Nestled into the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, a company sharing the name of its historic surroundings has made a name for itself in the world of high-speed boating. Not boat racing, but thrill rides for adventurous riders at ocean-side resorts and lake marinas. Smoky Mountain Jet Boats is building aluminum fun, deep in the mountain woods, using the latest in Pulsed MIG technology to ride the wave of boat orders.
The Smoky Mountain boats are sleek and colorful in their finished aquatic-ready state — they look fast and are fast. The vessels don’t sit in the water as much as they sit on top of the water. The unique boat design, first developed in New Zealand, allows these craft to operate in oceans, lakes, and in one case, a shopping mall pond in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“It’s not so much the speed as it is the maneuverability,” says owner-operator Nick Williams. “These boats are relatively flat and will travel in less than 4 inches of water. Our bread and butter is a thrill ride in which the boat will do a spin within its own length. It’s like drifting on the water.”
Built for speed and strength
The boats Williams and his crew build will do as much boating time in a week as the average recreational boat will do in a lifetime. Because of the rigorous nature of thrill boating and the larger capacity of the boats — the larger ones hold as many as 25 riders at a time — the build-out is strict and specs are closely followed to ensure the vessels are seaworthy and ready to thrill.
“Anything that looks remotely exciting, the Coast Guard scrutinizes very carefully,” says Williams. “The Coast Guard inspects all of our welds. The boats are built to naval high-speed craft standards to a length of 65 feet. Using the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) guidelines ensures these boats are as strong as tanks. They are still really light, strong and fast.”
The thorough process of the Coast Guard and ABS starts before a single bead is laid down. The boats are made of 100 percent aluminum of varying sizes and shapes. The Coast Guard scrutinizes the raw aluminum before the fabrication and welding starts. The Coast Guard then checks in on the build-out often and ultimately gives a final full inspection, including time on the water, before offering certification to the Smoky Mountain vessels.
The vessels take shape with the floor of the boat structure made of 3/8-inch-thick aluminum. The sides and other sections of the boat can be as thin as 4 millimeters (.125). It takes craftsmanship to put these vessels together. Given the marriage of strength and incredibly light weight — and the curves that give the boats their signature — aluminum is the only choice for construction.
Pulsed MIG the only option
TIG welding is a rare function at Smoky Mountain. A few handles or other small parts of the vessels will occasionally be TIG welded. It’s the old adage, “Time is money and money is time”: to TIG-weld an entire boat could take close to six months with one operator. With orders for a dozen boats flowing through production, Smoky Mountain needed a cost-effective answer that ensured the beauty of the boats would not be compromised.
“The big issues for Nick and his guys are the quality of the welds; then how the welds look and less grinding,” says the Gordon Fairlie, Miller Distributor, Interstate Welding and Steel Supply. “They wanted the stacked-dime look. The production that you get with it being Pulsed MIG versus TIG welding is an enormous gain in productivity. They can really turn out some good-looking quality welds in a fast time.”
A full 48 pounds of Maxal wire go into the average boat at Smoky Mountain. The need for so much filler metal in long runs on an aluminum hull, combined with the focus on aesthetics led Williams to update his shop to Pulsed MIG machines.
“We are using a lot of different plate sizes; distortion is always an issue. And if we have ripples on the side, it’s just not going to cut it with the customer,” says Williams. “You can see the boats have a lot of sexy curves — and sexy curves in aluminum, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. So having every advantage with really good Miller® machines has made a big difference.”
Long leads, more control
The shop utilizes an industrial AlumaFeed® synergic aluminum welding system in the main fabrication bay. The system’s built-in Pulsed MIG programs and Profile Pulse provide the heat reduction needed for aluminum welding, while achieving the desired stacked-dime look.
“It’s a good machine. It’s low maintenance. It’s easy to use,” says welder/fabricator Justin Smith. “You don’t have to get in and out of the boat every time you need to change something and it lays a real nice bead. Overhead welding is easy, thanks to the pulse weld.”
The 25-foot lead on the XR AlumaPro gun allows the operators to weld the entire length of the boat while the synergic control on the handle of the gun gives the welders the power to make adjustments while remaining in the hull of the project.
