The dawn of a new decade means another era has come and gone. We are now moving into a decade that was preceded by an unprecedented amount of automation and the use of artificial intelligence. But what does this mean for the welding industry as it moves into a new decade with a growing demand for welders and a lack of skilled workforce? Well, we can begin to look at what the future holds by first looking at what was accomplished in the previous decade and determine what trajectory we are on as we head into a new one.
Welding contributes to the success of many key industries today, including shipbuilding, aircraft manufacturing, construction, and defense. Welding plays an important role in repair and life extension of manufactured products. The 2010’s saw a major increase in welding safety and automated welding robotics. This is evident by the increased use of robotics in the many industries that require welding in their mass production. For instance, automobile manufacturers across the world accounted for 52% of all welding robotics purchases in 2016. Most welds made on car bodies are now done by robotic arms.
The 2010s also saw more implementation of newer welding techniques such as friction stir welding and laser welding. Friction stir welding is a newer process to combine two metal joints and began practical commercial use in the 2010s. It is a process that relies on the heat created from the friction of a rapidly moving welding head in contact with the two pieces that need to be welded which then melts the metal and then forms a weld as it cools. It is a solid-state joining process that uses a non-consumable router bit that plunges into differing (or similar) metals, spinning at a high rate of speed while applying pressure as it travels along the weld seam to join the metals. Laser welding is similar in the way it forms the joint but instead relies on the heat created from laser energy. Both of these types of welding offer solutions for both speed, quality, and safety of welding which is a trend that will continue into the 2020s.
Another big trend that is evolving throughout the years and will continue into the 2020s is the increase in welding safety. Weld safety is the most important part of welding, and ensuring a welder’s safety is in the best interest of a manufacturer. A company that doesn’t invest in removing or mitigating existing hazards or providing protection against hazards that cannot be removed is failing its workforce. Most companies see investing in weld safety equipment and personal protective gear as an expensive requirement but, in the long run, it prevents injuries, and protects the employee as much as it does the employer. It also demonstrates the company’s proactive approach to safety and concern for their workers’ lives. This will in turn make welding a more desirable profession and could lead to an increase in the skilled workforce.
For the past few years, the metal fabrication and construction industries have faced challenges in finding skilled welders. With approximately 500,000 welders in the workforce, the average welder in the 2010s was in his or her mid-50s and nearing retirement. With welders retiring at twice the pace of new welders coming into the field, it’s anticipated that in the years to come, there will be a significant shortfall of qualified welders. Looking forward to the next decade manufactures will have to solve this problem and others which will likely lead to many of the following trends discussed below.
Welding robots are not only great for the precision and efficiency at which they operate but also are able to eliminate some welding safety concerns that someone would have if it were a human making that weld instead. Because of this, it is generally accepted that there will be a large increase in welding robots for use in the manufacturing industry throughout the 2020s. However, while robotic welding systems do have their upsides, they are also limited by the fact that they are mostly stationary. So, they are great when it comes to monotonous welding but there is a problem when it comes to welds that require a bit of maneuvering and skill to get to. In this case, such as custom welds and large vessel welding, it is ideal to have a skilled welder that is able to get to hard to reach places and make a number of different welds. Which is a sign of relief for any tradesmen welders that are worrying about losing their jobs to robots?
As of 2016, according to HPAC engineering, there was an average of 74 industrial robots installed per 10,000 manufacturing employees around the world. And while that is expected to continue to grow into the 2020s, there will still always be a need for skilled human labor. And for any welders that are currently looking for a job, there is good news; according to the American Welding Society, there will be a shortage of 291,000 welders in America’s workforce in the coming years. According to the International Federation of Robotics, there were over 2 million operational industrial robots at the end of 2017. The number is estimated to grow globally by over 80% in the coming years, approaching 3.8 million robots in 2021.
Arc Welding Robots are the robotics suitable for a wide range of arc welding, laser welding, soldering, and cutting applications. The global Arc Welding Robots market was growing at a steady rate in 2019 and will reach an anticipated rise at a considerable rate through the end of 2025. According to a market analysis report the global welding products market size was estimated at USD 14.49 Billion in 2019 and is projected to register a revenue-based CAGR of 6.2% over the forecast period. The increasing demand for energy and the emergence of friction stir welding technology has surged the need for welding equipment. Laser beam welding is expected to grow at the fastest rate, followed by resistant welding.
Moving forward it is expected that developments in sensors that are able to communicate real information not just programmed data will be a big part of robotic welding. All of this will be making the welding industry safer and has created new jobs for welders that will be able to program and maintain the robotic welding arms down to a fraction of a micron for repeatability and defect detection. The use of fast and incredibly precise lasers for inspection across industries is optimizing product quality. With automotive, the use of sensors gives the traceability needed for weld seam inspection, and it is also more expedient than wire touch for finding workpieces. Laser sensing can also be used for verifying or measuring assemblies, as well as for tracking a variety of arc and laser weld seams.
While still costly to implement, as compared to other methods of welding; laser welding is growing in popularity, especially for certain aerospace applications. The most common form of laser welding is Remote Laser Welding and uses a “wobble” laser head that sits inside a light-tight enclosure. While the robot controls some of the weld path motion during this process, most of the weld motion is done inside the laser head, creating a very precise weld seam. The other form of laser welding which is also growing in popularity is called the laser seam stepper. With this process, the laser head comes down to the part, before the C-gun applies pressure (similar to friction welding). The C-gun is only one-sided, so it can apply pressure against the tooling and reach far into a wide or deep part as needed. This is a very fast process with no consumables, so tip dressing is not required.
The welding industry, along with all production facilities hopes to one day benefit from the “internet of things”. The internet of things is the connection of various different computers, machines, manufacturing equipment, consumer products, cars, etc. that will all be able to communicate with each other and be able to make changes based on the data and information collected from these devices. In the welding and manufacturing industry, it will enable a company to make its operational processes leaner or speed up existing processes in order to reduce waste. Quality management, internal logistics, and device maintenance are excellent examples of processes that can be improved with IoT. New welding machines know when they are running short of filler wire, when a weld joint is ready for inspection or when a job is finished. Could such status data coming from a previous task automatically trigger actions or tasks in a welding workshop?
It’s clear that as we move into the new decade many things will change. For the welding industry, there may not be core shaking changes that affect welding basics but there will be some trends that lead to the further development of the welding industry. Markets in North America and Europe may not see as much growth as the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. Still, the Asia-Pacific region will lead the market due to the population in the next decade. In particular, China and India are the key countries in the welding and cutting equipment market due to high industrial growth rate, and other factors.