Manufacturing Executives – What is Your Most Complex Process?

October 29, 2012

If your manufacturing production process includes welding assemblies together, here’s a valuable challenge. If you think it’s exaggeration to claim that arc welding is the most complex process in your plant, humor me for just one paragraph.  I bet you can’t name one other non-welding industrial process in your operations that is as complex as the most common arc-welding process: GMAW (Gas Metal Arc Welding, or MIG/MAG). GMAW (“MIG”) includes at least 13 variables, of which most are interactive with multiple other variables, and it joins metal via an open electric arc that creates simultaneous multi-phase high-speed transitions between solid, liquid, gaseous and plastic states to form 3-dimensional weld penetration profiles with various chemistries and conflicting/competing grain structures which have widely varying impacts on physical and chemical properties.

Think about it. Ask your engineering manager about it. Is there any process more complex?  Stamping? No. Extrusion molding? Nope. Machining? No again.

Are you convinced yet?  If so, here’s a question that’s likely worth a decade of your career:  how is your company doing in hiring, empowering and leveraging expertise in welding sciences to create a formidable level of competitive advantage and profitability?

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The Top Two Welding Excellence Obstacles in US Manufacturing

April 4, 2012

Does your company want the profitability and competitive advantage of welding excellence?  What’s standing in the way?  Two years ago I started a survey poll asking manufacturing welding engineers “what do you think are the Top 2 biggest obstacles to welding excellence in American manufacturing, in the facilities you are personally familiar with?”

Many welding engineers responded, and here were the top answers as of April 4, 2012:

 20%     Staff don’t support weld requirements, and force upstream problems on welding.

20%     Poor welding process knowledge in the design team.

15%     Unqualified people dictate process without honoring Welding Engineering expertise.

14%     Manufacturing welded assemblies with NO degreed welding engineer.

7%       Welding Engineers lack time/support to find and justify the best solutions.

5%       The Manufacturer is too intently managing the economic death of the plant to invest and save it.

 (In general, most WE’s picked at least one of the top two answers, then their second pick ranged among the other choices. The other answers received only one or two votes. You can see them in the poll.)

It follows logically from this survey that if you want to remove obstacles and create welding excellence in your company, that those issues must be addressed.

Additional “gold” came in the comments responding to the poll, which I’ve added below. A key point for me is that because welding is the most complex process, it requires core expertise that can reach to the upper echelons of the company: the need is just as valid as for Tool and Die, or Quality, or OP Ex, or for Information Technology.  Even Six Sigma Blackbelts fall flat on their DMAIC’s when it’s a welding process project, yet when a Smart Welding Engineer is unleashed… the problem is quickly resolved.

The Title and corresponding role of “Welding Engineer” is far too limited in most company structures to enable excellence in welding processes. How many companies have a Director of Welding Technologies, or a Manufacturing Welding Engineering Manager? Very few. They are just as rare as the highly profitable welding operations they could produce.

Poll Comments: Read the rest of this entry »


The Welding Eye in Team

April 25, 2010

How Sharp are Your Team's Eyes?

How do you get welding excellence in new-product-launch in manufacturing?  Skilled contributors working with great teamwork. But what does that mean, and how does it work? Everyone has heard “there is no “I” in TEAM”. Still, every team member is an Individual. The “I” that counts most is the “eye” that team members have for real teamwork. They need a good “eye” for how they view themselves, their team, and their roles.

The critical part of the “eye” in team leadership is what John Maxwell calls the single most important factor in high-performance teams: The Law of the Niche, third of the 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork. The Law of the Niche says that every player on a team has a place where they add the most value. Their niche position takes advantage of a blend of their greatest skills.

I love producing exceptionally profitable high-quality results in manufacturing, and am keenly aware that it takes a great team. Exceptional welding automation is NEVER produced by a jack-of-all-trades engineer, nor by a micro-manager who dictates everything, nor by a talented robotic programmer whose ego ignores the input of a degreed welding engineer. Exceptional welding automation is produced by individuals with respect for each other’s niche skills in tooling, controls, and welding expertise, who are focused on exceptional results.

Legends of Welding Excellence and Teamwork

This welding engineering team developed and conducted several waves of a fantastic 4-week training program for robotic welding techs, covering process theory, troubleshooting, manual welding skills, PM’s, procedures, “crash” recovery, programming and “ninja” robot optimization secrets. Results were world-class because every W.E. played niche roles in different training segments, or covered for others. (Left to right above: Nick Perry, Mike Walther, Bill Stevens, Nick & Mrs. Erchak, Gerald Dunnigan, Jared Wilson, Brian Dobben, plus  Travis Sands and a couple of “top gun” robot integration programmers you don’t see)

Exceptional teams cultivate the “eyes” of the individual team members. Each member needs a realistic awareness of their niche skills, and a respect for the niche skills of their teammates. There’s room for pride and excellence in skills, because members know the excellent contributions of their unique skills are wanted and needed by the team. There is also freedom to learn from each other, to ask for help in weak areas, and to rely on others strengths.

A major team pitfall is not recognizing and valuing skills and weaknesses. Which expertise niches do team members bring, and not bring, to the team?

Drop pretense, and play to strengths. By consistently passing the ball to the person who is best able in that moment’s situation to move toward scoring, a team will consistently get high-performance results. By neglecting to help egotistical ball-hogs use the team’s skills, even teams with good athletes will consistently struggle and score low.

Just as you buy a drill to make holes, you buy welding automation to make welded products. It is crucial to realize that welding: is the core process;  is typically the most complex process in the plant; only welds like an expert when it is taught by highly trained experts.

