With the growth of cobots and more user-friendly pre-engineered robotic cells, automation has reached a tipping point. To fully appreciate the far-reaching implications of technology “beyond the arc,” first consider the convergence of several factors taking place right now.
We have talked with a number of manufacturers who see a robust sales cycle continuing until Q2 2023, but uncertainty beyond that. Experts, such as JPMorgan Chase, predict a mild recession beginning in late 2023. The company sees “increased spending related to infrastructure and the CHIPS and Science Act offset by reduced pandemic-related outlays. We see business investment up 3% in 2023, with solid spending on equipment and technology partly offset by lower spending on buildings, plants and structures.”
Deloitte projections based on Oxford Economics’ Global Economic Model anticipate 2.5% growth in GDP in manufacturing in 2023. After 29 consecutive months of growth, the November Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index registered 49% and dropped to 48.4 in December. This marks the first time the manufacturing sector contracted since May 2020. However, the labor market remains strong, with manufacturing employment increasing by 8,000 in December.
In typical times, these indicators might signal flat to slight down sales of welding equipment, but we live in anything but typical times. First, supply chain disruptions aren’t going anywhere. To buttress operations against the inevitable disruptions, there is more re-shoring of operations and sourcing of fabricated components closer to their point of use. This means that U.S. fabricators who can compete effectively have new opportunities for growth (as a side note, The Reshoring Initiative offers good guidance on how to make the business case for selling against overseas competitors).
Cobots and robots also make manufacturing cool. Running an automated manufacturing cell is a challenge the younger generation can buy into. Automation also helps attract people who want to alleviate the physical tolls of welding, flex their mind more than their muscles and attract a more diverse talent pool. So does using data analytics applications, welding software and cutting automation. Telling young, relatively inexperienced people that their jobs involve computers, nesting software, CNC controllers or robots enables them to impact a business in a short time frame compared to the years it can take to master welding.
Overall, when we look at addressing the shortage of welding professionals, all of us need to build awareness of the opportunities, including advocating for automation and all the welding careers within the distribution channel. If you think about it, the greater goal of both is to help fabricators and manufactures become more productive.
If you know a young person who wants to pursue an educational path toward a welding career, remind them that the AWS Foundation is offering more than $2 million in scholarships in 2023 and that March 1 is the deadline to apply for National, District, and Section Scholarships.
Cobots are a game-changer for high-mix, low-volume applications in welding, plasma cutting and post-weld grinding/deburring. They are so easy to set-up and operate (often with smart phone or tablet-like simplicity) that they can arrive on a pallet in the morning and you can be making good parts by the afternoon (as proof points, see these cobot welding videos from Vectis Automation, FANUC and Acieta; these companies shared their wisdom in an automation panel discussion I moderated at FABTECH).
Cobots further flip the automation conversation because a critical mass of parts is no longer necessary to justify the cost of tooling (good tooling makes or breaks a standard robotic cell). Now, with a limited amount of modular tooling and a cobot on a cart, fabricators can profitably weld short runs of selected parts.
I say selected parts because the tasks best suited for cobots are the “boring” parts. If you spot an operator sitting at a bench and loading a few pieces into a basic fixture, that’s likely a good opportunity for you to recommend a cobot and help the customer achieve a quick win. This strategy lets a fabricator deploy their skilled labor on more challenging tasks while a cobot does boring, repetitive work at 2X to 4X the productivity rate of semi-automatic GMAW.
For distributors who wish to raise the bar on their automation expertise and open up new business opportunities to add more value to their customers, consider the AWS Certification Program for Robotic Arc Welding – Operators and Technicians (CRAW). Obtaining CRAW certification develops skills related to robot programming and logic, safety, robotic equipment setup, producing sound parts and coaching customers implementing automation, all of which are becoming as fundamentally valuable as recommending the correct filler wire and shielding gas.
I’d like to conclude this 2023 outlook by returning to the benefits of industry event participation. Our industry is filled with individuals who want to give back to the industry that has provided them not only a solid career with competitive compensation, but lifelong friendships and a close knit community of peers. Right now, we have four generations active in the business. Boomers are working longer, but masses of them are retiring soon. While Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z have different communication styles and learning habits, industry events give them all an opportunity to interact and share their passion for both the science and the craft of welding.
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