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The Wingmen: GE Welders Band Together In New Career As Robot Programmers

Ice Man, Viper, Goose, Hollywood. Any fan of ‘80s movies will recognize the nicknames of the competitive pilots in the movie Top Gun. But those are also the names of four welding robots being programmed by a group of guys who are every bit as competitive, and every bit as supportive, as the pilots in Top Gun.

The group didn’t start out as computer programmers. They were all welders. Stephen Holt had been welding for 20 years when he made the switch to programming. Holt had always considered himself an artisan. “You’re the weld that you put down; that is your signature,” he says. “It’s not something that everybody can do.”

Top and above: The welding that takes place at GE’s manufacturing solutions locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas, requires precision and stamina that make it an ideal task for robots. But training them requires human expertise and brain power. So GE taught a team of welders how to program robots to do the grunt work. Images credit: GE Manufacturing Solutions

But around 2015, at age 41, he began to realize that he might not be able to weld much longer. Holt helps build platforms, the base that the locomotive sits on, at GE’s manufacturing solutions locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas. The platforms are 75 feet long and weigh approximately 120,000 pounds. The welding work on the platforms is physically demanding, requiring welders to bend, lift and twist.

So when the plant offered Holt and his fellow welders the chance to learn to program welding robots, he quickly signed up. “The thought of finding a way to be able to still do welding, but you know maybe still be able to walk or bend over when I’m 60 years old — well, I was all about it,” he laughs. “Plus, having been welding for 20 years, just the thought of new technology and a new way to improve on your craft — I mean, why would you not want to do it?”

Veteran welder Stephen Holt of Fort worth says he jumped at the chance to learn programming. “Having been welding for 20 years, just the thought of new technology and a new way to improve on your craft — I mean, why would you not want to do it?” Image credit: GE Manufacturing Solutions

Holt, and three colleagues — Philip Johnson, Trey Lazarin and Allen Williams — traveled to Wolf Robotics in Fort Collins, Colorado, for a two-week crash course in the complex coding necessary to program the robots. The welders soon realized just how groundbreaking their work was. “The Wolf robotic coding was brand-new, so the teacher was learning it, too,” says Johnson. “But we had books, and we’re pretty smart and fast. By the end, we were outdoing him.”

Back in Fort Worth, it soon became clear that the tendency to compete was going to carry over into the new world of welding programming. In the old days, they had competed to make the best-looking weld or to weld the fastest. Now they were competing together against their own prior work, training machines to weld as well as or better than they could.

But the group also helped one another. In the beginning, Holt says, the welders programmed their machines based on their own tendencies. But they soon began sharing information, helping one another to master the complex welds needed for a locomotive platform. “As a team, when we see that one of us welded a section better than anybody else could have, we all share information,” he says. “I’ve used some of Allen’s ideas, some of Philip’s, some of Trey’s. And they’ve used some of mine.”

“On day one, we could barely even make the thing throw a spark,” says veteran welder Stephen Holt. “But now, we’re almost halfway done with teaching it to weld an entire platform.” Image credit: GE Manufacturing Solutions

In this way, he says, programming the robots is similar to the way he learned to weld from a variety of different welders. “It’s not exactly the same as with hand welding, but it’s the same concept,” he says. “I just went back and changed two work angles today, because I thought the welds looked a little flat. We keep a lot of notes, so we can keep the continuous improvement going.”

After a year and a half of programming robots to weld, Holt is amazed at the progress his team has made. “On day one, we could barely even make the thing throw a spark, but now, we’re almost halfway done with teaching it to weld an entire platform,” he says.

“We’re in the process of producing the most competitive locomotive in North America,” adds Williams. “This not only opens up opportunities for the business but offers employees a chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

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