With the Internet of Things, ESAB saw an opportunity to leverage their unparalleled experience to improve welding quality and productivity for their customers, as well address challenges like skills gap and burdensome documentation requirements.
ESAB, a division of Colfax based in Sweden, has led the welding industry globally with innovative and reliable products for 116 years. Their portfolio of welding, cutting, and gas management equipment, along with associated consumables, reaches customers in nearly every industry. With the Internet of Things (IoT), ESAB saw an opportunity to leverage their unparalleled experience to improve welding quality and productivity for their customers, as well as address challenges like the skills gap and burdensome documentation requirements.
ESAB also realized they could improve their own operations in the process of solving these problems. With the insights they gained from the IoT solution they developed, they set out to transform their own business and lay the foundation for a digital-first future.
The quality of a weld depends on many factors—the temperature used, the voltage applied, the materials joined, and more. For example, a welder could damage the integrity of the steel if they apply too high a temperature. The consequences of low-quality welds are costly, time-consuming, and in some cases, tragic. Materials could be wasted and, more drastically, infrastructure like bridges could collapse. Metal fabricators also struggle to maintain the productivity and efficiency of the welding machines themselves. Without visibility into the health of their machines, recurring maintenance and unplanned downtime are costly and time-consuming problems.
Quality and productivity aren’t the only challenges that metal fabricators face. Welders today are hard to find. According to the American Welding Society, the United States alone will be short 375,000 welders by 2023. This is a problem because invaluable information often exists only in the heads of experienced welders and is passed down through training. Companies need a way to capture critical information and speed up the learning process for new welders. Additionally, welders are often required to keep extensive documentation on critical welds—such as for bridges or ships—across their projects. The manual paperwork is extremely time-consuming to produce and difficult to access when needed. Sometimes the documentation can be several decades old and take weeks to find.
Building a Comprehensive IoT Solution
ESAB had specific requirements for their IoT solution. First, it needed to connect to brownfield equipment and legacy assets that weren’t built for an IoT environment. Second, it had to have a strong architectural foundation that would facilitate scale and simplify IoT deployment. Third, the solution needed to be open—ESAB needed to deploy the solution to new products and brownfield machines, as well as enable interoperability with third-party devices and data. And finally, the end-user experience was a top priority. It had to be easy to use and guarantee security for themselves and their customers.
Initially, ESAB developed their own on-premises solution. But they soon felt they were spending more time building infrastructure instead of focusing on driving business value. With cloud technology, they realized they could leverage a consistent platform across their business to develop more service offerings for their customers, create a seamless customer experience across the entire fabrication workflow, and improve the efficiency of their own operations.
When ESAB connected with Microsoft and PTC, they immediately saw the advantages of partnering with the two IoT leaders. Leveraging Microsoft Azure IoT and PTC ThingWorx, ESAB created WeldCloud, CutCloud, and FloCloud—online management systems that connect welding equipment and other supplies to a software platform that manages and analyzes data. These solutions digitize the welding process, improve customer productivity, and give customers visibility into their operations. With ready-to-configure solutions that don’t require extensive coding experience, ThingWorx enabled ESAB to quickly connect their existing machines and bring their IoT solution to market. Azure IoT provided the reliable infrastructure and openness that allowed them to integrate third-party services and data. By moving their IoT data and applications into the cloud, ESAB gained the flexibility to scale solutions globally and deploy advanced analytics to meet customer needs. And secure frameworks provided the highest level of end-to-end security, privacy, compliance, and threat mitigation practices available, from the device to the cloud.
“We wanted to build on the best technologies, which is why we chose Azure and ThingWorx. We were able to accelerate our time to market and safeguard critical data, ensuring we can quickly capitalize on IoT opportunities while staying focused on adding value to our portfolio of products,” says Eyal Shahar, the Direct of Cloud Products and Services at ESAB.
Improving Productivity and Enhancing Visibility
The typical time a welder actually welds is 10% of their shift or lower. Low productivity is driven by any factor that limits a welder’s free time—overhead work, prep work, reworking previous welds, and more. WeldCloud gives operations managers the ability to monitor, understand, and quantify an enormous amount of data and identify ways to increase productivity. Using WeldCloud in manual metal insert gas (MIG) welding, it’s common for customers to boost equipment utilization up to 20% arc-time on (time spent welding versus other tasks), saving as much as €500,000 per year, per machine.
