No reader of this article will require an introduction to the coronavirus pandemic: the virus altered virtually all facets of everyday life in 2020. While the international struggle with the disease continues to unfold, the past several months saw significant changes emerge within the welding industry. At the moment, the welding world is focused not only on managing the short-term effects of this crisis, but also on preparing for potential adjustments in the long-term.
In the preliminary stages of America’s COVID response, the rush to adhere to new governmental guidelines frenzied businesses. The serious nature of the disease led American lawmakers to enact strict rules aimed at preventing its further spread. No company wishes to lose even one day of business, so welding manufacturers worked at breakneck speeds to foster a work environment deemed safe enough for the return of their employees.
The government’s mandate that all businesses deemed nonessential needed to close to the public panicked the welding industry. Scott Griskavich, owner of Badger Welding Supplies in Madison, Wisconsin, told Welding Journal that his staff needed to “scramble” to learn their essential or nonessential status upon hearing this information. Dan Zimmerman, business development manager at Laserfab, shared with The Fabricator that the successful company’s managers were worried that Texas’ government would decide to shut Laserfab’s operations down completely.
If a company received the news that it could remain open to the public, then the next step to resuming business entailed following the plethora of new rules. These protocols include directives to constantly wipe down equipment, wash hands often, and cover employees head to toe with personal protection equipment. Griskavich joked that “[m]ost of us have washed our hands more in the past ten days than we have in the previous ten years”. Temperatures and potential symptoms are monitored every day when employees clock into Aquasol Corporation’s headquarters in North Tonawanda, New York. The warehouse employees at Aquasol even wear medical scrubs for complete protection from the virus when they work onsite.
The inability for many workers to appear onsite further complicated matters for welding manufacturers. While most states permitted some essential employees to remain in facilities, other employees needed to adjust to completing their normal responsibilities from home. This latter group of personnel faced a number of new challenges within their remote workplace. Perhaps most prominently, difficulties in efficiently reaching onsite workers frustrated the staff of welding businesses attempting to establish some sense of normalcy.
Although the prospect of staying in a comfortable home environment all day instead of reporting to an office might sound ideal in theory, the challenges workers experienced during this pandemic disprove this idea. The inability to divert one’s attention away from their remote desktop for even a moment irked some employees. Scott Murray, chief of laboratories at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Canaveral, Florida, confessed to Welding Journal that “the workload initially seemed to increase, as the work computer became omnipresent in one’s home and there was no clear-cut time away from it.”
The physical distance between employees also seemed to amplify the workloads of remote workers. Shane Findlan, a consulting engineer for a welding and materials engineering company based in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that the extra effort required for communication and “the sharing of information” during the pandemic added to his work in a significant manner.
This isn’t to say that everyone in the industry felt the same intrusions to their workflow. Technologically-savvy personnel saw boosts in productivity after shifting over to remote work. Sam Abston, director of engineering and R&D at Ultrasonics Group in Albertsville, Alabama, claimed that he was “getting much more done working remotely”. The first-hand experience that most employees gained with remote work over the past few months could also prove to be valuable in the long-term. Murray admitted that “voluntary telework” could be implemented to a greater extent at NASA even after the coronavirus pandemic clears.
After resolving these immediate issues, manufacturers shifted their attention to analyzing and adapting to the changes in their workload. The economic impact of the pandemic affected companies in different ways and to varied degrees. The wide range of consequences for businesses during the pandemic reflect the diversity within the welding industry.
Not every business is in dire straits as a result of the pandemic. The government allowed major construction and welding clients to remain open by gifting them essential status. Abston reported that there “has not been much change” to his company’s operations because of their broad range. Murray clarified to Welding Journal that the essential nature of commercial aerospace and government work protected his staff from experiencing any major disruptions to their work.
Unfortunately, several other companies suffered damaging changes to their business over the past few months. One key problem is the mass closure of client businesses and construction sites on a global level. According to Griskavich, Badger Welding Supplies Inc.’s carbon dioxide sales to bars and restaurants “all but evaporated” on account of the nonessential status of these clients. Strict limits on nonessential travel hindered the staff of Ed Abbott, general organizer for apprenticeship and training at the Ironworkers’ International Union. Abbott says that the pandemic further obstructed the Ironworkers’ International Union by halting construction sites across the United States.
Even some completely operational companies chose to seek financial assistance in these difficult times. According to a report from The Fabricator, numerous manufacturers applied for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. The Fabricator describes this stimulus package as an offer of loans to small businesses that can be worth as much as $10 million. Additionally, the government intends to offer full loan forgiveness as long as a business allocates a minimum of 75% of the loan towards payroll expenses.
Although most businesses are understandably preoccupied with handling the swarm of issues presented to them by COVID-19, there is also a degree of uncertainty about the future of the welding industry after the resolution of this pandemic. Some American Welding Society members predict permanent changes to the welding industry. According to Abbott, changes could include indefinite extensions of the world we currently live in – he predicts that masks and other personal protection equipment will remain mandatory long after this pandemic fades away. Abbott expects that even handshakes will fade into obscurity because of the virus.
Welding experts disagree about the extent to which the pandemic will alter the future of welding, but the apparent consensus for the future contains a healthy amount of hope and optimism. There is excitement from various corners about the country’s upcoming reliance on American jobs to help the economy rebound from the virus. The American manufacturing industry could experience a boom, which would cause a huge payoff for welders and others interested in welding. Jeremy Mowry, a shop foreman for Broomfield Sheet Metal in Lafayette, Colorado, believes that it is currently “the best time to be in the welding field or to learn how to weld and get into the workforce.” Jeremy Whittmore, NDE Level II for Emerson in Gonzales, Louisiana, expressed a similar sentiment and told Welding Journal that “the welding industry will flourish because the jobs will absolutely be there and ready to be filled”. This excitement from accomplished and knowledgeable industry members could inspire even the most cynical welders.
While ambiguity surrounds the future of welding, every manufacturer should begin preparing for the post-pandemic world as soon as possible. Companies must build strategies to combat the downturn and assemble recovery teams to capitalize on potential future opportunities once the industry begins to rebound. Aroop Zutshi, global president and managing partner at Frost and Sullivan Industry and Strategy Experts, predicted that a global recession will last until Q3 of 2021 in a webinar conducted on April 9th, 2020. While Zutshi also predicted a recovery to pre-crisis levels, it is important that companies take the proper steps now to stay afloat throughout the remainder of the crisis.
Mark Simoncelli, senior vice president of Americas consulting at Frost and Sullivan, stressed the urgency of formulating and mobilizing teams to deal with the pandemic. Simoncelli suggested that companies assemble three separate teams to address “crisis management, growth, and digital transformation”. These teams need to possess specific and intense focuses on the necessary steps that their business must take to adapt, stay relevant, and grow.
In the webinar, Zutshi referenced some potential opportunities for manufacturers to exploit and grow from. Some of the changes he mentioned that could find their way into the welding industry include the further adoption of automation technology and the increased use of remote inspection.
Welding, along with every other industry, finds itself in the middle of an unforeseen shift in the manner business is conducted. Between increased safety measures and remote workplaces, manufacturers improvised to avoid shutdowns and maintain productivity. Workers adapted to this new normal, but companies still need to plan ahead for the future of this industry. As countries around the world battle to end this pandemic, manufacturers anticipate an influx of new work and remain hopeful for the next chapter of the welding industry.