Executive Insights: Jeff Rappold
Jeff Rappold of Miller Electric shares his views on the State of the Industry and the competitive condition of various welding sectors.
Group Vice President, Industrial Products
Miller Electrig Mfg. Co., Bernard and Tregaskiss
The fabricating and metalworking industry consists of a large number of relatively small- and mid-sized companies, most of which are being challenged in some way by a decline of new revenues and the worldwide economic crisis.
This impact has been amplified, paradoxically, by the emphasis on lean manufacturing strategies and on-demand manufacturing because the "old way" of end-users building inventories represented a buffer against economic instability. Without buffers, fabricators and metalworkers feel the impact of any economic downturn much more rapidly
In addition, the difficulty of obtaining credit for operating capital or long-term investments in new equipment has stressed the entire manufacturing chain. But perhaps the most important factor facing this industry is the lack of skilled welders. The American Welding Society (AWS) estimates a shortfall of 200,000 skilled welders by 2010 due to a combination of retirement attrition and a dwindling supply of new welders.
BOLD ACTION REQUIRED
To resolve these issues, we must first address the growing welder shortage that places many operations with unnatural capacity constraints or long lead times. Though it may seem counterintuitive to act boldly in uncertain times, this is exactly what we need to do.
Specific recommendations for individual businesses include:
•Work with local educators. Become a member of their business steering committees and speak compellingly about the strong demand for a skilled workforce in the immediate future. They should welcome your input and help guide the training of future workers.
• Become an advocate for your own future needs. Welding is a special skill that fosters pride in its technical abilities. Integrating novel technologies and automation in welding shows prospective workers that a welding career demands training to a high skill level, thus enhancing this occupation's status and attractiveness to newcomers.
• Invest in your own future. Developing in-house training and welder mentoring plans improves your ability to both attract and retain high quality personnel. Many of these skills take time to acquire, so don't wait until you need someone to think about training them.
• Seek out your local AWS chapter. Their local connections with many different industries may just create the right connection at the right time.
Technical innovation of the entire welding process continues to accelerate at a faster pace each year. The most significant challenge for welding equipment suppliers - as they address the welder shortage - is integrating complex new technologies while, at the same time, making welding units easier to learn and operate. The goal is to create uncomplicated, virtually "push-button" machines targeted for specific applications that address the user's need for simplicity and high productivity.
The newest technology on the market automatically selects the welding process, the correct polarity (no switching leads) and welding parameters. Operators literally just need to push the right button (and set wire feed speed or amperage) to know how to use it. Designed specifically for shop pipe fabrication, advanced GMAW processes enable training new operators in a matter of hours or days, compared to weeks or months with the stick and TIG processes.
For many fabricators and manufacturers, the new generation of pulsed MIG technology offers a proven method to increase productivity without adding staff and create a fast payback.
For example, Metal Shark Aluminum Boats (Jeanrette, LA) invested about $17,000 in three new pulsed MIG machines. As a result, they increased welding productivity by more than 25 percent, reduced welding cost by at least $52,000 annually and went from building one boat in 18 days to two boats in the same time.
Heavy equipment fabricator OEM Fabricators (Woodville, WI) reduced welding costs by up to $2,000 per day using pulsed MIG technology. The company streamlined its operations by standardizing on one wire, one gas and one welding system for nearly all mild steel weldments.
OPPORTUNITIES TO INNOVATE
Historically, the activities of small businesses have powered the engine of America's economic recoveries. While big companies tend to hunker down, sit on their bank accounts and wait out financial hard times, small firms - fabricators and metalworking shops among them - often treat slowdowns as opportunities to innovate and invest.
I don't believe our present financial crisis is any exception. Small- and medium-sized companies and factories are employing whatever monetary resources they can muster to find ways - strategies and new technology - to reinvigorate their businesses and restart our economy.
Read the original version of this article as published in F&M Magazine