fence-post, despite exceptional accomplishments past, present and yet to come, one certainty remains about the turtle and I: we didn’t get here on our own.   I stand on the shoulders of giants, and have been gifted with legacies and opportunities that are truly rare. I want to pay public homage here to that heritage, to those giants and those gifts, and perhaps find some way to “pay them forward” with greater effect to the next generation.

Chrysler Tower at Headquarters

While anyone can find value in what I’m about to share, if your company manufactures welded assemblies I hope you’ll leverage the next five minutes to begin dramatic improvements in your company – on a legacy level.

Four years ago, I was leaving my post as Senior Welding Engineer for Arc Welding and Brazing at Chrysler Headquarters. Embarking on a new adventure with less snow, to be paid closer to market value, and hoping to save another company from the stagnant or downward-spiral finances of welding science ignorance, I received an unexpected gift that altered me in slow motion. It began to put my many talents and frustrations into perspective – things I had long struggled over.

Joe Beckham, Head of Welding Engineering at Chrysler, said he wanted me to understand and keep some things in mind as I left: “you need to give yourself more credit – you are far better than you think you are.”  That stopped me.

Joe is a man who is tactfully, kindly firm whenever he needs to be, yet I never saw him arrogant or condescending. He wraps himself in sincere, honest integrity, and has learned how to live life in a full balance. In my 15 years in automotive welding engineering, I never met his equal in gifted, brilliant, world-class welding engineering excellence.

Within the group of men who I call my brothers, we would say that Joe offers and carries well the glory of God’s giftings that reside in him. We each aspire to do the same, and it’s astounding to begin seeing who we really are designed to be, and to encourage and watch one another grow weighty in that knowledge and journey. We have learned firsthand that every man who comes alive carries a weight of glory. It’s both a kingly gift and an assignment to live out, and it benefits himself, his family and his employer as he learns to push fear aside and become that man.

Brian with Joe Beckham, Head of Welding Engineering, Chrysler headquarters

Most likely, a confused, doubtful look on my face prompted Joe to explain the 18+ month search to fill my now-open position, with roughly a dozen onsite interviews including Masters and PHD candidates… “You were the first and only candidate that our interview team looked around the table at each another and said ‘yes, this guy could actually do this job.”’ To paraphrase his other comments, I was highly competent and yet secure in what I don’t know. So when results are important I do not guess or pretend to know, but I dig to evaluate every control variable, testing and collaborating to find needed answers. That contrasted with candidates who regarded quick, confident close-enough replies as more important than factual data and accurate assessment, who might later consider trajectory, destination and results. (Joe emphasized that such approaches and/or inflated egos rendered most of the candidates unsuitable for senior engineering positions.)

I was both surprised and puzzled by Mr Beckham’s comments. My puzzlement served as a weak acid that slowly dissolved a decade of my dismissive assumptions that encased the unexamined core of my identity. In slow motion his words drove and persuaded me to pursue a rational explanation for my long track record of repeatedly superior “gold-medal-level” capabilities, and to seriously assess the implications.

Conclusion #1 from these four years of contemplation:

My long record of welding engineering excellence and superior 30% – 3,000% better performance results – across a broad span of industries and welding processes – can be attributed to a combination of unique aptitudes that were awoken during exceptional and rare cross-disciplinary engineering training, and were catalyzed and molded by opportunities to work alongside and glean from remarkable welding science giants of two previous generations – some posthumously.

From high school I chose LeTourneau University (then “college”) to pursue a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering Technology, then added another fascinating year-and-a-half for Welding Engineering Technology. Apparently I was drawn to add welding engineering out of having excellent aptitudes for welding processes, that were kindled in Introduction to Welding.  Since the class was required for every freshman engineer, I didn’t realize the extreme rarity of degreed Welding Engineers, nor that LeTourneau was the most balanced hands-on/brains-on training between the three ABET accredited Welding Engineering programs. (Our disciplines have since been rebranded as Materials Joining Engineering at OSU and LeT-U, and now include joining plastics and ceramics.)

