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Smart automation solves skills shortages

By: Stephanie McDonald
12 August, 2011

As the debate around Australia’s skills shortage rumbles on, industry is looking to technology as a way to beat the problem.

As Australia continues to deal with a skills shortage of trades people across many industries – particularly building, mining and manufacturing – companies are beginning to look to other solutions.

One of those is automation.

In mining operations, welding automation can include mechanical seam trackers and height sensors. These products can be used in conjunction with other products to accurately maintain the required, pre-set distance between the gun or torch and the workpiece in automated welding and cutting operations.

Some companies also custom-make products for challenging projects. Welding technology firm Gullco was recently involved with a project in Mackay manufacturing a custom-made automation product.

"It was for a customer who does hard facing build-ups of mining and earth moving equipment. It was a new process for the industry and certainly a new one for Gullco," Marc Tyndall, managing director at Gullco Australia, said.

"It’s a very unconventional way of hardfacing the material."

One of the biggest challenges was tackling the heat of Mackay in Queensland, which can experience over 30 degree Celsius days in summer.

"The duty cycle of what this machine works is incredible. In a 12-hour shift they get over 10.5 hours production out of our equipment, which is extremely high," Tyndall told IndustrySearch.

"The nature of the power that’s used for hardfacing is 60 per cent tungsten and 40 per cent nickel. Tungsten is very abrasive and destructive in most cases, so to foolproof our system from that was the major challenge."

To meet that challenge, Gullco altered parts of the product to brass rollers and re-engineered the entire system in conjunction with the client, IMES. The company now has four of the systems in place in Mackay.

The approach of designing products for specific client needs has seen some growth in recent years. Tyndall said this is in response to Australia’s demanding market as our mining sector has taken off.

Around 50 per cent of Gullco’s business is now custom-made products. Tyndall said the biggest challenge was finding clients who are willing to try something new.

However, this has changed according to Tyndall as: "Most of our clients are looking for ways to save time and money and be more profitable with automation versus manual labour."

This has largely been a result of the lack of trades people available to complete work.

"It’s getting worse and worse. With the amount of projects on in the country at the moment, I can’t foresee it getting any better, so automation is the cheap solution to solving most welding and cutting applications," Tyndall said.

It’s up to the government to help remedy this skills shortage, according to Tyndall. He said trades were forgotten around 10 years ago when the focus for school leavers was on IT and computer-oriented jobs.

This left many trades, particularly "dirty" ones like welding, off the radar.

"[Welding] is probably one of the higher paid trades at the moment and the most in demand," Tyndall said.

The skills shortage has been both a hindrance and an advantage for companies like Gullco.

"In one sense it’s good for us because our clients are having a hard time finding skilled labour and they’re looking for alternatives [such as automation]," he said.

"From my point-of-view, our business has doubled in the last 18 months due to that fact and I’m having trouble finding staff to keep up with the boom."

Gullco is now branching out into new markets overseas. It has a project in Papua New Guinea which is scheduled to begin early next year. This foray into gas pipeline welding is new for the company.

"It’s something that we’ve been trying to get into and the marketplace hasn’t been very willing to accept automation," Tyndall said.

"Once again, due to a lack of skilled labour and time restraints and the amount of work that’s on at the moment, we have had a huge swing where people are contacting us and asking us how we can improve their business and their profit."

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