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Portable MIG, TIG and Plasma Cutting Equipment Improve Quality and Productivity for Mechanical Contractor

Since Ray Hellwig founded it in 1947, the Hellwig Company has grown from a one-man shop to one of the largest, most respected mechanical contractors in Northern California.

Based in Santa Clara, the Hellwig Company provides complete mechanical, process piping, and plumbing system services to general contractors and businesses. While one division handles process piping, the mechanical contractor division provides a reliable, cost-effective source for sheet metal HVAC ductwork, architectural sheet metal, louvers and other specialty sheet metal fabrication and installation.

Serving the Bay area and Silicon Valley means serving microelectronic, biotechnology, pharmaceutical and aerospace industries, among others. Perhaps more so than any other single area in the country, the industries in Northern California have unique HVAC requirements, including clean rooms and specialized exhaust systems to move and contain large amounts of air without allowing contaminants in or out.

As these high-tech industries sprang into existence and grew exponentially, Hellwig grew with them, evolving, adapting and embracing the new technology available to its field. To do so, Hellwig takes advantage of the latest in training, such as that provided by the Sheet Metal Workers Union, and equipment, such as the new inverter based welding and plasma cutting technology from Miller Electric Mfg. Co.

While the union provides Hellwig with a trained labor force, lightweight equipment, such as the Millermatic® Passport™ all-in-one MIG welder, the Miller Maxstar® 200 DC TIG/Stick welder and the 18-lb. Miller Spectrum® X-TREME 375 plasma cutter, provides Hellwig with the versatility and portability to meeting their welding and plasma cutting needs in the shop and the field.

Tom Born, a journeyman sheet metal worker with Hellwig, recommends grinding down the tack welds on galvanized steel before final welding to eliminate spatter and improve appearance.

Thus trained and equipped, Hellwig’s 75 sheet metal workers design, build, install, then test, adjust and air balance (TAB) the specialized air-flow systems their customers require. Hellwig has acquired an enviable reputation for taking on exacting jobs and providing complete customer satisfaction.

“We have a very high commitment to excellence,” says Eldon Shreve, vice president, Hellwig Mechanical. “We don’t walk away from something that isn’t absolutely perfect on a job. That’s our reputation and the reason we get so much repeat business in such a competitive market.”

A Highly Trained Workforce

In order to provide companies like Hellwig with a workforce trained in such diverse applications, the unions grew and evolved alongside them, perhaps none more so than the Sheetmetal Worker’s Union Local 104.

The Millermatic Passport all-in-one MIG welder gives Born the arc performance and portability, both in the shop and the field, his profession demands.

“Few industries have changed through the years as much as ours,” says Shreve. “As technology and manufacturing processes continue to progress, we need trained workers in order to keep pace. That’s why we consider the Sheet Metal Worker’s Union our partner. They provide the skilled workers we need to provide our customers with a quality product.”

“Anything having to do with moving air is our industry,” says Javier Campos, Administrator of Training for the Sheet Metal Workers Local 104 Bay Area Industry Training Fund. But it’s not just airflow; just about any metal (mild steel, aluminum, copper, brass, galvanized) of any thickness comes under their purview, whether it’s clean room ventilation, structural supports, architectural, ornamental or low energy efficient HVAC systems .

Apprentices go through a 5-year training program (240 hours per year) on their way to becoming journeymen sheet metal workers. There are four different apprenticeship programs operating: one in HVAC sheet metal fabrication and installation, one in HVAC residential fabrication and installation, one in HVAC servicing and one in Test and Air Balance.

Welding plays an important role in creating and maintaining these systems, especially those systems that require significant air pressure or require welding for fire safety, such as restaurant grease ductwork. MIG is the preferred process, but TIG is used in clean rooms and sheet metal applications where cosmetics are important.

Born uses a 18-lb. Miller Spectrum 375 X-TREME to cut 1/4-in. I-beams. The new plasma cutter can handle any of the material thicknesses sheet metal workers use.

Additionally, although a sheet metal worker’s snips may never be far away, with the introduction of lightweight, portable units, plasma cutting is being used more and more in field applications. It is especially useful for cutting heavier gauge material or for modifying already installed systems.

Fortunately, as the sheet metal industry evolved, so did their equipment. Metal workers can now take advantage of welders and plasma cutters designed to handle typical sheet metal thicknesses while providing another important benefit for an industry that designs, builds, installs and maintains its own components: portability.

MIG On The Move

The Millermatic Passport is an all-in-one, inverter based MIG welder. Designed for those who require portability without sacrificing welding quality, the Passport’s suitcase-style, 45lb, all-in-one package carries an 8-inch spool of wire and a gas bottle. (55 lbs. with a full gas bottle and wire spool.)

“It’s a great machine, and it fits what we do perfectly,” says Buck Harris, shop foreman and purchasing agent for Hellwig. “It’s light, so you can carry it around. It makes it much easier for a guy to get up in the tight spots or to get up on a deck instead of loading heavier, bulkier equipment on a scissor lift, which was a pain.

