For some companies, finding an industry niche is the key to success. For others, diversity drives business. Sturgeon Service International (SSI) is in the unique position to say it focuses on a bit of both. The company has established the bulk of its business as a full service, “one stop shop” for oilfield projects, but is also as a premier provider of commercial, industrial, agricultural and government contracting services. SSI works on everything from rathole drilling to oil and gas construction and fabrication, well abandonment, earthwork and more.
One of the biggest reasons behind the company’s success, since its inception in 1927, has been an ongoing commitment to improving its business. In many cases that commitment means investing in leading-edge technologies, including new welding equipment. On its pipeline construction projects, in particular, SSI welds on a wide variety of materials. Anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the “pre-fab” welding takes place in the shop, with the remaining percentages requiring on-site completion in the field. Maintaining consistency between the welds made in the shop and the field is critical, as is maintaining the highest level of quality and productivity to meet its customers’ requirements and deadlines.
“We always try to find new and better ways of producing a product for our clients,” explains John Lucero, regional manager for the mechanical project team at SSI. “We want to get ahead of the game and do things that other contractors have tried and said can’t be done. We’re always up for that challenge.”
Keeping with that philosophy and working with the guidance of welding engineer and consultant Tim Chubbs, SSI recently purchased the PipeWorx FieldPro multiprocess pipe welding systems from Miller Electric Mfg. Co., a decision that has allowed the company to gain consistent quality and more than double its production.
Project and environmental challenges
Headquartered in Bakersfield, Calif., with additional locations throughout the United States, SSI services oilfield projects in California and the Western United States, often in remote areas where the temperatures and terrain are extreme. Dust, wind, heat and cold all challenge the integrity of the welding process on applications where quality is non-negotiable. For their pipe-welding applications, SSI must maintain strict adherence to American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) codes.
Adding to those circumstances, the oilfield service projects consist of many sizes, types and thicknesses of pipe. For a recent Tulare Oil & Water Injection Project, the company had the added complexity of welding on .250- to-.500-inch thick concrete-lined pipe (a standard-wall carbon steel pipe coated with concrete), the biggest challenges for which are controlling moisture during the welding processes, maintaining the integrity of the gaskets used to seal the pipe and preventing weld defects such as slag inclusions and porosity — both of which tend to occur using a traditional process such as Stick (SMAW) welding.
Testing options in the shop
Knowing that Lucero had been looking for a better and more economical way to complete SSI’s pipe-welding projects, Chubbs introduced him to the PipeWorx multiprocess pipe-welding system and coordinated a trial at the Miller training facility in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. The test led to the purchase of one machine on the spot and the implementation of the Miller Regulated Metal Deposition (RMD®) technology for root passes on stainless steel pipe in the shop.
Like many contractors servicing the oilfield industry, SSI had been relying on gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW or TIG) to complete the root pass on pipe and Stick (SMAW) and Flux-Cored (FCAW) welding for the fill and cap or, in some cases, root to cap passes using a E6010 stick electrode. While both processes provide the desired end result, they were also slow.
The PipeWorx system offered the company multiprocess capabilities (Stick, MIG, RMD, Flux-Cored or FCAW), in addition to the RMD technology. This latter technology added the benefit of faster travel speeds compared to TIG or Stick welding.
RMD is a modified short circuit transfer process that can be used for the root passes on semiautomatic pipe-welding applications. Unlike a standard short circuit process in which the short circuits occur at varying intensities and intervals, RMD precisely controls the welding current during all phases of metal transfer, resulting in a highly stable arc, minimal weld puddle agitation and excellent root reinforcement.
For SSI, the results on its stainless steel pipe tests were the beginning of a process shift and an attitude shift among not only its welding operators, but also its customers.
“After a couple of test runs on the root pass on schedule 10 stainless steel, they were able to complete it in a single pass using RMD and a solid wire,” explains Chubbs. “They just couldn’t do that before with TIG. We also tried it without using argon backing gas and did not experience any sugaring.”
Despite the impressive test run, Lucero knew that getting customer buy-in on the process would be critical.
“We presented some coupons to our customers, showing them the uniform root passes we made [using RMD],” says Lucero. “We also showed them the results of mechanical and nondestructive testing to convince them that the technology would provide them with the same, if not better, quality. One test film even had to be reviewed by three levels of inspectors because they had questions on what they were seeing — they had never seen welds so clean!”
Once customers saw that the quality wouldn’t change with RMD, they were nearly convinced. The cost savings, however, was the final factor.
“The bottom line is the dollar,” adds Lucero. “The cost savings involved with the process, that’s what it boils down to, because we can finish the product faster and pass that cost savings directly on to the customer. That and the end product were the biggest argument for changing to RMD. And it worked.”
It also made SSI want to look for ways to take these advantages into the field.
Shifting to advanced welding processes in the field
Consulting again with Chubbs, Lucero and the team at SSI found an option to bring the RMD technology and other multiprocess benefits into the field: the PipeWorx FieldPro™ system, a system that provides the same excellent arc quality and simplicity of use as the PipeWorx machine, but in a field package.
As in the shop, the RMD technology on the PipeWorx FieldPro system allows SSI to complete the root pass (with solid wire) faster than with the TIG process, without the need for special cables; it also allows them to work at greater distances from the power source because it offers remote capabilities.
