Implementation of Welding Simulation for Pre-Employment Evaluation and Entry Level GMAW Welder Training


David J. Landon,
Manager of Welding Engineering,
Vermeer Corporation

1. Introduction

Vermeer delivers a real impact on the way important work gets done through the manufacture of high-quality agricultural, underground construction, surface mining, tree care and environmental equipment. With a reputation for being built tough and built in a better way, that equipment is backed by localized customer service and support provided by independent dealers around the world. Founded by Gary Vermeer in the late 1940’s, Vermeer Corporation is a company with innovation at its core.  Even after 70 years of innovation, Gary’s common phrase, ’’There has to be a better way,“ still rings true today. This innovation is not only reflected through the products we manufacture, but also in our method of manufacturing and all aspects of the business, including pre-employment evaluation and entry-level training of welders.

2. Abstract

In 1997, Vermeer Corporation began the lean journey of implementing continuous-improvement through the principles of the Toyota Production System.  The process of continuous-improvement now applies to everything we do – manufacturing, engineering, information-technology, marketing and sales, as well as training and development.
The use of virtual-reality weld simulation is an example of how Vermeer Corporation is implementing continuous-improvement and innovation in our business processes.  As an early adopter, Vermeer Corporation purchased our first welding simulator in 2008.
Currently Vermeer Corporation employs over 380 production welders using the MIG/MAG welding process.  Vermeer Corporation has had an internal welder-training program for 28 years.  Over these 28 years Vermeer Corporation has trained almost 3000 welders.  On average roughly 100 welders are trained through the Vermeer program every year due to growth and attrition.  Because of this steady flow in our hiring process, we have developed a defined process to evaluate prospective employees.
The Vermeer Corporation new hire welder evaluation process consists of four parts: application submission, phone screen, interview and welding evaluation.  In the welding evaluation, Vermeer Corporation incorporates virtual reality welding simulation to assist in the process.
The welding evaluation consists of a blueprint or print reading assessment, the use of virutal reality welding assessment and a live arc welding assessment.
Vermeer Corporation currently uses the Lincoln VRTEX® 360+ virtual reality weld simulator.  When a prospective employee is evaluated, the instructor demonstrates the use of the simulator. The prospective employee is then asked to make a horizontal fillet weld using MIG/MAG in the spray arc transfer.  Although the VRTEX® 360+ has several visual cues to assist in the five essential variables, during this assessment Vermeer Corporation will only use the CTWD (contact tip to work distance) cue.  After an intitial pass or two, the prospective employee will make three welds.  The instructor will utilize the graphic feedback of the VRTEX® 360+ to provide instruction to the welder to make improvements.  During this short evaluation, although an individual is given three attempts to score 85 or higher out of a possible 100, the primary evaluation is on the welder’s ability to listen to instruction and make correction.
The welding parameters that are utilized in this assessment are based on the actual parameters used in production following a qualified Vermeer Corporation welding procedure specification.  In order to accomplish this, we had to slightly modify the factory settings on the tolerances of the five essential variables that are monitored in the simulation: travel speed, contact tip to work distance, travel angle, work angle  and position of the wire in the joint.
After the assessment using the welding simulation, the instructor will take the prospective employee to a welding station in our training area and assess the welder’s ability to make a weld using the MIG/MAG process.  This assessment is a validation of what was demonstrated using virtual reality.  The instructor will also take note to see if the welder can remember the instruction given during the welding simulation.
Since Vermeer Corporation has incorporated virtual-reality in our pre-employment assessment, we have noticed several benefits.  The welding simulation provides quantitative measurable results of the assessment.  It also provides the instructor the specific areas of diffeciency in which the welder can improve.  The use of welding simulation has also provided a way to measure the welder’s ability to apply the improvement suggestions.
Once a welder has been hired, Vermeer Corporation will send the welder to a three-week internal welder training program.  All new welders, skilled or unskilled, are required to participate in the entry level training.  In the United States today, hiring a skilled welder is very difficult, so the vast majority of new welders have little to no welding experience.
The Vermeer welder training program consists of classroom training, virtual reality training and hands-on welding.
The classroom training covers topics such as job safety analyses, welding symbols, blueprint reading, welding procedure specifications, common weld defects and weld acceptance criteria.
Because 98% of the welding at Vermeer is solid wire MIG/MAG, only the MIG/MAG welding process is taught.  This is true for the virtual reality training as well as the hands-on welding.
For the first seven days (approximately the first half of the training) the students supplement the hands-on welding with the use of virtual reality welding simulation.  The students are paired up and work together using the welding simulation.  The students are required to become accomplished at making a single pass horizontal fillet weld, a three pass horizontal fillet weld and and a 10 millimter vee groove weld in the flat position.
It has been our experience that when the students are paired together and work together using the welding simulation, they learn from each other.  Because the feedback to the student is immediate, it provides valuable learning for the student in the area of cause and affect.  Each day a pair of students will work with the welding simulation for 20 minutes.  After that the students will print out a score sheet and post the score sheet and graph in the welding station for the instructor’s reference.
Prior to allowing a student to weld a performance qualification test, they must first pass the virtual-reality simulation welder performance test.
The hands-on welding portion of the Vermeer Corporation welder-training not only teaches welding, but incorporates our lean culture into the learning.  This is done through the use of andon lights for signaling, shadow boards for tools, practicing the principles of 5S and the use of welding instruction manuals for each of the welding competencies that must be performed.  For the hands-on welding portion of the training, Vermeer has learned the optimum student to instructor ratio is six students per one instructor.
The benefits Vermeer Corporation has seen from incorporating virtual-reality welding simulation into our new employee training include providing the instructor with the specific variables on which to focus for improvement, the students gain a better understanding of the five essential variables (because the students welds are given a score), the students learn through competition as well as teamwork and finally the teamwork developed through the training extends into the workplace.
In addition to pre-employment evaluations and entry level welder training, Vermeer Corporation has utilized virtual-reality welding simulation in retraining or improving the skills of current or incumbent workers.  We will bring the simulator to the workplace and spend a week working with a particular group of welders.  Each day, a welder will spend 15 to 20 minutes using the welding simulator to establish a base line score and graph.  The instructor will evaluate the graph and identify areas to focus on as the welder begins to weld production.  Throughout the day the instructor works with the welders to improve in the areas identified by the weld simulator.  At the end of the day, the welder will weld with the simulator to measure the improvement.  This process continues for a full week.  Our history of using the welding simulator in this manner has shown an average of 12-14% improvement in employee’s scores, which translate into improved quality and productivity.
In August of 2012, Vermeer Corporation introduced the use of virtual-reality welding simulation into cross cultural training.  Vermeer Beijing Manufacturing, Ltd., a subsidiary of Vermeer Corporation located in Beijing, China had been experiencing some weld quality issues.  The VRTEX® 360+ was used as part of a blended training with traditional hands on welding for local workforce in China to improve the quality of welding.
In summary, the use of virtual reality welding simulation has become a vital portion of the way that Vermeer Corporation trains its welders.  It truly is a powerful tool that incorporates technology, experience and immediate feedback to the student and the instructor, thus providing, as Gary Vermeer would say, ’‘a better way’’ to train welders.