Welding the Future: Will it be by Hand or Machine?

Will welders be replaced by robots?

Automated, or machine welding already exists in our workforce. However, the progression towards replacing welders with machinery will only continue to gain momentum. That being said, there will almost always be a need for experienced welders to program and monitor their automated counterparts. Special welding tasks remain the responsibility of skilled welders who are able to flex in ways a machine cannot.

There is much speculation about the future of welders, given the global market’s tendency to automate tasks whenever necessary. Many say humanoid welders will be replaced by machines in the recent future—sooner than we think, even. Others point to the age-old trump card humans hold over machines: creativity.

In this article, we’ll discuss where we are presently in terms of machine welding. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of each type of welding (manual and machine). We’ll touch on what automation might mean for you if you’re a welder currently in the industry. There are plenty of conclusions you can draw from the direction of the market alone. So to put it all in context, let’s begin by looking at the process of welding, from both a human and machine point of view.

The Fate of Welding in Today’s Global Industry  

Welding, like many aspects of fabrication, began solely as a hands-on task that required skill. Countless hours of experience led welders to perfect their art. This in turn allowed them to demand high pay for the works they created. But as technology spread to the workforce, welding became subject to automation.

Automation is an economic reality,” states TheFabricator.com. And it’s true. The more we can have machines do for us, the less time we have to spend on these “simple” tasks. The same technology that allows you to stay in your car as your garage door opens gives workers the ability to trade manual labor for supervisory positions. Need an example? Conveyor belts. They allow workers to perform their jobs without needing human power to move products along.

Welding automation achieves tasks in a similar manner. The “boring” welds that many experts consider to be tedious work can (and currently are) done by machines. Because the reality is that the welders who kept the trade alive in the past 20-30 years are “retiring or leaving industry for other pursuits” and are “taking that welding expertise with them.” The knowledge so treasured in the past dies with the expert welders who contributed to the progression of this valuable trade. And without the new generation learning these valuable skills, a way of life that once flourished now faces uncertainty.

Automated welding seeks to not only stop that loss of knowledge and expertise, but in a way also preserve the skills passed down through the welding community. Many greet automated welding with a wary side glance but perhaps it’s time to give the technological process an unbiased look. Because whether or not it’s easy to admit, the machines will be here much longer than any welder can.

The Role of Machine Welding (and the Welder) in Today’s Industry

As we hinted at above, automated welding often picks up the tedious operations welders of any skill level can accomplish. Hotels have enormous washers and dryers to clean the various linens stocked in each room. Similarly, workshops purchase and run automated welding machines to complete welds that require little in the way of skill and adaptability. While technology has continually evolved to accommodate more complex welding processes, it’s still far from replacing a human welder completely.

Now where does this leave the human welder?

Well, though “welding automation with robots essentially clones your best welders,” you still need those very welders to program the machines. Trained welders must tell the machines what processes they should be doing, based on the factors before them. These are the same factors humans would consider if they were welding the parts themselves. But the clincher lies in the simple fact that it is “much easier to teach someone to program a robot than it is to teach someone to weld.” You program a machine once and troubleshoot errors as they arise. The same cannot be said for a person, who learns dynamically.

Translate this idea of teaching once versus coaching to the financial sphere of many businesses and you’ll begin to see where automated welding trumps any human competitor. If a company can pay a machine once (i.e. the initial purchase) and only invest in upkeep, that typically comes in under budget versus paying a salary, healthcare costs, and every other debt induced by hiring a human being.

These are the economic realities facing businesses who incorporate welding into their daily operations. And the same goes for the workforce entering the welding industry. So what will become of welders in the future? Will they be replaced by the very machines they program?

Can You Tell the Difference Between Welds

One way to answer the question that lies at the root of this article is to consider the final product. After all, welders are paid on a sliding scale, much like any skilled workforce. In other words, better welders are paid more money. But can these automated welding machines produce welds that rival those of an experienced welder?

In order to further shed light on this, let’s look at the pros and cons of both automated welding and human welding.

