Lincoln orbital weldingClick image to enlarge 

by Noelle Stapinsky 

Intuitive advancements in orbital welding technology

It goes without saying that manual TIG welding takes a considerable amount of skill and years of experience. Add out-of-position welding processes with pipe and tube and it becomes a next level of expertise to perform quality, repeatable welds. And if the complexity of the process isn’t enough, for those working in the sanitary stainless steel arena, extensive documentation on each weld needs to be produced as food safe and sanitary markets are heavily guarded by quality control. 

The other obvious elephant in the room is a dwindling pool of skilled welders and a lack of new blood entering the workforce—a looming issue that is pushing more companies to look to collaborative mechanized solutions. And suppliers are answering the call with more user-friendly interfaces and software designed specifically for welders. 

Andrew Newman, Fronius’ senior welding application technologist says, “TIG welding takes a lot of skill and a lot of time to get to that comfort level to achieve repeatability at a high quality. If you can take out any variability of the process by automating it, then all of a sudden you’re taking those human variables away. It’s not that operators can’t do it, it just takes a very skilled person and a much longer time to do a single weld versus using an orbital system.”

An orbital welding system with closed welding heads for mechanized TIG welding of thin-walled pipe joints.  froniusClick image to enlargeHowever, orbital welding systems have evolved. “[With today’s systems] everything an operator would need is at their finger tips and it’s preprogrammed and will perform welds for them automatically… rather than back in the day when you had a bank of switches, which we always referred to it as like playing a piano,” says Steve Cole, managing director of Lincoln Electric’s mechanized welding equipment division. “For our systems, we focused on making things more icon and tactile based, and more intuitive for an operator that wants to weld versus an engineer that wants every switch, knob and button under the sun.” 

Process precision
Fronius offers two categories, which includes both MIG and TIG orbital welding systems. Its MIG Flex Track is intended for larger pipe applications. “And when you get into smaller orbital welding, we offer two different TIG options—our Fronius closed head system that’s designed for small thin gauge piping where you’re going to be fusion welding autogenously [without wire], and our open head system which is for larger diameter tubes,” says Newman. 

Fronius’ two TIG options are focused on food grade and energy sector markets that have small stainless steel tubing that has product, water or gas passing through them, which all require perfect welds. For both systems, Fronius has two controller options—the FP3020, which is built into the TIG system, and the FP3030, an external unit that can be attached to any TIG unit. “These systems control all of your parameters and rotational speeds. You can set up different segments around a pipe, such as your 12, three, six and nine o’clock positions, and you can change those parameters as you go. You can start off with one parameter and switch to another as needed. The idea is that the pipe or tube is stationary and the welder will weld all the way around it in the right position.”

Welding torch from Polysoude for narrow groove welding. polysoudeClick image to enlargeWhile these systems do have a certain level of automation built in, there is still a certain amount of manual intervention by a skilled welder  required. Newman explains, “using a remote control, if you’re watching the weld you can make minor adjustments to the arc. If you see a weld going off path, your parameters need to be adjusted and the welder can make those on the fly.”

These controllers not only make the process more efficient, repeatable and faster than manual welding, but they are capable of creating detailed documentation for each weld. “A lot of the industries using this type of equipment are heavily regulated by quality control. With our system, after every weld, you can have it set up to give you an actual print out on every weld that you do, which includes your heat input, travel speeds, volts, amps, etc. You can also have it output to a USB key to store the data,” says Newman.

Headquartered in Edmonton, Alta., Mag Tool distributes Polysoude orbital systems. Michael McGuire of Mag Tool says that Polysoude offers a few different processes, such as an autogenous TIG fusion system for thin wall tubing applications, and TIG wire feed systems, both hot and cold wire options depending on pipe thicknesses and desired production levels. “With TIG hot wire, we can essentially double our weld productivity because the wire is energized as it enters the weld pool, therefore allowing us to travel faster with lower heat input and higher deposition. To increase weld productivity on larger thicknesses we can get into narrow groove welding,” he says. “Polysoude also has plasma key hole welding, a variation of TIG, which is really interesting because we can weld six to eight millimeter thick pipe with one pass and without a bevel.”

In Alberta, McGuire says there’s a lot of oil and gas. Mag Tool is finding more customers looking into orbital systems because the end users are requesting higher quality welds and, of course, data collection. Polysoude offers DAQBox, a data acquisition function that records live heat inputs, deposition rates, etc. “We can program active and passive alarms on essentially any variable or parameter the weld system is controlling and produce electronic or printed documentation after the welds.” he says. 

