We’ve spent some time recently discussing how best to fill the skills gap in metal fabrication. We’ve talked about the value of Millennials, education, motivation, and how manufacturing, for the most part, is perceived as an old, dirty, industry. We’ve discussed the role women play in fulfilling jobs on the metal fabrication shop floor. The goal here has not been to necessarily place “blame”, but to find solutions. Can the skills gap be minimized by getting trade schools to better train students in the skills we need? Sure. Do we need to do a better job in reaching out to Millennials and in repositioning our industries as clean and innovative? Absolutely. Would attracting women welders help fulfill the lack of skilled welders? Definitely. But there is another opportunity for us in closing the skills gap in metal fabrication. That option is automation.

The Angst of Automation

Here’s where we are at when it comes to the skills gap and automation. Metal fabrication shop owners will likely be more than happy to tell you they have orders but need welders. They may even complain how difficult it is these days to find skilled welders. When you discuss automation, however, many don’t just see it as a difficult transition, but as a solid brick wall. Automation is often seen as so challenging, that finding new welders is a breeze by comparison. “No thank you” they’ll say to automation, “We may be losing some skilled people to retirement, and may even have to turn down an order or two, but I would rather struggle finding replacement welders than even think about automation.”

Is automation the answer? Perhaps no more than improved training, wages, or perceptions. The fact is it, however, it is certainly “an” answer. Here’s something to consider. In a recent STEM-based survey (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), almost 60 percent of schools said they were moving toward a robotics approach as opposed to a skills-based approach. In other words, schools are becoming more focused on teaching skills involving robotics than individualized skills like welding. Program the robots, but don’t learn the skills the robots may have. We are going to have to deal with that.

Automation in a Metal Fabrication Shop

It may help to remember that automated welding through robotics, especially on repetitious welds, is not a theory. Using robotics for this mundane work and saving talented welders for more skilled welds is a practical solution for metal fabrication facilities across the country, including at Wiley Metal. The difficulty lies in finding/hiring a robotic programmer/operator with the skills to program automated systems. It may lie in determining which of your current welders can make the transition from welder to robotic welding operator. If that sounds daunting, it is likely an easier choice than turning a computer programmer into a welder.

Empowering Your Welding Team

The difference is that while a robotics programmer may have no interest in welding, a welder is used to working with tools. They can more easily see how their welding skills can help them program a new “tool” like automation or robotics, and they have the skills to know when the automated welding is being performed appropriately. Are welders a bit fearful of automation? Sure. But that fear is eased when they realize that their skills are being reserved for more creative, complex projects that they enjoy. Instead of fearing robotics they can control it and that can empower them. It can also move your company forward with people already on your team.

How are you using robotics and automation in your metal fabrication shop? What challenges has it presented and what problems has it resolved? Let us know!