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What Industry 4.0 means to the welding department

Digital connectivity associated with Industry 4.0 technologies allows a fabricator to have an accurate, real-time overview of welding processes across multiple cells and over many facilities. Getty Images


Industry 4.0 may sound like something in which only large, multinational manufacturers are players, but that's not the case. Digitizing information flow straight from the welding booth to a quality measuring system and being able to react in real time is something that all manufacturers can do, no matter their size. This is an industrial revolution in which companies of all sizes can participate.


So what is Industry 4.0? You've probably heard the buzzword but not really known what it relates to. The Industrial Revolution taught in history books came toward the end of the 18th century, when mechanization changed the way that humanity was able to grow crops, extract raw materials from the ground, and ultimately help economies to grow more rapidly. The second revolution came at the end of the 19th century with the emergence of fuel sources, such as electricity, gas, and oil. The third revolution occurred in the second half of the 20th century with the rise of electronics, computers, and robots.


The internet has spurred this new era of connectivity. Machine-to-machine, machine-to-enterprise, machine-to-man—all are connected in a web of communication. In the connected enterprise, manufacturers have the right information to make the right decisions at the right time. Being left in the dark is a choice.


That is especially true for manufacturers and their welding operations. As companies up and down the supply chain have gotten leaner over the last 10 years, they all need to know that the parts, assemblies, or products leaving their docks for delivery to their customers meet quality expectations.


Imagine you are part of an automotive supply chain, not necessarily a Tier 1 supplier, but perhaps a Tier 3 or 4 company with fewer than 50 employees. The parts you ship to another company ultimately work their way to the automaker, which has absolutely no desire to have its vehicles involved in any recall related to a defect. So that Tier 3 or 4 company has one simple question it wants answered before parts leave its shop floor: Is the part of good quality or not?


Of course, it's not just vehicle and automotive parts suppliers with these concerns. Any manufacturer must be concerned if bad parts are delivered to the customer. Consider a tube producer that has a mill churning out hundreds of feet of tubing per day. Company management knows that the mill is likely to produce some scrap, but that defective tubing can never be delivered to the customers. If it does, the poor-quality tubing disrupts the customer's production at the very least or creates a larger headache if it causes problems as part of an end product, such as a back hoe.


Manufacturers of all sizes need tools and systems to measure the performance of production processes to ensure that they are delivering quality parts. Only through measuring those processes can you have a chance to answer the quality question: Yes or no?


Weld Monitoring System Answers Quality Question

The promise of Industry 4.0 is manifested in the form of an automated weld monitoring system. It brings digital connectivity to the welding department.


Some quality assurance systems promise to deliver on weld monitoring, but in reality they fall short. Connected to welding power sources, both in automated cells and in manual operations, these systems track certain parameters, but that's about it. They are tracking a status value, such as the power source's current falling within a certain range. A welder might hear an alarm if during the welding process too much current is noticed, but this type of quality system is only keeping track of the procedure, not totally defining quality.


To deliver a diagnosis of quality, a weld monitoring system needs to be able to track many welding parameters, such as current, voltage, gas flow rate, and wire feed speed, and take multiple measurements every second. Using patented algorithms to analyze the real-time welding data, modern weld monitoring measurement systems can detect when a problem arises.

A welding monitoring system not only provides a fabricator quality assurance, but also reporting capabilities for those customers that demand to have documentation that welded joints met expectations as defined by a welding procedure specification.


For instance, if a company is most concerned about porosity, the weld monitoring system can be set up to focus on the welding parameters that are most likely to affect whether a weld is porous. Keeping tabs on current, voltage, gas flow, and whatever other variables that can affect porosity during the welding process, the monitoring system can raise an alert if a suspected weld is unlikely to meet quality expectations.


This digital technology is not limited to gas metal arc welding. It can be used as well for gas tungsten arc and submerged arc welding. In fact, it also can be tailored for use in resistance welding applications. The tracking of welding parameters may differ from what is used to keep arc welding processes within quality specifications, but the end result is still the same—trying to find defects in the welding process before the parts are ready for delivery.