W.E. Historical Gold-Nugget: I attended LeT-U during Bill Kielhorn’s tenure.  One of the early giants in welding engineering education, Bill was rooted in what R.G. LeTourneau established, as the “Dean” of the earthmoving industry.  LeTourneau’s personal use and early adoption of arc-welding processes in the 30’s literally forced his entire industry to shift to welded construction or go out of business, in an era when all of industry thought welding was a weird scientist geek-topic that would never see significant industrial use. Thus the first Welding Engineering degrees were established at LeTourneau University (across the street from the main LeTourneau plant) and the Ohio State University in the late 1940’s, followed by Ferris State. Over 95% of degreed welding engineers in the market come from these three schools. Of OSU and LeT-U, only LeTourneau was able to retain W.E. program content and experienced guidance that was rooted in robustly practical manufacturing welding engineering, and which still successfully forges the mental links in graduates between the sciences and the observed arc… most of the time.

Out of LeTourneau University, I was hired in 1988 by Karl Weinshreider – the Southeastern region sales manager for L-TEC Welding and Cutting Systems. This was more immensely important and profound than I could have ever imagined, which hints at why those experiences need significant explanation.

L-TEC was formerly the welding equipment and materials division of Linde Union Carbide that UC spun off in 1986. Some of what I learned with L-Tec was purposeful training, mentoring and collaborative invention – influences which are more easily identified. But some of what I learned came tangentially, through review of ancient training manuals and documented knowledge, flowing from the engineers and scientists who invented plasma welding, plasma cutting, Heliarc (GTAW), and SAW (concurrently with LECO).

Then those who they mentored came behind them to incrementally expand the welding equipment designs and process capabilities. I worked with several of that generation, and those they trained/mentored. The legendary Digipulse pulsed-MIG system was fielded by these most notable men whom I worked with and have detailed at the end of this article: Bill Dorsey, an Electrical Engineer brilliant in applied welding science; Ted Toth, a quiet immigrant genius who masterminded the Digipulse 450 legacy; and Joe Devito, a hands-on welder/instructor/trainer/lab developer.

Each of us contributed in our own ways to the continuous improvement of the Digipulse system and the Digipulse Automatic Control.  Considered by many to be the best pulsed-GMAW system on the globe, it remained my benchmark standard and endured a long sundown during the 2000-2010 era while it was progressively outclassed in external control interfacing and connectivity options, rather than welding performance.

W.E. Technical Sidenote:  The earliest example of my professional development with L-TEC left its legacy in the millions of upright washing machines which are so familiar in North America. They were made I believe well past 2000, (with examples still finding their way into junkyards today), because their commercial design viability was closely linked to the GE electric motor factory at Murfreesboro where Bill and I, and Mike Whitten, installed the first Digipulse Automatic (DA) systems in 1988 – 1989. In each washer motor’s final construction step, four systems welded two sets of four simultaneous vertical plug welds (torches horizontal) about every 5 – 7 seconds.

We tuned the pulse waveform and perfected the DA system control-logic loops and 3/4 second weld sequence to meet GE’s need for precisely uniform welds made exactly simultaneously, every single time, with nearly zero spatter. And they delivered – because of painstakingly detailed attention to every Digipulse design element and every weld-parameter variable. Duplicating this setup on three more motor manufacturing cells became exceptionally profitable for GE due to shorter cycletime, 80% less process downtime, and roughly 95% drops in rejects/scrap. Digipulse-welded motors also delivered miniscule warranty failure rates and exceptionally longer service life due to minimal generation of only non-adhering micro-spatter, with rare spatter intrusion into the windings and bearings, and with low post-weld misalignment stresses. These direct and indirect Digipulse performance advantages greatly expanded the motor’s product design lifecycle.

For the first year I ran the regional Birmingham demo lab and training center, while working more and more in the field.  Altogether during those years with L-TEC, I visited roughly 350 shops & plants across 7 states, in an intense blend of surveying manufacturing processes, conducting training, developing pulse waveforms, writing analytical reports and collaborating in evaluating best options, then implementing solutions and optimizing the improvements. Across a broad span of most metal product manufacturing industries, I saw more variants on how to do and definitely not do welding processes than I could ever remember. And, occasionally, I saw some small flashes of homegrown brilliance.

The three things I most enjoyed with L-TEC and became very adept at, were: troubleshooting complex welding process problems that had defied all available expertise; taking a poor or mediocre welding process and optimizing it for high performance; and providing plant-wide surveys of existing welding processes, with advice for substantial improvements in welding quality and profitability.

Highlight Example: Kenny Lofton (originally with Nordan-Smith Welding Supplies) insisted when we spoke years later that I was a household name in the Siemen’s transformer plant near Jackson, MS, as the legend who saved them from closure: after they acknowledged my simpler advice was quite good, they finally applied the crucial advice that was championed by the only welder I trained on a single Digipulse welding system. Their primary welding problems and efficiency losses were reduced 85-95%, exactly as I had absurdly predicted, and profitability skyrocketed.