“I’d say depending on how big of a job you’re on, the time savings could be anywhere from 15 to 25 percent just from not having to take a big gas cylinder and welder to the site and get it into position,” says Harris. “If you had to carry a MIG welder and gas supply or this Passport up eight flights of stairs, which would you rather take? You’re going to take this little Passport suitcase with the little gas bottle already inside. You can carry it to the job site, plug it in and go.”

Whether in the shop or the field, portability is a main consideration in a sheet metal worker’s choice of welding and plasma cutting equipment. Here Tom Born of Hellwig Mechanical shows some of the tools of his trade.

To handle the different power supplies and withstand voltage fluctuations, the Passport incorporates Miller's exclusive Multi-Voltage Plug (MVP™) and Auto-Line™ Technology, which allow the operator to “plug it in and go.” To switch from 115V to 230V, the operator only has to switch the MVP plug, a simple operation requiring a few seconds and no tools. Auto-Line automatically links to the power supply.

“You get more welding power out of 110 voltage with the Passport than you do with other welders,” says Harris. “And if you take a 220 volt welder to the jobsite and they don’t have 220 V available, they have to get their electrician to get the power there. That can be time consuming.”

But portability is only part of the story as far as Harris is concerned.

“The weld quality is excellent,” says Harris. “There’s a lot less clean up… our welders say it’s the best thing that ever came around. It’s a much smoother running machine than anything else we’ve tried.”

Tom Born, a journeyman sheetmetal worker for 32 years, agrees. “They’re versatile and so lightweight,” Born says. “You can carry them up on the roof instead of yanking welding lead up. And, they have a little button [Arc Control] there for welding stainless. With your other machines, you’ll pull the trigger and you get that cold spot for a little bit until you get going with stainless.”

Arc control allows the operator to select between a crisp-arc characteristic weld suited for mild steel or a softer arc better suited for stainless.

Take TIG

While Hellwig workers mostly MIG weld, they use TIG in the clean rooms and other places where the environment has to remain clean and spatter free. TIG is also used for exposed pieces where cosmetics are important, such as kitchen counter tops or cabinets.

Hellwig relies on the Miller Maxstar 200 DX TIG/Stick welder, another highly portable inverter-based power source. Weighing only 37 lbs., the Maxstar can easily be carried by its shoulder strap. It features Auto-Line™ technology, so it can run off any 120 to 460 V, single- or three-phase power source. It offers programmable HF starts and Lift-Arc™ for starting without high frequency.

Born was recently called to work on a high school’s kitchen countertop and cabinet. It had to be cut, then lowered by two inches. It needed to be TIG welded, not just for cosmetic reasons, but to leave a smooth radius that could be easily cleaned without providing a foothold for bacteria. The Maxstar’s portability made it an easy choice. Plus, it has the output needed for most of the industry’s Stick welding needs.

“The Maxstar goes up to 200 amps, so you can Stick weld up to ½-in. plate with 5/32-inch rod if you need to,” says Born. “That’s above the sheet metal industry’s normal requirements, but it’s size, weight and portability make it our choice for TIG and Stick welding in the shop and the field.”

Portable Plasma

The latest addition to Hellwig’s arsenal of portable welding/plasma cutting products is the Miller Spectrum 375 X-TREME. The Spectrum 375 X-TREME combines Auto-Line technology (allowing it to automatically connect to 115-230 VAC, single-phase power) and MVP plugs, with a 3/8-in. cut rating* in an 18-lb. package that is light enough to be carried comfortably by its shoulder strap.

I use it quite a bit,” says Born. “The book said it would cut up to 3/8-in. plate, so immediately I went a step further and cut some 1/2-in. angle iron. It cut it cleanly. There again, it’s about the size of a good size lunch pail. It only weighs eighteen pounds and you’ve got the ability to use either 115 or 230 V. I just used it on 1/4-in.-thick I-beams using 110V and it cut right through. We had to pierce some holes in 1/2-in. stainless steel and I used the Spectrum rather than a drill. It’s very easy to handle. It will handle anything in the sheet metal industry here, especially in the shop.”

Although plasma cutters will likely never replace the sheetmetal worker’s snips, many see their use growing in the industry.

“Portable plasma cutting systems are very useful when putting in HVAC trunk lines and cutting in openings for branch connections,” says Campos. “For those jobs where you have a lot of tap-ins to cut into a main duct line, it saves a lot of time. It’s also useful for punching holes into studs, running conduit and trimming, especially in kitchens where they use a lot of stainless or heavier gauge metal.”

Equipping An Industry on the Move

With a combined weight of 122 lbs., the Maxstar 200 DX (37 lbs.), the Spectrum 375 X-TREME (18 lbs.) and the Millermatic Passport (45 lbs.) provide a highly portable and v ersatile solution to the welding and cutting issues facing companies such as Hellwig.

“In my opinion, in the many years we’ve been associated with Miller Electric, the guys at Miller have always taken the time to understand what we do so they can design to that,” says Campos. “They ask all of the right questions, and we see the results in the products they produce. Lightweight inverters may not be high volume products for Miller, but with their output power, primary power flexibility, versatility and portability, they suit us perfectly.”

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