To excel, every essential portion of a welding automation project must faithfully serve both the physics of the core process, and the end-goal of profitable stability and quality in production. Elegant simplicity and robustly profitable quality are hallmarks of automation excellence.  As leader of the core process, the Smart Welding Engineer is responsible to convey those process needs to the controls and tooling, and call the process shots as the welding quarterback.

And yet, every team-member is like the turtle on the fencepost, who didn’t get there on his own.

Brian Dobben


Top 10 Strategies for Expensive Welding Automation

April 11, 2010

It seems some companies love expensive low-profit welding automation.  Two frequent ops approaches are substituting myths for facts, and not allowing a welding expert to make welding decisions. Here are my Top 10 Production Management Strategies for Expensive Welding Automation in the manufacturing plant:

  1. “Just run it – that’s why we have weld repair”
  2. “Anyone in maintenance is qualified to adjust welds”
  3. “We can’t get time for PM’s” (we’ll take downtime instead)
  4. “We had to postpone weld training to save money”
  5. “If the weld fixture won’t run the parts, just shim it.”
  6. “We need to find the welding guy [engineer] something to do: he spends too much time standing around doing nothing” (except watching the processes to engineer and plan improvements)
  7. “We ordered cheaper weld wire to save money”
  8. “Quit complaining – just weld the parts” (out of spec)
  9. “Welding is simple – we don’t need experts: we have suppliers who need to earn their keep”
  10. “Don’t worry – the customer hasn’t complained”

(OK, yes, those are actual quotes from production management staff.)

I’m sure you’ve heard some “whoppers” – please share them in the comments so we can all moan and laugh! (And we can send a link here when we hear a “brilliant” welding management strategy suggested.)


Turnkey Illusions – How to Avoid Pitfalls When Outsourcing Welding Automation

April 6, 2010

“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?Robot in welding integration

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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Weaknesses in Integrating Welding Systems with Robots

March 26, 2010

“What is expected of a welding inverter” in order to be able to interact with a robot?  Common, logical questions for a welding equipment marketing guy, right? In a recent robotic welding group forum, Mr. Chinoy, the marketing manager of a welding equipment company, also asked “what parameters are required to integrate GMAW (MIG) equipment to the robot control panel”, besides wire feed speed and voltage? I answered those. And yet, hidden under the tip of that question like the 90% of an underwater iceberg, is the real question of ship-sinking power: what welding system interfacing and content will really earn the respect and repeat business of an end-user customer? Let’s do something stunning, and talk about that far bigger question too!

The answers depend on both your target business segment, and your company’s long-term goals as a welding equipment manufacturer. Many welding equipment companies design and launch a new machine every 3 years.  They just answer the obvious visible/functional questions.  One company chose to put out a pulse-MIG inverter that has been in continuous production for over 20 yrs, and has been the “king” not only of Electric Boat but the Korean shipyards for over a decade. In fact, older system versions can typically be upgraded to latest performance or customized waveform combinations with a simple plug-in EPROM chip swapout.

Why such content & success with the Digipulse (Automatic) system?  Simple – they answered the big hidden questions, and applied the hard yet hidden expertise required in order to faithfully serve the arc physics as well as the customer’s real needs and desires. How could they design that content back when welding robots were nearly non-existent? Because “hard-tooled” PLC-interfaced welding automation has essentially the same basic performance and interfacing needs as a robot. That can be shown by taking the unusual step of putting a robotic MIG process “fishbone” diagram together.

I’ve put a GMAW fishbone below (a W.E./SSBB project collaboration). It’s still hard to read when you click on it, and it doesn’t touch on the welding system design or integration content. But, it does show the overall process complexity and provides a starting point to consider welding system design and integration needs in order to consistently deliver perfect weld quality.

GMAW Process Fishbone

GMAW Process Automated Welding Fishbone

Take arc-starting and arc-established signals, for example. A manual welder is going to automatically compensate for an occasional poor arc-start. It doesn’t matter. But consider the dramatic difference in welding automation: when the torch travel in automation must rely on a signal to begin, aren’t the quality and cost implications much more dramatic and far-reaching than what most welding equipment manufacturers have been prepared to admit? This is only one piece of the automation puzzle, but it’s both critical and badly neglected.

The common minimalist approach is to provide a feedback signal during active welding, a “system ready” signal, an error output signal to indicate the system is in a fault state and unable to weld, and maybe a system-reset input. Many welding systems just provide those minimums, as “add-on” content to enable manual welding systems to go on a robot.

The problem from there is that many end users expect (at least eventually) to get high-performance welding automation results.  Of course that doesn’t happen, then everyone points a finger of blame at someone else, and if the customer succeeds in identifying the true welding-system design and/or integration weakness using many examples and actual real-time recorded data, the company responsible (such as Panasonic did, twice) might simply shrug and say “it welds good most of the time”.  Of course it does. But it’s also incapable of delivering world-class performance, simply because it’s not designed to.   Read the rest of this entry »


Poll – Biggest Obstacle to American Welding Excellence

March 14, 2010

Welding (or Materials Joining) Engineers, please vote on our latest poll, or view the results so far:

What do you think are the Top 2 biggest obstacles to welding excellence in American manufacturing, in the facilities you are personally familiar with?

(For Qualified Voters: Please, only vote if you are functionally experienced and/or titled and/or degreed as a welding or materials joining engineer, and have at least a Bachelor of Science degree in an Engineering discipline.  Everyone else, feel free to view the results.)

Remember to pick the Top Two obstacles!  [4/6/10 added two new choices to the bottom, by W.E. suggestion.]

See all of our Welding and Manufacturing Polls here.