The History & Future of Welding Technology
When we think of welding, we tend to think of it as a fairly recent technology used to construct some of the marvels of the modern age.
The truth is that there are dozens of forms of welding, some of which date back over five thousand years.
Ever since man first began shaping metal, there has been a desire to fuse two pieces of it together. It is entirely logical then that some the first welders were blacksmiths and the first techniques used to bond metals were accomplished with a hammer and a forge. The basic methodology was to heat a material the point of malleability, and then smash it into another piece of similarly heated metal until they stuck together. This process remains largely the same today and is still used by blacksmiths to forge bespoke blades and ornaments.
Let’s explore some more history of the welding industry and analyze how it will shape the future.
The History Welding: Forge Welding
Forge welding was the preferred process of joining metals from the early bronze age (circa 3,500 B.C.) through 1836, when gas welding became possible with the discovery of acetylene. Although this represented a tremendous leap forward in welding technology, early welding gases were inconsistent and expensive and the quest for more modern methods continued. In 1877, English-born American engineer Elihu Thomson invented the process of resistance welding by chance while preparing a lecture at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Eight years later, in 1885, Thomson built the first electric welder.
In 1887, Nikolai Bernardos and Stanislaw Olszewski patented the first carbon electrode to be used with the arc welding technology developed in 1881 by Auguste de Méritens to join lead battery plates and manual metal arc welding was born. The process was cemented in 1890 when C.L. Coffin of Detroit was awarded the first U.S. patent for arc welding with a metal electrode. In stark contrast to the approach used by earlier methods, thermite welding was developed by Hans Goldschmidt in 1893 and by 1899 it was being used to join sections of railway in Germany. Over a century later, Goldschmidt’s process is still common in the rail industry.
The twentieth century brought about rapid development in the burgeoning practice of welding during the machine age and many of the processes we are all familiar with today were developed during this time. Although the arc welding process and carbon electrodes had been invented years earlier, the welds produced by this process were prone to flaws and unsuitable for use in structural applications.
Everything changed in 1900 when Arthur Percy Strohmenger and Oscar Kjellberg released the first coated electrodes, which offered increased arc stability and more consistent welds.
In 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, twenty members of the Wartime Committee of the Emergency Fleet Corporation founded the American Welding Society. Alternating current welding was also introduced by C.J. Holslag the same year but would not gain popularity for another decade until electrodes were developed which favored the process.
In 1920, P.O. Nobel of General Electric invented automatic welding; the first process to feed a wire electrode automatically based on arc voltage and the basis for what would later become MIG welding. A decade later, National Tube Works Company of McKeesport, Pennsylvania developed the submerged arc welding process to achieve higher deposition rates in pipe welding, a purpose for which it is still very popular to this day.
Welding During Times of War
Warfare has served to spur many major technological advancements and World War II proved to be no exception. One of the least-appreciated yet most significant contributions to welding technology was born in California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard in early 1941 when shipbuilder Ted Nelson invented stud welding for use in attaching deck boards to ships. Prior to Nelson’s invention, decking was attached with nuts and bolts using wrenches and large scaffolding systems. Nelson’s process was estimated to have saved the U.S. Navy more than 50 million man-hours during WWII. The process he invented bears his name to this day as a registered trademark of the Stanley® company. Around the same time, Russell Meredith of the Northrup Aircraft Corporation developed the standard process for gas tungsten arc welding for use in aircraft construction using aluminum and titanium. His patent would later be licensed to Linde, who renamed it Heliarc and invested heavily in further development of the process. The post-war years saw a booming U.S. economy which further drove the need for new and improved welding processes capable of supporting infrastructure, construction, transportation, and demand for consumer goods. The prevalent technologies of the jet age were shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) and gas metal arc welding
The History of GTAW Welding
(GTAW). These processes were capable of producing high-quality welds, but not at the high deposition rates that manufacturing demanded. This led to the development of gas metal arc welding (GMAW / MIG) at Battelle Memorial Institute in 1948. With much higher deposition rates than competing processes, gas metal arc welding quickly gained popularity and has been renowned for its ease of use and speed ever since. In 1949 electron-beam welding was developed by German physicist Dr. Karl-Heinz Steigerwald, which uses a high energy beam of focused electrons to weld without filler metal in a vacuum. This process can weld complex joints with a very small heat affected zone. The space age saw the first patent awarded for the plasma arc welding process to Robert Gage of Union Carbide in 1957.
Plasma arc welding is very precise and produces very high quality welds on a variety of materials. Perhaps the most extreme form of metal fusion, explosion welding was developed by DuPont in 1962 and can be used to bond two metals that cannot be welded by other means. In this process, two sheets of material (a backer and a cladder) are buried in a granulated explosive compound which is then detonated at the corner, permanently sandwiching the sheets together. In 1964, Kumar Patel of Bells Labs developed the Co2 laser and laser beam welding was born. This process is similar in theory to electron-beam welding but electrons are transmitted via light at a 10.6μm wavelength and the process need not be performed in a vacuum.
The Development of Friction Stir Welding (FSW)
Friction Stir Welding (FSW) was invented by Wayne Thomas of The Welding Institute in 1991. FSW uses a tool that rotates at high speed and travels across a joint where downward force is applied and heat is induced by the friction of the tool meets the plate. No filler material is used and the heat-affected zone is extremely minimal. This technology is most commonly used to join aluminum alloys up to 75mm in thickness but is also capable of joining dissimilar metals including magnesium, titanium, and nickel.
The Welding of The Present and Future
Modern-day welding technology is largely focused on process improvement, waste reduction, and efficiency. While robots have been integrated into welding processes since General Motors adopted the UNIMATE in 1962, recent improvements in collaborative robotics technology have allowed robots to work right alongside their human counterparts in flexible applications that don’t require lofty upfront investments, dedicated floor space, and lengthy programming sequences. These “cobots” are well-suited to welding applications and can be integrated into a production welding environment in a matter of hours, expanding or supplementing manufacturing capacity exactly when and where the need arises. As the needs of an ever-evolving economy change, the future is sure to see the continuation of the storied tradition of innovation and adaptation of welding technology that has shaped the world we live in today.
As the welding industry & it’s needs continue to evolve, we will continue to bring you the most updated information and products here at American Torch Tip.