U.S. construction spending recently hit its highest level since 2008, and the construction of new power plants is one of the factors driving that increase, according to a recent report1 from the Commerce Department. According to the report, total construction spending has risen 13.7 percent over the past 12 months, reaching a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1.08 trillion in July — the highest level since May 2008. Construction of power facilities increased 2.1 percent in July, which contributed to the overall growth.
Welding plays a significant role in the completion of deadline-driven construction projects in the power generation industry. The growing need for maintenance and repair on aging infrastructure also has placed a high demand on skilled welding operators in the power industry.
As more contractors look for successful strategies to help them cope with these industry trends in a competitive power generation market, changing welding processes and investing in new technologies are options that can help boost productivity and efficiency to meet demands. More productive welding processes also make it easier for contractors to maximize the available skilled labor pool and complete jobs on time.
Key industry challenges
Construction of natural-gas-fired, combined-cycle power plants is a major focus for the power generation industry. Many contractors are tailoring their welding methods to the construction of these types of plants, which tend to be modular in design and involve mostly large-bore pipe welding of carbon steels and low chrome alloys.
Some of these power plant projects can span two to three years, with jobsite welding needs for about half of that time. A single job can require 30 or 40 — or even more than 100 — full-time welding operators.
Finding skilled welding operators to complete the work in a timely manner and meet all the necessary requirements is a significant issue for power generation contractors. The welding industry faces a growing shortage of skilled welding operators, due both to a lack of incoming welding operators and the aging population of the current welding workforce. This shortage is impacting many industries and markets, including power generation.
The welding operator shortage also impacts other critical issues in power generation: meeting deadlines and completing jobs on schedule. Schedules are of critical importance for any power plant job, since there may be a requirement from the utility company or plant owner to have the plant operational by a certain date, according to Justin Morse, district welding engineer, Kiewit Power Constructors Co. If deadlines are missed, power must be bought or may have a very high operational cost, which results in lost revenue borne by the utilities.
Meet critical deadlines with advanced processes
To address both the welding operator shortage and the deadline-driven nature of power generation projects, some industry leaders are converting to advanced wire welding such as Regulated Metal Deposition (RMD®) from Miller Electric Mfg. Co. and flux-cored welding processes for welding in the field and reaping the benefits.
These processes are generally easier to learn and use, making it easier to quickly train and qualify skilled welding operators for the requirements of power generation welding jobs. In a modified short-circuit MIG process, the welding system anticipates and controls the short circuit, then reduces the welding current to create a consistent metal transfer. Precisely controlled metal transfer provides uniform droplet deposition, making it easier for the welding operator to control the puddle. Advanced welding processes such as pulsed MIG or modified short-circuit MIG are also more forgiving to variations in stickout and result in a calm stable arc, which is easier for operators to control.
These processes also provide increased productivity and efficiency by way of travel speeds that are three to four times those of TIG or stick welding. On some alloys, the weld procedures allow for no back purge, which results in savings of operator time and material costs and helps improve productivity. The advanced wire processes provide these capabilities.
Kiewit is among the companies turning to different welding processes and new welding technologies for the natural gas-fired, combined-cycle power plants the contractor builds across North America.
For several recent power plant projects, Kiewit found success with RMD, a modified short-circuit MIG process, and flux-cored welding. In some instances where Kiewit previously TIG welded the root pass for P11 and P91 pipe, for example, they are now using modified short-circuit MIG welding without a purge. For the remaining passes, they use flux-cored welding instead of stick. This conversion is possible because the modified short-circuit MIG process provides the ability to create a thicker root pass — enough to eliminate the need for a hot pass in many cases and to support the heat input of pulsed MIG or flux-cored welding for the fill and cap passes.
This saves a lot of labor-related costs for Kiewit, and the end results are improved productivity and the ability to meet or beat critical project schedules, according to Morse. The advanced wire processes also help Kiewit welding operators complete a more consistent high-quality weld joint, which saves time and money in rework and wasted materials.
Another solution that provides significant productivity and quality benefits for Kiewit is remote welding technology, which allows welding operators to make adjustments quickly and easily at the weld joint. Several contractors who have converted to newer remote welding technologies that eliminate the special control cable usually required with traditional remotes have found this enhanced capability both more efficient and appealing to operators. Eliminating the hassle associated with specialty cables — while providing the benefit of complete control at the weld joint — reduces movement by welding operators on the jobsite and eliminates the need to make do with less-than-optimal welding parameters.
The welding operators like the convenience of remote welding technology, and it helps Kiewit increase productivity in its welding operation, according to Morse.
Kiewit’s investment in new equipment with these advanced technologies has paid off through increased productivity and high-quality welds on power plant projects that have utilized it. The ability to find savings and boost the bottom line — while also creating a better product — helps make Kiewit more competitive, according to Morse.
Training through partnerships
As more contractors make the switch to flux-cored and advanced wire welding processes, finding skilled welding operators trained in those processes can be a challenge, since stick and TIG have been more traditionally used on many jobsites.
Kiewit tackled this issue by partnering with local pipefitters unions and boilermakers unions in the areas where the contractor has power plant projects. The contractor and the unions work together to get welding operators qualified in the wire welding processes Kiewit uses on its power plant sites.
Local unions have embraced the desire to change how the work is being done, according to Morse, and it’s been a successful training model for Kiewit. The process utilizes the skills welding operators already have, while training them in a different way to be more successful with the advanced welding technology, according to Morse.
The partnerships have resulted in testing and training programs that are specific to the welding requirements Kiewit uses for its power plant projects. The UA 101 and UA 102 Kiewit-specific weld tests help get welding operators up to speed quickly and qualified for specific pipe welding processes and procedures. This makes the Kiewit training consistent and repeatable with union halls across North America.
Solutions to address challenges
As power generation contractors deal with a shortage of skilled welding operators and the need to meet critical project timelines in a competitive industry, there are multiple solutions that can help address those challenges.
New welding technologies and a switch to welding processes that are easier to use and boost productivity without sacrificing weld quality are among the options that organizations can consider to help ensure projects are fulfilled on time — and on budget.
These solutions can help contractors better adapt to challenges facing the industry and establish a more competitive, productive welding operation.
1 US Commerce Report, Associated Press, ‘US Construction Spending Reaches Highest Level in 7 Years’, 9/1/15.