The Digital World
Lincoln Electric offers two platforms for arc movement in orbital welding; one is TIG centric and a very focused platform for orbital TIG welding, the other is a multi-process platform that offers TIG, MIG, flux core, hotwire TIG and hotwire laser functions. “Our Helix M (multi-process) will weld just about anything. What is unique or groundbreaking about the technology is that we no longer develop products specifically for a market or solution. This gives us the ability to make one product that can simply adapt to different markets based on the software driving it,” says Cole. 

Moving toward a digitized platform is one of the biggest leaps in transforming orbital systems into the more user-friendly processes they are today. Cole explains that older systems had a long cord connecting the welding head to a controller. This cord would contain a significant amount of wires that allowed the machine to communicate and work properly. If it got run over or wires broke, a technician needed to be on hand to maintain the equipment. “Now, with all of those wires removed, you’re just dealing with a digital link communicating between the two devices,” he says. “One of the things with our equipment that’s groundbreaking is if we want to add an onboard wire feeder to our machine, we just plug it inline to the control cable and the option automatically shows up like a mouse in Microsoft Windows. You don’t need a technician to add that option; it can be done with a couple of Allen keys and a plug. This is where you’re starting to see the technology change.”

Cole continues, “we’re taking the cost of ownership dramatically down because the equipment has become much simpler to use and easier to own and operate. The other aspect that’s a major change is the user interface. It’s more tuned toward a welder rather than an engineer. Yes, the quality of the weld will depend on how well you prep the material, but these systems are so simple now, you pretty much just punch in the diameter of the pipe and material type and hit go.”

Being able to operate these orbital systems wirelessly also gives operators the ability to perform welds in high or inaccessible spaces.

Cole points out there’s increased interest in such systems from the process pipe industry, which is typically dealing with schedule 40, 80 and double X—heavy walled pipe, which has historically been welded with stick or a manual wire process. “Due to a labour shortage, these companies are looking to mechanized solutions for two reasons: predictability of a project and being able to deliver a part on time. A lot of companies we are talking to can’t find enough competent welders to complete a job in a timely manner, and they’re turning down work because they don’t have the resources.”

When you get into the process pipe area, where you’re dealing with pipe rather than tube, it becomes all about consumables, base material and the joint cut. Are welders prepping the joint properly? Do they have a good fit up and does the machine have the ability to do what they need it to do? “It becomes a much more complicated system when you get to that level,” says Cole. “And that’s where we play most in the market.”

For data collection, Lincoln also offers options for operating in remote areas and on the shop floor. “The technology we have allows either isolation or fully integrated solutions that work with a cloud based system. It can produce and post all the work that’s been done to the Internet. Companies can review elements such as usage and weld data from the machine, as well as configure limits on different capabilities of the machine, and remotely upload or download programs. If there’s a problem, you can extract the machine’s status information and send it to an engineer who can tell you what piece or part is not working and how to replace it without actually having to deploy a technician every time you have a problem.”

There are companies doing repeatable welds day in and day out. Programs can be preloaded and a program runs repeatable. But for those dealing with different material types, joints and processes, the parameters can be loaded and tweaked along the way. And this becomes very operator specific—the more experienced the operator, the faster he or she can run the machine. Cole says depending on what you’re starting from; you can see improvements in productivity from 20 to 100 per cent. “If you’re stick welding 64-inch diameter pipe, I can do circles around you with orbital equipment.”

With Polysoude technology, McGuire says that if you’re working with stainless steel and welding a pipe to a flange that is six-inch schedule 40, for example, to do it manually with TIG and roll the pipe, will take about an hour. But with orbital 5G cold wire it’s 40 minutes, or orbital TIG wire or hot wire, it’s 18 minutes. “If I was to push that into a situation where I can roll the pipe and have the torch stationary in a 1G position, I’m looking at 28 minutes with cold wire, nine and a half minutes with hot wire, and two minutes with plasma key hole. There’s a substantial savings.” he says.

The return on investment for such technology is undeniable. Cole, Newman and McGuire all agree that the biggest investment is in the training, but if you have skilled welders, the learning curve is short. 

Having mechanized, repeatable capabilities will also allow companies to reserve their highly skilled welders for critical manual welds, while allowing more novice welders to operate the orbital systems. With the new digitized platforms, intuitive interfaces designed for welders, and robust data collection capabilities, Cole advises that these are not your orbital systems of the past. If you haven’t looked at them in awhile, it’s time to look again. SMT

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