“If we’re lucky, we have 50 to 60 percent pre-fab work on a project in the shop. For other ones, around 80 percent of the work has to be done in the field,” says Lucero. “It’s just not cost-effective to weld the long joints needed on these pipes anywhere other than on-site. When we started utilizing the process [RMD] in the field, we saw we were getting the same great results that we saw in the shop.”
The PipeWorx FieldPro is compatible with two wire feeder options, both of which SSI employs for specific applications.
The FieldPro Smart Feeder allows SSI to use the RMD process, while also offering standard MIG, Flux-Cored or Pulsed MIG processes. The feeder features built-in default parameters and synergic controls that automatically optimize weld parameters based on wire feed speed. SSI uses this feeder on certain projects for welding with RMD from the root to the cap with a single solid wire (adding Pulsing capabilities for the fill and cap) and on other projects for just the root pass.
For fill and cap passes on other pipe applications, SSI changes over to the FieldPro Feeder, which allows them to use the Flux-Cored welding process. This feeder also can be used for conventional MIG welding if desired.
Both the FieldPro SmartFeeder and the FieldPro Feeder connect easily to the weld lead and allow SSI to operate hundreds of feet from the power source — up to twice the distance as previously possible.
On applications like the TOW Water Injection project previously mentioned, the system’s RMD technology has offered clear advantages to the challenges faced when welding complicated materials like concrete-lined pipe. Before the company would tack the pipe using E6010 stick electrodes and weld with the electrodes from the root to the cap. In addition to being time-consuming, the process also made it difficult to accommodate for the gasket and glue used to help seal the pipe, and to prevent moisture from becoming trapped inside the first weld. With the RMD process, Lucero says it’s been much easier to gain quality welds and overcome these challenges.
He explains, “With the RMD process, our test results show that our welds now stay away from the gasket and don’t burn it, which is the whole goal. We have to let that gasket seal itself and stay intact since it’s not intended to be under direct heat. We’ve never seen signs of burning like we’ve had before.”
SSI has seen similar quality improvements on its standard carbon steel pipe applications. According to Lucero, part of those improvements has occurred because the RMD technology provides them with better arc characteristics and less spatter.
Chubbs adds, “The technology has also allowed SSI to increase their travel speeds significantly — from 3 inches per minute (ipm) with TIG to about 9 ipm with RMD. With RMD, the pass is much heavier and thicker, which eliminates a TIG hot pass. We’ve completely eliminated this step, greatly increasing productivity.”
Adding to that, Lucero cites the PipeWorx FieldPro system and the RMD technology as opening up a greater workforce to SSI (through simplified training) — and keeping them safer.
RMD Improves Quality, Productivity in Pipe Welding
Welding Concrete-Lined Pipe with RMD
Complete Remote Control at Weld Joint
Simplifying training and increasing safety
Because RMD maintains a consistent arc length at varying degrees of electrode stick-out, the technology is able to compensate for welding operators who may have trouble holding a constant stick-out. It also enables a better view of the weld puddle, which increases control of the process.
These attributes have helped SSI train employees much more easily and faster. And it’s also helped the company tap into a previously untouched workforce.
“We would normally have a pool of about 10 proficient TIG welding operators versus now we can get a team of about 35 guys who are proficient in the RMD process,” Lucero says. “So it opens up the labor pool for us. And with these time constraint projects and deadlines that are constantly being pushed on us, we have more resources to pull from.”
Lucero goes on to explain that a large part of the training simplification is a matter of technique.
“With Constant Voltage GMAW, we had to stay at the leading edge of the puddle, which is sometimes tough in the field when you are standing on rocky ground or in mud and your footing slips,” he says. “With RMD, we are more on top of the puddle and it’s easier to eliminate problems like shooting the wire through the gap, which can happen if you slip with the other processes.”
Due to its advanced remote control capabilities, slipping and tripping hazards have also been minimized with the PipeWorx FieldPro System. Now SSI welding operators can manage the selection of processes, material type, wire diameter, gas type, wire feed speed and voltage — right at the weld joint, eliminating the need to travel to and from the power source and with it, the opportunity for trips and falls. The system also eliminates special cables that cause clutter and hassle, and features controls labeled in common operator terminology that make it simple and intuitive to use.
“There are a lot of pipe corridors. We want to limit travel, walking back and forth to the truck site or the generator site because of all the obstacles,” explains Lucero. “The more times you make a trip to the truck, which may be 50 feet away, the more prone you are to slips, trips, and falls. The FieldPro’s remote capabilities eliminate that.”
The remote capabilities also ensure that SSI welding operators always have complete control over the welding parameters at the weld joint and prevents them from accidentally welding in the wrong polarity, further enhancing quality and productivity.
Looking to the future
Since implementing the PipeWorx system in the pre-fab shop at SSI and the PipeWorx FieldPro system in the field, the quality and productivity improvements have set the foundation for further growth and diversification at SSI.
“I think it opens up new horizons for us. By getting in front of this and pushing the technology, it’s going to give us the advantage. We’re going to be a more effective and cost-conscious contractor offering a higher degree of quality with it,” says Lucero. “I want to see this technology implemented throughout the field.”
Chubbs agrees, “SSI has always impressed me with how innovative they are. They are always looking at new ways to improve their processes, improve the quality of their work, and provide a better, more cost-effective product to their customers. PipeWorx fits into that mold.”