The short answer is that machine welders can both do better and worse than human welders. Because let’s face it: the long answer is that there are some skilled welders that rival the laws of the physical world. To pit them against a machine just seems unfair to the machine. But then again, some welders should really just stick to whatever it is they were doing before. Or anything else besides welding, really.

All criticism aside, the best welds are in the eye of the beholder. As long as that weld does its job, then what’s a bit of a bubble here or a clumpy mess there? It’s all about intention and the end use.

Back to automated welding. Is it really that much better than human welding? Let’s take a closer look at the flesh and blood side to begin this controversial debate.

Human Welding

Holding the power of a welder in your gloved hand is not unlike a painter with a brush. There’s quite a bit of talent, passion, creativity, and drive that puts a select few of us behind the welding helmet. And believe it or not, there’s a lot of value still in welding by hand—a human hand, that is.

Pros of Human Welding

We started to touch on it above, but there are quite a few positive aspects to welding “the old-fashioned way,” if you will. Check out a few of the reasons why welders are still needed.

Adaptability (In the Moment)

Reflexes are instinctual to humans and it’s oftentimes something we overlook. But those very same reflexes that allow us to react in mere seconds actually privilege us over machines when it comes to welding. “An experienced welder,” notes K-Tig.com, “makes continuous, instinctive, split-second decisions on travel speed, torch angle, oscillation, heat input, voltage and wire feed. Welding is not a binary process. By its very nature welding is a multi-variable problem which must be solved in real time.” This ability to problem solve gives us an advantage over computers.

In unpredictable conditions, our hand-eye coordination allows us to both gather information from the situation before us and then act upon that information as we see fit. Because if there’s an issue that needs addressing before welding can begin, the human eye can spot it far quicker than an optical scanner can.

One-Time Training

Learning how to weld requires mastery over muscles, knowledge of metals, hands-on experience, and so many other aspects that are crucial to understanding and appreciating what welds can do. Most welders apply for and receive certification to demonstrate they’ve gained what it takes to be a welder.

Machines, on the other hand, don’t earn certificates or think on their feet. They’re programmed to do a job and that’s it. There’s no straying from the path. Human welders don’t need “retrained every time they get a welding job.” They use what they know to get the job done. Robots, on the other hand, require a bit more coddling.

Substitution

Now, this can be both a good and a not-so-good thing. Yes, it may be easy to replace a welder if there’s ever an issue. But that also means welders are replaceable. It’s good for companies that welders are enough in number that they can be found quickly. That also means it’s hard for welders, then, because their jobs are that easy to give and take. However, the ability to replace a welder without having to order a new machine—or have downtime due to repairs—means human welders do have a leg up.

Creativity

Though we may give machines names, personalities, and various human-like traits, even “the most advanced robots don’t possess a creative mind.” You can’t go up to a welding machine and ask it to create a sculpture out of metal. Well, you can, but you’d hardly get a satisfactory response. So while machine welding has quite a few perks (as you’ll find out below), there’s one thing we can always hold over the welding machine, and that’s our creative spirit. The power of invention and innovation lies in our minds, hearts, and hands. Not in the programming of a computer.

Cons of Human Welding

Suffice it to say that many of the drawbacks associated with human welding translate to positives of machine welding.

For example, machine welders are not as prone to safety risks as humans are. After all, you can replace an automated arm but you can’t really do the same when it comes to human flesh and bone. And yet it’s those same limbs that allow machines to be faster and oftentimes more efficient than humans as well. Muscles fatigue and fingers grow stiff.

Despite all this, human welding still finds a place in society. Because though many welders leave the workforce without being replaced, this only increases the demand for those skilled welders who are passionate. In fact, as you’ll find out below, just knowing how to weld—and translating that to a machine via programming—can keep you employed.

Automated or Machine Welding

Now let’s take a look at the good and bad found in automated welding. If you are considering a career in welding, it’s good to know what potential employers are thinking about if they are considering purchasing a welding unit. At the same time, if you are a business owner looking to automate part of your production line, consider the following. Like a human welder, welding machines have their own set of upsides and downsides.