“The Miller XR AlumaPro guns are great for what we do inside the boats. Instead of climbing in and out, it works great,” says Adam Queen, welder/fabricator, Smoky Mountain Jet Boats. “I love the Pulsed MIG on the machine. You can get enough heat to do the hot part of the welding, and you can go down and weld the thin material on the outside. It makes it a lot easier going from the thick metal in the bottom to the thin metal on the top.”
Smoky Mountain uses a lot of different material thicknesses, including 125, 190, 160, 3175 and 375. The ability to adjust the welder on the fly is critical. Having the adjustment on the handle is a big deal.
“We can pretty much set the welder in the center of the boat on the outside and work our way around the boat adjusting as we go,” says Smith. “We save so much time with the control at the handle. I can’t image walking back to the machine anymore.”
“You can imagine, getting down into the bottom of one of these boats, you’re crawling around and then you have to jump out to change the machine — it was irritating for them, but it cost me money,” says Williams.
Time inside the hull translates to productive time for Williams and his crew. And it’s not just the length of the lead and hand control that keep the operators inside the boat. The push-pull system utilizes a torque motor in the feeder that provides smooth and consistent feeding and reduces bird-nesting and other feeding issues.
“People order a boat and want it tomorrow, and the level of craftsmanship means that we have no choice but to take time,” says Williams. “Having the Miller machines is just amazing. When I could hear the guys yelling and screaming because the machines weren’t working well, I knew I was losing money. So, these Miller machines have been working flawlessly. They are user-friendly and there are no wire jams to stop us in our tracks.”
The portability of the AlumaFeed allows the operators to move the system around the shop when needed. When it gets busy and four or five boats are under construction, they can simply move from the bay to another area of the shop and fire up an arc.
“Manufacturers such as Smoky Mountain like the AlumaFeed system setup,” says Fairlie. “It allows a manufacturer to leave the power source in place and take the suitcase with the operator and go right to where the work is located.”
Second aluminum system
Bay Two features an Invision 352 MPa Plus aluminum system with a dual-feed setup. Similar to its larger AlumaFeed cousin, the Invision 352 system provides dynamic Pulsed MIG and synergic control. The important difference for Smoky Mountain is that the dual-feed capability of the Invision 352 system’s S-74 MPa Plus feeder allows the company to open up to smaller, highly profitable steel welding jobs that often come in the door— jobs they couldn’t do before — the types of small jobs that are important to a small business’s bottom line. One flip of the switch and his welders go from aluminum to steel.
“All we have to do is switch the settings, and we can do some quick steel welding for somebody and charge a premium,” says Williams. “Having that dual capability is amazing. And the guys have been very impressed that it works equally as well on aluminum as it does steel.”
Welder Adam Queen agrees. “I’ve worked with steel and aluminum. I like working with aluminum better. It’s a little more of a challenge, but with the Miller welders it makes it a lot easier, and we can do better quality work with them. It’s seamless going between the steel and aluminum,” says Queen.
As any small-business owner can tell you, a good partner is like having a valuable employee — they help the business produce and therefore earn. Williams says he has two great partners in his distributor Gordon Fairlie at Interstate and local Miller District Manager Dean Clark.
“Having the support is crucial, not only from our local distributor over at Interstate but Miller as well,” says Williams. “They’re always available, and if we ever need pieces for the guns or the tips or anything like that, it’s readily available. If Gordon doesn’t have what we need down the road from the shop, Dean is getting us what we need from Appleton in quick fashion.”
A critical component of meeting tight deadlines is the timely service Williams says he receives. It also means innovating, finding new ways to save a few pennies or to provide a quicker more efficient way of performing a task.
“Miller is always trying to innovate; always trying to look and see what can they do better. They never think, ‘Oh, this is the perfect machine,’” says Williams. “They’re always looking to take that next step, make changes and make things better, faster; which means it makes it more profitable for me.”
And profits, even in a fun and fast-paced manufacturing setting like building jet boats, is always a good thing. The guys at Smoky Mountain will continue to rely on Pulsed MIG welding to keep building the watercraft that will thrill thousands of boat riders at a lake or body of water near you. For Williams, his Miller machines mean his guys are happier and more productive at work, and he knows that’s a good thing.
“If my guys are happy, I’m happy,” says Williams. “The Miller Pulsed MIG and the push-pull technology have the operators buzzing and that keeps my customers happy!”