WeldCloud also gives customers more visibility into their equipment and processes. For example, service technicians are proactively alerted if equipment has an anomaly, allowing for preventative and predictive maintenance—saving potentially days of downtime. Stakeholders can view equipment status from anywhere in the world and can track the use and location of welding machines. This is particularly useful for customers with large operational areas like shipyards.
“It was like the customers had a window into their operations. Before, they couldn’t see anything on the production floor, and suddenly it all surfaced. They could investigate productivity and improve it tremendously. Everything that this tool could provide, they utilized,” says Shahar.
Empowering Welders of all Skill Levels and Easing the Burden of Documentation
ESAB’s objectives grew as they developed their solution. While initially focused on visibility, ESAB recognized that by digitizing the welding process they could advance the education of new welders and increase the efficiency of documentation. Digitized welding instructions give welding machines the exact specifications needed to complete a weld: the voltage that needs to be input, the type of current to use, which materials to weld, the wire to use, and more. If something goes wrong or is outside the scope of the instructions—for example, the welding engineer increases the power of their equipment to speed up the welding process—the engineer receives a notification in real time and can react immediately. By digitizing this information, knowledge can be transferred easily. Weld engineers can write instructions and distribute specifications to anyone who needs them.
Digitized documentation enables welders to easily record and access the details of every weld. WeldCloud generates reports in real time and provides documentation with a click of a button, whereas previously it was a lengthy process to file and find what you needed. If there’s a significant failure, anyone with the right access can understand the details of the weld. Sarkinen, a Finnish company that specializes in heavy metal fabrication solutions, leveraged WeldCloud to reduce the task of documentation from hours to minutes per month.
Transforming ESAB’s Business and Reaching New Customers
Beyond impacting customers, IoT has powered ESAB’s own transformation. WeldCloud gives ESAB visibility into how their customers are using their machines, so ESAB can improve their products and processes. If a machine fails or loses productivity, ESAB can examine the reported events to determine what happened and how it happened. Once they determine the cause, they can take action to remedy their current machines and build fixes into the new ones. If they see that customers aren’t using the full capabilities of a machine, ESAB takes that information and optimizes products and sales to better suit their customers’ needs.
“Internally, ESAB learned a lot,” says Shahar. “We can see how the customers are using the machines. All parties involved benefit from WeldCloud. We can optimize our own products and services. Maybe we can produce a cheaper machine, increase our margins, or reduce the prices so we'll have more competitive machines.”
ESAB’s enhanced service offerings have led directly to new types of customers—for example, multinational businesses that need to monitor and drive productivity on sites around the world. One mining company uses WeldCloud to improve the efficiency of their welding procedures globally. By comparing welding processes and performance metrics, they can identify and implement best practices, correct problems, and improve productivity across sites without someone physically present at every location.
Looking to the Future, ESAB will Continue to Innovate and Build New Business Models
ESAB intends to add capabilities that will improve the efficiency of logistics processes and increase their partner ecosystem. Leveraging their IoT platform, they’re exploring opportunities with different business models, such as product-as-service offerings. Backed by Azure IoT and ThingWorx’s end-to-end security and global scalability capabilities, ESAB is moving confidently into the future knowing they can quickly bring new solutions and features to market. Microsoft and PTC’s partnership also gives ESAB peace of mind to know their solution will remain stable, highly secure, and future proof. The two partners will perform the maintenance that otherwise ESAB would be responsible for. And through Azure IoT and ThingWorx, ESAB can rely on an unparalleled pace of innovation that will fuel the modernization of their operations and keep them ahead of the competition.
“Partnering with Microsoft and PTC allowed us to accelerate development and gave us access to a wealth of resources,” said Shahar. “Not only did we get best-of-breed IoT and cloud technology, but we also benefited from their existing product integrations and roadmap for future innovation. We’re excited to continue building new innovations with these partners,” says Shahar.
"Internally, ESAB learned a lot. We can see how customers are using the machines. All parties involved benefit from WeldCloud. We can optimize our own products and services."