Pros of Automated Welding

Employing an automated welder to complete production tasks brings with it many positive experiences. Let’s consider the good automated welders can do.

Improve Safety Conditions

One of the biggest selling points many manufacturers of automated welders showcase in their presentations relies on the safety factor. It’s hard to argue that welding brings with it a slew of safety concerns, from the bright light of the arc to the intense heat of both the torch and the melted metals. Work sites can be “hazardous environments, filled with smoke, dust, arc light and weld spatter that pose health and safety risks.” Safety stands first and foremost and requires appropriate procedures.

Automated welders do not have eyes, skin, or any other humanoid components that deteriorate in the same way we do. These machines also do not need the safety equipment necessary to welding within proper safety guidelines. That means automated welders are not only safer from the get-go, but they save on safety materials costs as well.

Increased Productivity

Which brings us to our next point: productivity. Specifically, we are looking at the bottom line when it comes to overhead expenses. We mentioned before that automated welders are a one-time purchase that requires basic maintenance fees. Human welders require hiring, training, on-boarding of processes, sick days, time off, healthcare, etc. The time spent training a human welder now goes into programming (once) the unit that will be welding day-in and day-out until it can no longer function. With increased productivity comes increased profits.

Overall Cost Reduction

Believe it or not, investing in a welding machine actually reduces costs for many businesses. Boston Consulting Group did a study in 2015 that found “while the typical welder is paid $25 an hour, a robot that can perform similar tasks costs $8 to own and operate per hour. That figure may drop to $2 per hour as technology improves over the next 15 years.” And this low rate extends to businesses large and small: “even a company that produces small batches of a number of different parts, may be able to take advantage of automation.” If the goal is to increase productivity while reducing overhead costs, automation is quickly becoming a popular way to even out the scales.

Higher Rate of Speed and Efficiency

Robots are ideal for tasks that are highly repetitive and simple in scope, where speed and efficiency is a driving factor,” notes AmericanTorchTip.com. If you think about it, that’s why many large companies invest in machines for various tasks: speed. It’s true that many human welders can work quickly and efficiently, but the human body fatigues over time. Machines may deteriorate as well, but they do so at a much slower rate—and their components can be replaced, unlike limbs and fingers.

Consistent Weld Quality

Many proponents of automated or machine welders will call welds done by these machines “better” than those done by hand. However, we believe “consistent” is a more accurate way to describe these welds. After all, if a weld holds strong throughout its lifetime, is it necessarily better than one that looks better? And hand welds may not come out looking like a stack of dimes.

Nit-picking aside, machine welders are able to stay more consistent when they weld than the majority of human welders. Machines cut out Oreos to be the same size, thickness, and deliciousness each and every time. “The robots follow the same process exactly every time,” notes FairLawnTool.com, “so the results are much more likely to be consistent.” This repeatability trickles down through the entire production process, increasing productivity, reducing costs and waste, and improving the efficiency of the shop overall.

All that being said, there are some drawbacks to automating the welding process. Really, those reasons are what holds most companies back from automating their setups completely. Interested in learning more about why machine welding isn’t quite the perfect solution? Keep reading.

Cons of Automated Welding

Many of the drawbacks to machine welding listed below are inherent to automation in general. There are probably a few that you’ve thought of yourself as you read this article. Just remember that automated welding isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the skills welding machines lack remain with their human counterparts, making both parties integral in the company’s overall success.

Limited Functionality (and Programming)

As with any machine out there, welding robots can only do the jobs you program them to do. There’s no sense of initiative. “In cases where product size is not standardized or errors occur,” for example, “robots are unable to adjust.” The automated welder assumes conditions as programmed; it becomes a simple order of operations until the final command. Most machine welders are programmed for limited tasks or even a single operation in an assembly line. Because reconfiguring the automated welder each time a new job needs done raises costs, quickly. This is especially true if you have to hire a welder to program the machine for each new operation as it arises.

