As with any technology investment, the decision to purchase a welding information management solution must be made with careful consideration if it is to yield the best results. These systems monitor multiple facets of the welding operation, including arc-on time, deposition rates and general weld parameters. Some systems provide advanced process control to guide weld sequences, duration of the welds and more. The goal is to generate electronic data that can be used to gain insight and drive improvements throughout the operation.
There are several reasons for seeking welding information, including:
- Training less-skilled operators
- Increasing productivity, improving quality and better managing costs
- Gaining greater consistency of welded parts by different operators
- Preventing missed welds
- Enforcing proper weld sequence and required work instructions
- Detecting and eliminating weld defects using high-resolution signature analysis
A welding information management solution can help address these pain points, but several questions should be asked before purchasing one.
- Do you need a welding information management solution that can adapt to multiple brands of welding equipment (mixed fleet), older equipment and new equipment?
Most welding operations have equipment from several different manufacturers. Unfortunately, not all welding information management solutions are compatible with multiple brands. Look for a universal system that works with a variety of brands or consider standardizing your welding equipment so you can purchase a manufacturer-centric solution.
In some cases, it may be enough to select a solution that monitors the productivity and quality of specific welding cells within your fleet to eliminate particular problems, and then, find another way to monitor welding activity on the remaining equipment. However, if all of your new equipment is from the same manufacturer and your old machines are the only outliers, it may be more practical to purchase new power sources to match your dominant brand.
Before making the investment, be sure to ask yourself two important questions. First, “What’s the value if I’m only monitoring part of my fleet versus monitoring the entire shop through a universal system?” Second, “Would it be more cost-effective to find a system that monitors a mixed-brand fleet or to purchase new equipment from one brand in order to standardize the fleet?”
- Do you need a welding information management solution to monitor multiple processes?
Your welding processes, whether you use one or many, affect the type of welding information management solution you are considering. For example, if your shop has sub-arc welding applications and also uses TIG, MIG or flux-cored welding, determine whether the solution can monitor all of these processes. If so, can it perform in a tailored manner or does it monitor the processes through a one-size-fits-all technology?
Similarly, it is important to consider the market segments and industries you serve – along with any regulatory agencies to which they answer – in order to determine your monitoring needs. Traceability and proof of weld quality is a growing challenge for many companies, especially for tier suppliers and government contracts.
- Is your goal to drive general improvements in productivity and quality, or do you need traceability related to each welded part?
If you need only basic metrics for productivity and quality, it may be more cost-effective to purchase a less sophisticated entry-level welding information management solution that is easy to install, deploy and support. This could include a basic cloud-based system.
Conversely, if you need to tie operator productivity to a specific part, calculate cycle times and understand reasons for downtime, consider investing in a more advanced solution. The same is true if there is a lack of consistency on the shop floor, if you need to give operators specific work instructions or if you want a “virtual trainer” to ensure new operators meet production consistency.
An advanced solution can help train new employees quickly and cost-effectively, allowing them to produce parts on par with what veteran operators deliver – without taking valuable time away from those experienced employees to support training.
- Do you need a welding information management system to monitor manual and automated/robotic welding?
Take into account whether you have manual welding, fixed automation or full automation with robotics and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) – where it is necessary for a welding information management solution to communicate with a robot and a PLC – or an interface with light curtains or fixture clamp verification.
Always make sure you’re shopping for a system that fits with the equipment you have now but can grow with your needs. Invest in a solution that can adapt to your welding operation over the next two to five years and beyond.
- Does your facility have network and internet connectivity at each welding cell and is cloud-based data storage acceptable?
Some welding information management solutions are cloud-based while others are PC-based. It is important to understand your security risks and ensure you have strong networks and firewalls in place or guest networks that can handle the solution you are considering. A well-designed solution will send automatic notifications to managers via email or text message whenever expected weld parameters are not met, enabling the team to take corrective action.
Many entry-level solutions are cloud-based, which may require you to work with your organization to gain security approvals. These solutions provide a turnkey implementation that frees your organization from managing computer servers and database administration. If your company is risk-averse and opposed to using a cloud-based system – or does not want to take the necessary steps to implement the proper networks – consider a product that is PC-based.
It is important to note that a PC-based solution may require the purchase of new computers, monitors and keyboards to place in welding cells. You will need to secure the services of a nearby IT/database administrator who can help with the installation, setup and networking support.
Regardless of whether your solution is cloud- or PC client/server-based, it is also important to have a backup plan in place in the event of a cut ethernet cable or computer failure. Be sure to have a spare PC available and ready to implement, a good customer service-oriented company you can call to enable another software license on the backup computer and spare ethernet cables on hand.
Welding information management solutions with built-in wi-fi offer another level of simplicity for implementation, in addition to cloud-based storage of your data. In some cases, these solutions offer an extra layer of protection because they provide local data backup on the collection device if wi-fi connectivity to the cloud is lost. Some solutions can only store up to 1,000 welds in memory while others offer up to 30 days of memory, enabling you to get your network back online without loss of welding data.
- Do you need a welding information management system to audit your entire process or quantify the most cost-effective filler metal for your application?
Welding information management solutions can help conduct a weld audit of your existing operation by tracking deposition rates and downtime for non-welding activities, such as delays in part delivery or those caused by fit-up challenges prior to welding or grinding spatter in the post-weld stage. By examining these factors, the solutions can also help recognize the most significant bottlenecks in your operation. Additionally, when a solution is in place, it can quickly identify productivity, quality and cost advantages of a filler metal that is more appropriate for your application.
For example, if you are currently using a solid wire that generates spatter during the welding process, it may be beneficial to convert to an alternative product such as metal-cored wire that can provide productivity enhancements, greater deposition rates and potentially less spatter cleanup.
While switching to metal-cored wire may cost more up front per pound of wire, an analysis conducted with your welding data may reveal that a wire or process conversion could ultimately save you money by boosting your operation’s productivity.
- Do you have an internal champion with welding application experience and a thorough deployment plan?
To ensure your welding information management solution garners a positive return on investment and helps drive continuous improvement results, you need someone who believes in the solution, who is committed to it and who wants to deliver results – an “internal champion.”
This person serves as a liaison between top management and operators when installing the system, ensures the right people from the organization are involved in deploying it, and helps identify and address the opportunities it reveals.
Without an internal champion, the likelihood of your solution being successful in the long run is significantly lower. He or she can help generate interest in and acceptance of the new technology on the plant floor by educating operators of its benefits. Because operators play such a vital role in the day-to-day welding process, securing their participation and buy-in is imperative.
Welding or plant supervisors are strong candidates for the job, but an internal champion could also be a lead welding engineer, a production manager, a production supervisor or even a head maintenance person for welding and fabrication. The most important attribute is strong leadership with the ability to motivate and inspire others. This person should also be organized enough to gather part drawings or photographs of all the welded parts and correctly load them in the system.
Ideally, the internal champion would create a cross-functional team dedicated to assessing the welding data, discussing potential modifications to the welding operation and executing those changes.
A welding information management solution is a big investment but one that can generate significant improvements for companies that choose the right solution for their operation and effectively integrate it. Before making this investment, consider whether your existing welding equipment is capable of reaching the productivity and quality goals the solution might reveal, and also determine the level of support you need to implement the solution.
Also, be sure to enlist the help of a trusted equipment manufacturer before making a final decision, and decide what return on investment you need to achieve to ultimately consider the investment a success.