Given that labor typically accounts for 60 percent to 85 percent of the total cost of any welding operation, fabricators stand to reap significant benefits by better understanding and controlling those costs. However, that’s often easier said than done. Here are some practical ways to do it.
Too often, manufacturers make the mistake of seeking to increase productivity by simply adding additional welding cells rather than looking for ways to maximize welder efficiency. In order to fully understand the true cost of a welding operation, companies need to look not just at the weld cell, but at the upstream and downstream operations outside the cell to see if labor is being unnecessarily wasted in non-value added activities.
While many portions of the welding operation are absolutely essential, there are also ways that manufacturers can lower the labor costs in the welding operation by reducing or eliminating the time consumed on the activities listed below:
• Preparing the metal for welding
• Preparing the joint
• Applying anti-spatter
• Pre-heating time
• Positioning and repositioning the weldment
• Grinding spatter and chipping slag
• Removing anti-spatter
• Repairing and/or reworking welds that don’t pass inspection
• Gas cylinder swap outs
• Changing filler metals
• Grinding and/or polishing weld to obtain final appearance
One of the most reliable ways to spot waste in a system, and thus tackle many of the time consuming activities above, is to answer the following question:
Is step B in a process truly preparation for step C, or is it compensation for the inefficiency of step A?
For example, spending time grinding spatter and chipping slag might seem like a necessary part of any welding operation, but in many cases, improvements in power source and welding wire technologies will eliminate the need for these activities altogether.
In a real-world example, one equipment manufacturer employed two full-time employees per shift to grind and otherwise prepare weldments for the next step in the production process. This activity cost the manufacturer roughly $2,000 per week at 25.00 per hour for labor. After converting to another welding system that minimized spatter and improved first pass weld quality, the same activity took only one employee one hour per day to complete. This conversion reduced the company’s weld costs by $1,875 per week in labor, not to mention the savings in tool consumables. This freed up that manpower for activities that contributed to the production process rather than compensating for shortcomings of the previous step in the process.
Another way that real-life manufacturers are reducing weld costs is by converting to a welding system that allows them to standardize the majority of their welds on a single power source, wire feeder, welding wire, shielding gas and welding gun. This standardization is possible through the use of advanced power source and wire feeder technology that provides a nearly instantaneous feedback and response loop to optimize arc performance across a wide variety of joint types and conditions.
By adopting the one gas, one wire and one power source practice, these fabricators are able to decrease the amount of time spent switching processes, adjusting parameters and repositioning the weldment – and spend more time depositing weld metal.
Additional ways to make the welding portion of the process more efficient include switching from small spools to large drums of welding wire, using bulk shielding gas instead of individual cylinders and converting to high-quality welding guns and consumables that require less frequent maintenance and repair.
Identifying the wasted labor in a welding operation is only the first step in the process, however. Once this has been identified, manufacturers often have numerous options available to reduce that waste, including production process reconfigurations, manpower reallocations, equipment upgrades and outsourcing certain parts of the process. Choosing the best solution will depend heavily on the company’s specific operation, products, growth plans and resources.
Before implementing any of these changes, fabricators should conduct thorough evaluations of their welding operations to fully understand the impact of the changes under consideration. Consulting with an efficiency expert, a welding integrator or an equipment manufacturer could help to identify areas where weld costs can be reduced and the best ways to accomplish that goal.
Companies should also be aware that in some cases, identifying and eliminating waste at one location in the production process will reveal – or even create – deficiencies in another part of the process. For example, before switching to an advanced pipe welding process, a mechanical contractor in Florida needed two welders to keep up with a single upstream person beveling and tacking the pipes. After switching processes, the contractor needed two employees beveling and tacking the pipe to keep up with a single welder.
In other cases, speeding up the welding process could spotlight downstream bottlenecks, resulting in no gains in overall productivity.
Of course, many of the cost saving practices and strategies discussed here require an initial capital investment. Carried out thoughtfully and with due diligence to their implementation, these investments almost universally pay for themselves within a matter of months.
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