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.)


Cutting Costs or Slow-Motion Suicide

January 28, 2010

What factors cause business failure? Certainly there are many external burdens such as our draconian corporate taxes and regulation that depresses American companies against foreign competitors who pay little or no taxes.  But beyond that, America has a wildly popular and successful internal business management recipe for putting our own companies out of business: shift focus from getting more profitable, to “cutting costs”.

It’s a subtle yet critical difference.  “Cutting costs” seems harmless and sounds sooo responsible.  But it tends to ignore the value and necessity of essential core technical expertise and instead mislabels them as financial liabilities that could be trimmed.  Is it a matter of ignoring, or of ignorance?  Instead of pressing groups for ideas and project execution to improve profits, they press for input on which essential business functions to cut. The mantra is usually “we all hate to do this, but we don’t have any choice.”  The result of this lose-lose is a painful decision to eliminate the very expertise that drives the effectiveness of Continuous Improvement, visionary process quoting, training, process stability, IT systems, and much more.  In short, it creates a top-down management culture of plant-closing through “slow-motion-suicide”.

In a superb article, noted industry expert and author  Bob Sproull summarized it like this: “It was also evident that operating expense had a functional lower limit, and once you hit it, you could actually do more harm than good to the organization by reducing it further.”

I’m not talking about whether you can trim your controls engineers from four to three positions.  I’m talking about trimming from two to one, or even eliminating the position completely – without any analysis of the ROI of value-added cost-reduction projects, or of the critical production support roles that could double or triple downtime and late shipments because of the six dozen automated systems out there on the plant floor. Sounds crazy because it is, but some company executives are crazy enough to do it.

Unfortunately, if you embrace a path that cuts the costs of the assets that produce income, you are essentially downsizing the future profitability of the company.  Cutting profit-generators will make it impossible to remain competitive: the company will  go out of business.  I hope my thoughts can spark a good discussion and some effective ways to recognize and resist these suicidal business practices in your company.

One example of this is the trend I’ve noticed toward trying to hire “jack-of-all-trades” engineers.  They want a trained engineer who works like a tech (“hands on”, “bias toward action”) and yet can do CAD drafting, IE functions, Six Sigma, Lean, PLC programming, robot programming, welding systems, program launch management, capital appropriations requests, and executive powerpoint presentations.  Apparently they want to hire a messiah like this (for the pay of a mediocre one-discipline engineer) to handle their 80-robot process automation and launches, because they don’t have quality or control or welding or maintenance engineers to do the work and can’t get approval to hire them. They might as well post for an engineer who walks on water and has a standard 12/6 work-week. What will it take for them to realize that while they can hire someone who lies about having all those skillsets, the extremely rare one who actually might is either being paid $85k+ (USD) as an engineering manager, or has started his own systems design and integration company?

Ken Payne of The Columbus Group recently pointed out to me that while classic Industrial Engineering (IE) breaks everything into the Man, Machine, and Material categories, most companies have lost sight of a simple overarching fact: everything in a company – including Machine and Material – is driven by the Man factor. Payne and Demming both point out that manpower is the source of all value streams.  So the value streams are ultimately driven by the human energy in the form of work, passion, expertise, inventiveness, entrepreneurial drive, and cohesive teamwork of the company’s manpower.  That manpower is a combination of individual expertise and passion, and company culture.

Read the rest of this entry »


Manufacturing Welding Companies can Grasp Rare Opportunities in Economic Upheaval

February 27, 2009

These are days in American and world history of unprecedented business pressures and explosive economic upheaval.  There are so many unknowns and variables that even the best “crystal balls” look cloudy.  Yet there remains some general agreement from those who analyze international manufacturing trends and competition, that in the end, companies who are best able to harness flexible high-performance automation will come out the winners and leaders in 21st century manufacturing.


Many companies manufacture welded assemblies, but precious few realize that even in product design, quoting and launch, their entire business is wrapped up in selling their expertise at manufacturing welded assemblies:  having never realized this, they have never sought and developed true expertise in high-profit welding – yet it’s their most complex core process.  Instead, over 90% of companies (and too many welding engineers) are content to merely enable the welding processes, oblivious to the potential to achieve 40-95% improvements in them.  The few competitors who grasp this potential can leverage an advantage that’s as great or greater than union vs union-free manufacturing.


For a moment, consider one picture of an ideal profitable company of the future:  working as a team who is sharply focused on applying formidable expertise in the mechanisms, controls, and processes of flexible welding automation, supporting a structure that enables Continuous Improvement and “closes the loop” of design, launch and manufacturing.

To do this well will require assembling a team of technical expertise that is fully capable of effective CI, DFM, and DFSS thinking in every core discipline.  The critical essentials that are perhaps most often overlooked are a smart controls engineer and a smart welding engineer (SWE).  And “closing the loop” requires leadership with the experience to shape a team and craft mechanisms that can move past the traditional hurdles that are so commonplace in industry.  Accomplishing this, bridging this chasm between design and production, has been my passion.  So I believe that it could be worth millions to your company to consider some of my perspectives. Read the rest of this entry »