A New Paradigm for Reducing Contaminated Welds

A New Paradigm for Reducing Contaminated Welds

Eliminating contaminated welding has a relationship to prioritizing American-made products.

If you Google search "reducing contaminated welds," the general topics cleanliness, gas flow, equipment and workspace conditions quickly emerge. Drilling down a little further reveals variations on these four themes: poor gas coverage/gas supply, metal filler problems, various types of contamination and the use of high-quality materials. These themes are consistent in almost every article on the subject, and likely have been since the weld process's invention as we have come to know it.

These themes have consistently been the go-to low-hanging fruit because they are easily quantifiable in terms of a direct dollar cost. This dollar cost can measure the value of materials and consumables used in making an item, in the cost of rework and in the cost of customer rejection. These are easy fallbacks because the costs—the financial side of manufacturing—can be determined by just about any non-welder.

However, focusing on the standard causes of contaminated welds provides steadily diminishing returns. Continuing this approach, one can simply reduce production cost by specifying the lowest acceptable grades of materials, the least expensive equipment for the application and the cheapest consumables available. Specifying all three together is a recipe for disaster. Any one of the three are more than likely to reduce product performance, which, in turn, costs. Once the finance department has value-engineered out the costs associated with contaminated welds, the welding and other metalworking departments tend to repeat the same cycle. It is a little trickier to initially prove out capital equipment investments, new quality control procedures and welder education to elevate welders’ skills and abilities. These tend to be dismissed or cut when looking at cost reduction. However, the failure to see these in general— and welder training and education in particular—as value-added and not bottom-line costs, is a mistake.

Further, if the focus is genuinely on creating quality products for the customer by reducing weld contamination and on the steps companies can take to reduce or eliminate these risks, companies should, in particular, prioritize the training and education of a skilled tradesperson. This presents a challenge in itself, given a continued move away from career and technical education (CTE) public school programs, along with the need to provide the type of environment today's welder would prefer to work in.

It's no wonder that the lack of individuals entering the trade has created skills shortages. Consider the impact on quality welding in general, and more specifically, the younger welder's ability to understand all of the necessary conditions that produce a quality weld. The American Welding Society estimates a shortage of about 400,000 welders by 2024, with an average welder age of 55. Even if the numbers are off, we continue to head in the wrong direction. And it is not just welding—other trades are reporting similar shortages too.

As a society, we need to reorient the educational system away from the current MBA-driven focus in favor of high-level technical programs required to address the critical shortage of skilled workers. While the U.S. may continue to lead in individual product innovation and manufacturing categories, we can also add to the balance of available work by creating and retaining such jobs here.

Companies are now realizing that the shift in global production to cheaper work pools has not necessarily provided the cost benefits expected and has shown diminishing returns in a lower quality product. To remedy the situation and also support a movement back to a “Made in America” program, we need to develop the skill sets here to produce quality products. Given the increasing reliance on global standards such as ISO, the higher expectations of today's entering workforce and the inability to pass mediocre goods onto the customer, products must meet increasingly higher quality standard levels. Long gone are the days where companies can afford low wage extended apprentice programs. Making skills education a value-added proposition, putting more tools and resources into AI programs and placing digitized VR information directly on the floor and in the hands of the actual welder to promote excellence in welding from day one of a welders' career are now more critical than ever.

At my most recent startup, I met a man named Adam who came out to fabricate the production mixing equipment and workstations. Adam was able to hand draw the templates needed for all the mixing motor stands and manufacture and weld the equipment as required, all from pencil and paper (or in this case, cardboard). This equipment, simple as it was, will outlast my time here and has the kind of work quality that built the Made in America brand. The pride with which I heard Adam speak about the training his local union was doing was very encouraging. It's a pride that is also evident in the social media postings of his generation—those that are currently learning their trade.

Bringing innovative products directly to the user, engaging in user feedback and innovating our products based on that feedback is undoubtedly one part of producing products and materials that reduce contaminated welds and eliminate these risks.

In my opinion, this kind of training comes too late. Capturing the hearts and minds of a new generation of skilled American craftspeople has to start much earlier in the education system through a comprehensive, national Technical and Vocation Education and Training (TVET) program, much like the recent push into STEM programs that creates recognized and transferable skills.

To produce quality work here and bring jobs back to America, we need a new generation of skilled craftspeople capable of producing high-quality products. We need craftspeople trained and supported within the entire educational system and not as a separate vocational stream simply focused on delivering workers.

In simple terms, American industry was built on a combination of skilled tradespeople and a sizeable unskilled labor pool. If we are serious about something as specific as contaminated welding and welding in general, we need to be serious about providing a career path that speaks to a new generation. One that does not merely turn out a cheap pool of labor but one with equipment to meet today's generation demands and seeks to reduce the segregation of "vocational" training from "academic" training.

The idea of an either-or educational stream should be long dead by now. With technological changes, mobility expectations and a different expectation about the meaning of work, it is no longer an either-or proposition. To meet this expectation requires a new hybrid model under full support of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. This is a model that combines both TVET and STEM type programs in a way that will produce individuals capable of continuous updating of knowledge and skills as rapid technological changes continue to occur. It also offers a balanced skills development program with educational choices that includes both the hands and the brain.

I have seen firsthand the success in Buffalo of the startup competitions and innovative centers and the great new ideas such programs create. I have also seen an inability to move from concept to production—the how and what of making things sorely lacking. It is one thing to see a need and propose a startup product, but it is quite another to get it made and get it made here in the U.S.

The Made in America idea, as a brand, still has currency around the world. It has always meant quality to purchase and use a product stamped “MADE IN USA.” We are rapidly losing that brand currency as other nations have, and continue to have, programs that support their next generation of skilled tradespeople.

How does any of this relate to reducing and eliminating contaminated weld/welding in general? In two words, not much, and yet, as it relates to the future of American manufacturing, a whole lot.

Perhaps, at least for the time being, we have enough MBAs. America needs and will continue to need—if it is serious about bringing work back home—to see innovative ideas flourish and trained hands that know how to use a crescent wrench, socket set, and yes, a welding torch, to turn great ideas into reality. If you want to reduce contaminated welds, start by producing a new generation of American craftspeople skilled in the use of their hands (and brains) to manufacture high quality, Made in America products, with a resulting emphasis on long term TVET education that combines both the practical and the mind.

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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