Large Up-Front Investment

Cutting production time down can put quite a dent in your savings. Machine welders certainly aren’t the cheapest machines to purchase. This is especially true given the large initial investment of both time and money. Companies have to pay thousands of dollars to receive the machine. They also have to employ someone (a welder, ideally) to program the new machine. This setup process doesn’t happen overnight. Buying a machine welder and calling it good won’t boost your bottom line initially.

Sophisticated Machines Come with a Hefty Price Tag

Speaking of costs, your initial investment can go up even higher if you intend on purchasing a sophisticated machine. These machines typically perform more intricate welding tasks than your average machine. This is good for applications where precision is key. But consider this: would it be cheaper to hire an experienced welder? This is a question business owners should ask themselves before investing in a higher-end machine.

On-Site/Outdoor Automated Welding Not Yet Available  

Welding in perfect conditions exists in the same realm as many other ideal scenarios. In reality, welders must forge metal together in some of the most uncomfortable, painful, and even risky situations. And in most of those places, a shop floor and an outlet aren’t accessible by any means. That keeps the machine welder in the shop and the human welder out in the sunshine, rain, snow—you name it.

Downtime and Repairs Can Be Costly

Machine welders can be great—when they run. On the off chance they are down, you’re losing money. An automated welder that isn’t earning its keep is only draining resources. And that cost climbs with each passing second, especially if those turn into minutes, hours, days, etc. Human welders may take sick days. A machine welder that’s not operational impacts the company’s bottom line in a more prominent way.

Lack of Fine Motor Skills and Split-Second Adaptation

It’s fair to say that technology has allowed machines to come quite a ways. Consider some of the intricate work we delegate to machines, in the health field for example. But even those computer-aided abilities pale in comparison to the techniques many experienced welders employ. “Humans are still better-equipped,” notes AmericanTorchTip.com, “when varied individual tasks with different requirements are needed.” The human eye can quickly detect when the puddle begins to form, or any other small detail that’s crucial to the welding process. And in recognizing when something is amiss, “A professional welder can promptly change what he’s doing, but robots do not adapt as quickly to uncertain situations.” We talked about less-than-ideal situations above, and these conditions can exist at any time. When welding, knowledge and experience translates to responsiveness.

You Can’t Program Creativity and Passion

Finally, the one reason why machine welders haven’t replaced humans completely: creativity. “Robots simply can’t comprehend that type of creative inspiration that really drives the heart and soul behind a lot of welding jobs.” Welding stands as an expression of the welder. Machine welders take their programming and complete the task; human welders move beyond simply fusing metal to give life to something new.

Will Welders Become Obsolete

We’ve weighed out the pros and cons of both human and machine welding. But the question still remains: will human welders eventually be replaced by machines?

Machine welders accomplish a variety of tasks already. Yes, they’re in the workforce as you read this. A company called Hirebotics has actually engineered an automated welder, named the BotX, that includes an app to go with it. “Robotic welding with gas shielded wire currently makes up 20 percent of all welding, while humans perform the remaining 80 percent.” And though some estimate 80 percent of manufacturing welding jobs can be automated, human “welders will always be necessary for the remaining twenty percent of welding jobs.” And “the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that the demand for welders will increase 6 percent annually through 2026. That’s encouraging news for the welding workforce. They are still far better suited than robots are for welding jobs and likely will be for some time.” If a human can dream it up and it needs welded, there’s a need for human welders.

The Future of Welding

That all said, it’s hard to dismiss the growth of automated welding. Human welders take 9 months to get up to speed (arguably, more experience is necessary). But “it’s much easier to teach an experienced welder how to program a robot than it is to teach a programmer the nuances of welding.

Machines don’t take months to program. And though the salary for a welder can be anywhere from $36,000 to $50,000 annually, “the cost of a robot welding cell starts at $100,000” and can rise up to $200,000 quite quickly. In short, the industry is moving towards automating welders. That’s the fact of the matter. But that’s not to say human welders are no longer needed.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Share your comments and predictions. Let us know how you feel about automated welding machines.

Do you think human welders will soon be obsolete?

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