Yet throughout my time at L-TEC and its ownership transition and rebranding into ESAB N.A., I was naively oblivious to the magnitude of the knowledge I was absorbing and the breadth and depth of skills that I was developing in welding sciences, filler metals, hardware design, control logic and algorithms, troubleshooting, optimization and creative analysis and resolution.

I imagined that this was all normal excellence in manufacturing processes, equipment design improvement and welding engineering. I thought I was merely helping the minority of facilities who had inadequate exposure, to understand the high value and mission-critical need for welding science expertise, and to learn how to select welding equipment based not on brand or salesman personality, but on capabilities, features and  robustness of performance that were purposefully infused into the equipment with process mastery – as early forms of artificial intelligence and neural net logic algorithms. How naïve I was!

In reality, as I was told years later by at least two seasoned welding distributor professionals, I was the ONLY degreed welding engineer in the field nationwide from ANY welding equipment and/or materials manufacturer… EVER.  Even with that surprising revelation, the ramifications didn’t dawn on me – I never realized that I was easily seeing in minutes what others couldn’t see in weeks, and easily doing what “couldn’t be done” because I had seen and done more, and been mentored at more length with more expertise, than perhaps the combined entire career spans of ten typical welding engineers.

A decade later I was doing multi-week,  head-to-head performance comparisons of the competitive flagship P-GMAW systems from various equipment OEMs which were retrofit into production on automated welding systems.  During those comparisons I finally realized that welding equipment brands and machines are NOT interchangeably equivalent in excellence of system design and the embedded AI process expertise which determine actual performance.  FAR from it!  Some were no better than 10-year old designs, most were slightly better, and one produced a 70-80% reduction in COPQ metrics including weld scrap, weld repair, and spatter generation.

Professor Kielhorn’s stated assurance that “all the manufacturers make good welding machines” was somewhat accurate for transformer machines, but modern inverters are software driven.  Consequently, they will never perform at any level higher than they are purposefully programmed to provide.  I found that every inverter system design required detailed evaluation in order to accurately assess and project performance capabilities, and to identify content that would “clearly” deliver poor, mediocre, equivalent or superior performance.

Since then I’ve often been frustrated that so few engineers understand the “obvious” disparities in welding system designs.  Equally frustrating, my benchmarking of best-designed performance was often derided on the user side as “bias” toward a brand or brands, and on the OEM equipment side my efforts and offers to help OEM’s improve their product design performance were typically dismissed or ignored. How can this be?

After ESAB attained Airco, my position was eliminated in the trimming of the 30% lowest seniority among the combined field staff. This opened an opportunity to leverage the customer recommendations I had made for welding processes and equipment to optimize plant expansion results for a new line of commercial stainless steamer/ovens. My new employer was a crucial opportunity that shaped my full span of process capabilities.

I spec’d equipment, guided installation, interviewed and trained two shifts of welders, and developed ISO documented welding procedures for resistance seam, nut, spot and projection welding, CD stud welding, plasma welding and pulsed MIG.  These intensely challenging experiences forced me to learn more on deeper levels, and especially to develop intimate familiarity with RW controls and every type of RW schedule approach.  Customers expected minimal to zero reverse-side marking on finely brushed or mirror-polished stainless, and I was under pressing launch deadlines to support major industry tradeshow product rollouts.

But how did I learn Resistance Welding?  Not on my own.  Rex Young with T.J. Snow was an invaluable asset in countless ways, and a great professional mentor. While in more recent years he strikes a pose as having limited capabilities, Rex showed me the ropes of available electrodes and holder configurations, and taught me how to construct effective resistance welding schedules. Then as I struggled with the challenges of reverse “show-side” marking, Rex gave me the information I needed to piece together balanced solutions to deliver strong projection welds on large nuts while having little or no “show-side” marking on thin gauge, polished stainless steel.

What a welding engineer can deliver in the profitability of process excellence is largely based on his functional interactive puzzle – his working model – that he has built within his mind for that specific welding process. And so it is that everything I’ve accomplished in the broad Resistance Welding category rests on the foundation that Rex helped build in my mind. Certainly there is complex excellence which I’ve built on that foundation, far beyond Rex’s input.  This was enabled, I believe, not by aptitudes alone but in combination with the detailed scientific foundations I gained at LeTourneau and L-TEC.

Continued in Part 2.

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