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A century of innovation in welding

ESAB Group : 13 October, 2004  (Technical Article)
This feature traces the evolution of the ESAB company, which has just celebrated its centenary.
The years between 1890 and 1910 witnessed discoveries and practical innovations that provided the foundations of the modern world. It was a period of relentless innovation and technological progress during which man came to realise that anything might indeed be possible. After all, 100 miles per hour was exceeded on land for the first time and the Atlantic was crossed in less than five days.

By 1904, a Swedish marine engineer called Oscar Kjellberg had begun to experiment with flux coated welding rods, aimed at making the electric arc welding process a practical reality. The company he formed to take his invention forward, Elektriska Svetsnings Aktiebolaget - The Electric Welding Company - is now known worldwide as ESAB.

During the subsequent century its technology has helped to give form to a kaleidoscopic range of products and projects, which see service in environments from the ocean floor to outer space.

Kjellberg's interest in electric welding was prompted by the difficulties attendant on repairing the marine boilers of the time. Steam ships were among the most advanced means of transport available but riveted boiler construction made them prone to leakage at the joints, impairing performance and fuel efficiency.
Electric arc welding, first demonstrated by the Russian, Nikolai Bernardos, in 1881 appeared to provide a solution. It utilised a carbon electrode to strike an arc while the joint was filled using a metal filler rod. This was later improved upon by Nikolai Slavanioff; he substituted a combined filler/electrode for the carbon used by Bernardos. However neither technique protected the weld pool from air, resulting in a porous weld that leaked anyway.

The initial process offered by ESAB refined this method. It relied on building the welded joint in short sections; as each section was completed a hammer was used to work the weld metal. Though quite slow, the result was a strong, non-porous joint. Income from repairs affected using this technique funded development of the flux coated electrode, which Kjellberg patented in 1907.

This was a major step forward as the coating melted to generate a protective gas shield (CO2) whilst the molten slag solidified to further protect the weld metal as it solidified. Moreover, it proved possible to develop a coating recipe that also supported overhead welding, solving a key problem in repair applications. The coated electrode offered the capability to produce longer continuous welds over a shorter period of time as well as to build up a weld with several successive beads to join thick sections. Modern MMA welding had arrived.

Revolutionary though the coated electrode was, uptake by industry was slow.
There was also a DIY element to the original process, as electrodes were made for immediate use by dipping the filler wire into a coating mixture. Likewise the power supply and control equipment was large and cumbersome. The process did not gain a wider interest until welding techniques were adopted to speed production for armaments during the First World War, and later as certification of welding procedures for ship construction was introduced in 1919/20. In addition, factory-made coated electrodes such as the extruded and oxidising mineral types became available, bringing with them greater utility.

During the 1920s welding companies evolved towards manufacture and supply of equipment and consumables as more industries began to use the technology. Throughout this period ESAB grew steadily but continued to concentrate on providing welding services rather than the manufacturing and marketing of welding electrodes and equipment; an approach that was changed soon after Oscar Kjellberg's death in 1931.

The 1930s saw major reorganisation within ESAB, including the establishment of several new overseas sales subsidiaries. By 1939 the group's turnover had increased fivefold compared with 1931. However, following the break out of war, European trading conditions deteriorated badly with many of ESAB's production facilities being destroyed or requisitioned.

During the immediate post-war years reconstruction programmes throughout Europe boosted demand for ESAB's products. Ironically the high demands for the war effort in the preceeding years had already proved the value of electric arc welding -both manual and submerged arc (SAW).

In addition, the new processes of TIG and MIG welding had been developed.
By the start of the fifties, electric arc welding thus became the fabrication process of choice for applications that ranged from assembly of agricultural machinery to shipbuilding and the fabrication of pressure vessels for nuclear power plants. ESAB responded with improvements in welding equipment and consumables, and was particularly active in the area of welding systems automation.

The company also introduced thyristor controlled rectifier power sources during the 1960s and developed its first light weight compact inverter based power source in the 1970s. With the development of the thyristor and the microprocessor, ESAB was quick to recognise the rapid advances being made towards production automation.

The company commenced development of systems for robotic arc welding applications and to adapt microprocessor technology for control of welding parameters.

Between 1945 and 1980 ESAB had been riding the wave of worldwide industrial expansion, establishing subsidiaries and joint ventures throughout the industrialised world. By now welding systems were complemented with oxy-acetylene cutting machines and equipment, which later expanded to embrace plasma, water jet and laser cutting technology.

In parallel with effective, quality products, the company continued to provide customers with high-level support and training to ensure optimum results. Nevertheless the oil crisis of the early 1970s and the rise of Far Eastern industrial powers began to change the previous world order.

By the time Bengt Eskilson was appointed to lead ESAB in 1980 Europe and the USA were in serious recession. Europe's shipbuilding industry had been decimated during the 1970s and demand from other sectors for welding consumables was at a low. Too many suppliers for too few customers led to a price war which threatened ESAB's existence.

ESAB embarked on a courageous programme of acquisitions, buying up the welding divisions of a number of large corporations for whom welding was a marginal activity. GKN, Philips and BOC were among the companies who sold their welding and cutting interests to ESAB. This accelerated the consolidation of supply and helped to restore stability to the market while reinforcing ESAB's leading position among welding and cutting systems suppliers. In 1984 ESAB began a successful expansion into the US market through the acquisition of Airco, followed by Alloy Rods and L-Tec in 1989. This transformed the group into the second largest welding systems supplier in the USA.

Lars Westerberg succeeded Bengt Eskilson in 1991 and expansion continued, but this time to the east. Following the fall of Communism the company acquired a number of welding suppliers in Hungary, the Czech Republic and, subsequently, Poland. In 1994 a new chapter emerged for ESAB, as the group became part of the UK based industrial conglomerate, Charter plc. Throughout this period ESAB continued to support technological innovation through a combination of in-house development, customer inspired projects and co-operation with leading research institutes.

The company was a major partner for TWI's development of friction stir welding, and has since successfully commercialised the process. In addition, ESAB has developed tandem MIG and multi-wire SAW processes to provide higher productivity for arc welding applications, and has a joint venture with Permanova for development of laser hybrid welding systems.

Today, in 2004, and under the leadership of British-born CEO Jon Templeman, ESAB is represented in over 35 countries and with 24 manufacturing plants worldwide. With over 6000 employees worldwide, ESAB is a very different company from the one founded 100 years ago, but its core values remain the same - an uncompromising quest for technical excellence and continuous improvement matched by a strong commitment to customer applications and needs.

With emerging markets in Russia, China, the Middle East and South East Asia and strengthening economies in mature markets, the outlook for the metal fabrication industries and ESAB in particular look very positive.
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