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Auto-Darkening Helmets Increase Safety and Productivity

Previously considered an extravagance, more and more welders have come to realize practical safety and productivity benefits using auto-darkening helmets.

It would be a stretch to call welders yes-men, but after years of flipping helmets down with a quick head-bob there’s no doubt they’ve become experts at nodding.

Becoming adept at saying yes without saying anything is only one of the unintended consequences of frequently flipping a welding helmet up and down, however.

Potential motion injuries, reduced productivity, increased weld clean up and slower training turnaround time are all effects of using traditional welding helmets. Until the invention of auto-darkening helmets, however, such drawbacks were paid little thought or simply considered an inescapable part of the job.

At an average of about two-pounds each, the weight of a traditional welding helmet, combined with the quick jolting motion of flipping the helmet down, could result in real and career-threatening injuries.

While rare, repetitive motion injuries associated with traditional welding helmets have led some companies to take action.

Ed Forbes, vice president of operations for Engineered Metals & Composites, Inc. (EM&C) in West Columbia, SC, said his company has never even allowed a traditional welding helmet into its plant.

The four arc sensors make auto-darkening helmets ideal for demanding, low-voltage TIG applications, such as this anodized aluminum tuna tower manufactured by EM&C, Inc.

“We knew that repetitive stress injuries can and do occur as a result of using traditional welding helmets, so we standardized all 105 of our welders on auto-darkening helmets right from the start,” Forbes said. “Because auto-darkening helmets are all we use, we’ve been able to reduce our workers compensation insurance rates and had fewer trips to the emergency room from arc-flashed eyes than companies that use traditional helmets.” EM&C, a leading designer and manufacturer of aluminum components for small boats and yachts, is known for its high-volume, high productivity TIG fabrication skills.

The most significant benefits of auto-darkening helmets are realized by welders who need to perform short, frequent welds, requiring them to flip the helmet up and down dozens or hundreds of times an hour (such as EM&C’s welding of anodized aluminum tubing for tuna towers, see photo).

In addition to eliminating the nodding motion, auto-darkening helmets can also take a lot of weight off of a welder’s neck.

“One of our key design criteria is to reduce weight,” explained Tom Sommers, product development manager for Miller Electric Mfg. Co., a leading supplier of auto-darkening helmets. “Our helmets typically weigh between a pound and 18 ounces for the Miller Elite Series™. Innovations in materials engineering have allowed us to create helmets that are both structurally sound and far lighter than traditional helmets.”

Sommers saw first hand the effects a traditional welding helmet can have and the difference an auto-darkening helmet can have at a recent trade show.

“This guy came up to me and said ‘If it weren’t for these helmets, I wouldn’t be welding anymore,’” Sommers said. “He went on to show me this scar going down the back of his neck. He’d needed to have neck surgery, and a lot of it was caused by welding with previous generation welding helmets.”

The advantages of auto-darkening helmets don’t stop with safety, however.

Justifying the higher price of auto-darkening helmets relative to non-auto-darkening helmets has been one of the major obstacles for many companies operating on limited budgets. As Robert Lantrip found out the hard way, however, the helmets can actually pay for themselves in efficiency increases.

Lantrip owns Ourco Welding and Industrial Supplies, a Houston-area mobile welding distributor who occasionally performs his own fabrication work. After finishing the first of three fixtures he was welding, his auto-darkening helmet flew out of the bed of his delivery truck and broke.

“There was a lot of fitting and short 2- to 3-in. welds,” Lantrip explained. “I was able to weld 14 pieces an hour for the first job. On the second go-round, after my hood flew out the window and I had to use a regular hood, eight pieces an hour was the absolute best I could do, and that was pushing it.”

Applications that require small, frequent welds can realize significant benefits in both productivity and accuracy with the use of auto-darkening helmets. This welder is wearing Miller’s Inferno helmet, which features a 30 percent larger window than the standard auto-darkening lens as well as four independent arc sensors for maximum protection in both low voltage TIG and out of position welding.

A 75 percent productivity increase attributable alone to an auto-darkening helmet may be an exceptional example, but Sommers said 30 percent efficiency improvements are not uncommon at all.

“Anyone doing piece work where they quickly move from one weld to the next, that’s where an auto-darkening helmet really shines,” Sommers said. “If you’re doing long welds, the efficiency upgrades probably aren’t as significant, but anyone who’s doing a lot of short welds and frequently repositioning their hands will save a lot of time.”

Forbes said increased production, in addition to operator safety, were the primary factors that led EM&C to invest in the auto-darkening helmets.

“We’re confident that our plant operates with much higher overall efficiency than it would if we were using traditional helmets,” Forbes said. “Auto-darkening helmets have increased production, improved weld quality and reduced scrap and rework rates.”

Part of those efficiency upgrades arises from more accurate weld starts. Traditional welding helmets require the operator to position their welding equipment, snap their helmet into place and then blindly start the arc. Having to go through those steps, beginning welders often have problems properly striking an arc and end up having to go back and rework the piece

Anyone who’s ever had their welding material perfectly fitted only to find out later the pieces shifted when the traditional helmet was flipped down can easily see the benefits of an auto-darkening helmet.

.While achieving extremely accurate weld starts is not always necessary, in some cases, minute variations in the start of the weld can require extensive reworking or scrapping the piece altogether.

“With high quality stainless welds that require x-ray or ultrasonic testing to ensure proper quality, if that weld isn’t initiated exactly where they want it, the welder will have to go back and grind, and that can be very costly,” Sommers said.

They’re not going to turn an inexperienced welder into an expert welder, but auto-darkening helmets can also shorten the training period for new welders, resulting in increased cost savings.

“For the average guy just off the street,” Sommers said, “you put these big leather gloves on, then you put on thick leather sleeves and this old conventional helmet that requires him to nod his head to come down and then you tell him, ‘we want you to have a steady hand.’ It’s a tall order, but with the auto darkening helmet, the operator can position himself where he wants to when striking the arc.”

                Because they do cost more than traditional welding helmets, auto-darkening helmets were originally considered an unessential extravagance. That opinion is shifting, however, as more welders and businesses recognized them as legitimate investments in productivity and safety that in the long run will actually save money.

More information on Miller auto-darkening helmets can be found in the Education section of the company’s Web site: http://www.millerwelds.com/education/articles/articles61.html

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