A new kind of welding

Iowa Central Community College Welding Technology instructor Branden Otto lowers his helmet, adjusts it a bit and then grabs the wire feed welding head.

He moves into position, then strikes an arc.

The bright light flickers, the electricity makes sizzling noises and sparks fly off of the two pieces of mild steel being joined together.

A few seconds later, the pass complete, he lifts the helmet and looks at his work.

Then he pushes a few buttons on the Lincoln Electric VR-Tex 360 Virtual Welding simulator – and does it again.

The $60,000 machine – delivered in early August – is the latest teaching tool at his disposal to help his students sharpen their skills.

After each “weld” the computer screen displays a graph that tells the student exactly how they did, something that isn’t always possible with a real weld.

It measures their welding angle, arc length, speed and can even tell them if they would have left a void.

“If they’re constantly having problems they use this as a tool,” he said.

He said that if a student needs more under-the-helmet practice time, the simulator not only gives them that, but also offers the ability to correct their technique as they work.

As an example, the arc length indicator can be set to show green for proper distance, red for too close or too far and yellow for approaching the red zone.

“This has cheater cues,” he said.

On a real weld, instead of a colored light, the rod or wire would fuse to the work if too close or go out if too far.

Because of the wide range of adjustments in physical position of the work, the type of material being simulated, work site location, type of welding and the shape of what’s being welded, almost nothing is beyond reach for training.

Well, almost nothing.

“There are no hot sparks,” he said.

Student response to the simulator has been good.

“Most of them say it’s pretty cool,” he said. “Basically, it’s a welding video game.”

He said that in addition to teaching students, simulators like Iowa Central’s are also used in industry.

“They use them as part of the hiring process, ongoing training and to see what areas their employees can improve in,” he said.

The machine was paid for with a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training grant, which was part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In the future, he said plans call for using the machine as a recruitment tool in addition to a teaching aid.

It lets people try welding without putting on the full protective gear.

“It will help people get interested in welding,” he said. “There’s a high demand for skilled welders.”

Also new at Iowa Central welding technology, is a CNC Plasma Cutter Table.

It’s used for cutting parts out of flat sheets of metal. Students learn blueprint reading skills and have to be able to program the cutter to produce the required parts.

The course also includes instructions in robotic welding that in spite of its advance state, will probably never replace a skilled human on the factory floor.

“A person still needs to know the process,” Otto said.

In addition, it takes a skilled welder to set up the machines properly, troubleshoot them when something isn’t right and make welds in places where the machine can’t reach.

For more information on the Iowa Central Community College Welding Technology program see www.iowacentral.edu.