Additional Benefits of Weld Monitoring

The cost savings associated with catching a poor-quality part before it leaves a shipping dock are easy to understand. The customer doesn't have its production efforts disrupted and doesn't have to worry about sending the part back or just scrapping it. The fabricator doesn't have to quickly interrupt its own manufacturing to produce a new part to replace the defective one or worry about reworking the defective part.


Weld process monitoring also allows a fabricator to catch in-process issues, which can be a challenge on larger weldments. Consider the fabrication of a wind tower and how important it would be to be able to mark a weld defect on that workpiece. If the weld monitoring system can mark a physical place or a moment in time as to where or when the poor weld quality occurred, the fabricator can zone in quickly on that area. Being able to limit the defect search to 2 in. of welded metal on a 12-ft.-diameter section of the tower is a huge savings in time and effort. Also, the defect can be repaired while it is still in the positioner.


Once the in-process problem is caught, data collected from the weld monitoring system allows a weld engineer or a supervisor to determine the root cause of that defect. Does it come from the gas being used in the wire welding process? Could it be the contact tip? A modern weld quality assurance system is going to help a fabricator determine just what the issue is so that the shop can avoid the pain and frustration of repeated mistakes. Identifying root causes of problems allows weld procedures to be altered and quality and productivity increased.


To analyze this welding information, a weld monitoring system not only has to be able to collect and analyze the data, but also has to be able to present the information in a report form. These types of systems can feed simple printers, or the information can be exported to other databases or even an enterprise resource planning system.


From the most basic point of view, this type of reporting allows a fabricating company to track basic consumption values, such as the amount of electricity, gas, or wire, used during a job or shift. This would work for a shop with one welding power source or 10 separate welding cells.


Whether a small company with one other location or a large one with several plants, management can use these reporting tools to keep tabs on welding activities at different facilities. Does one facility consume fewer pounds of welding wire over a week than its sister plant doing similar work? Are arc-on times comparable across facilities? Welding performance reports provide a fabricator with an opportunity to improve welding productivity by benchmarking best practices within its own company.


The reporting functionality also is going to allow a fab shop to become a part of more complex supply chains, where welding verification reports are an expected part of the buyer-seller relationship. It makes small or medium-sized shops look much more sophisticated, even if the company's IT staff might be a friend of the owner or someone with other full-time responsibilities.


Getting Started on the Industry 4.0 Path


So what is a fabricator looking at if it wants to digitize its welding department? It could be as little as $15,000 to get started. Such an investment would get a fabricator the sensor package that connects to the welding power source, a computer to process and store the welding information, and a touchscreen display to access the information.


Most welding technology developers also have weld monitoring systems that are able to work with almost any modern welding power source purchased over the last 10 years. (For older welding power sources, most monitoring systems can still track voltage, amperage, and arc-on/-off time. This makes it possible for almost any power source to become a part of the digitally connected welding operation.) That’s good news for many fabricating companies as they are likely to own power sources from different manufacturers.


Those companies that aren't interested in maintaining on-site servers to accommodate the welding data collected can choose to store the information in the cloud. A subscription provides the fabricator with the peace of mind that the information is easily accessible and protected from exposure to the world, as the data likely resides in one of the major cloud service providers, such as Microsoft Azure. These cloud services are often used to host corporate and governmental information, so data centers that house that sensitive knowledge are provided protection that a small company with an antivirus software subscription can't match.


As with any cloud service, the welding technology developer is very respectful of the collected information as well. Only the customer can access the welding data and provide permission for others, including the vendors, to look at it.


Producing quality parts is a priority for both small and large manufacturers. Although larger companies appear to have the advantage because they are in a position to invest in the latest technologies to minimize rework and scrap and keep customers happy, weld monitoring systems and digital connectivity now offer that same competitive advantage to small and medium-sized shops. If a fabricator has good data detailing its welding operations, it can make the right decisions. Going with a gut feeling has no place in an Industry 4.0 environment.


Source: the fabricator