Versatile wire feed welders
Many small contractors and fabricators weld in shop and field settings. When feasible, they fabricate sub-assemblies in a controlled shop environment, leaving the least amount of welding possible for the field. The same holds true for maintenance and repair professionals. When possible, they bring the part/equipment into the shop, but they need the flexibility to weld in the field when necessary.
Companies that typically require location flexibility include:
- Small contractors and service truck owner/operators
- Mechanical contractors
- Maintenance and repair outfits
- Fabricators with shop and field operations
- Fabricators working in tough environments
- Structural steel erectors
- Pipe welders
Their type of “any project, anywhere, any time” welding typically demands portable, reliable and flexible equipment. This is especially true for companies that rely on a few core pieces of equipment to tackle all their welding challenges. One such tool is a portable, suitcase-style wire feeder. Selecting the right suitcase feeder, and pairing it with the right welding power source, can lower equipment acquisition costs by thousands of dollars, and it can improve productivity and quality.
Good-bye bench feeder?
Suitcase feeders feature crush-proof, flame retardant cases that protect internal components and the welding wire from dirt, moisture and contaminants (see Fig. 1). How effectively they accomplish this varies greatly between models (more on this later). Able to hold either an 8-in. or 12-in. diameter spool and run wires from .023-in. solid wire to 5/64-in. flux cored wires, suitcase feeders are used in applications that demand portability and durability. These feeders can measure as little as 14.5 in. high by 6.5 in. wide by 15-5/8 in. deep, and they have an empty weight of 22 to 35 lbs.
*Maximum diameter with SuitCase 8VS model is 1/16-in.
The newest generation of suitcase feeders provides outstanding welding performance. Due to software and hardware advancements, their arc starts and stops, arc performance and arc characteristics equals that of any basic digital wire feeder. In fact, in a blind arc test where the gun and power source were the same, contractors would not be able to tell any difference between a bench-top feeder like Miller’s 22A and a portable feeder like Miller’s SuitCase® X-TREME™ 12VS.
“With the SuitCase X-TREME’s start control, I get a much smoother arc start without popping or flaring,” notes Jeremy Bohm, who says that smooth arc starts eliminate the need to stop and grind off spatter or gouge out weld flaws. Bohn owns JR’s Welding, a two-person construction equipment repair company based in Pulaski, Wis.
In the past, many companies felt the need to purchase separate feeders for shop and field welding because the performance of portable feeders didn’t match those of bench-top shop feeders. This isn’t true anymore, as contractor/fabricators like Bohn use SuitCase feeders for both field and shop welding (see Fig. 2).
Part of feeding improvement comes from design enhancements like better drive roll systems, and part comes from technology migration. Manufacturers are transferring software and circuit board technology from bench-top into suitcase feeders.
Recent feeder advances mean that contractors may be able to standardize on suitcase feeders for most of their welding needs. Instead of spending about $2,600 for two feeders (a bench-top and a portable feeder), contractors can invest in a suitcase feeder for nearly all their work - and save $1,000 in the process.
To switch between shop and field welding, just change guns. For gas-shielded welding, pair a suitcase feeder with Bernard’s Q300™ or Q400™ MIG gun; for gasless flux cored welding, use Miller’s FC1260 gun. If the same welding power source works for shop and field applications, further savings are possible. Fig. 3 provides an economic summary.
Portable, reliable and flexible
While “deluxe model” bench feeders currently offer some control advantages, as well as the ability to run larger spools or drums of wire, these benefits are mostly an advantage to large, high-volume fabricators and manufacturers. Conversely, suitcase feeders better protect the wire from dirt, grinding dust, moisture, corrosion and other elements that can degrade weld quality and feeder performance.
Construction job sites usually need the portability and higher level of protection offered by suitcase feeders. However, many fabricators would benefit, too. For example, fabrication facilities in warmer and coastal areas often consist of just a roof to keep the rain and sun off the operators and equipment. In such places, a suitcase feeder provides better protection against air-borne contaminants, as well as the impact hazards typical of welding. Some job site environments are just inherently dirty.
Also, when working on large assemblies (anything from steel erection, repairing construction equipment to welding trailers or boats), or moving between job sites, a suitcase feeder enables the operator to easily bring the feeder to the work (see Fig. 4). The ability to quickly deploy the feeder to the work place reduces labor costs, which typically comprise 85 percent of the cost of making a weld.
Jeremy Bohm notes, “Our work here varies drastically. You might be doing one thing in the shop in the morning, but in the afternoon you might have the SuitCase X-TREME in the truck out in the field working. This feeder makes it easy for me to travel around.”
Dan Chapman, owner of CMW Welding, agrees. “The SuitCase is a big plus for our work. It [the SuitCase 8VS model] only weighs 33-1/2 lb. with a full roll of wire. Some days we have to haul our equipment a long way¾I can’t drive into some plants when it’s muddy¾and hauling the extra weight of other feeders can make life miserable.” CMW Welding of Spring Grove, Ill., is small company (eight welders/fabricators) that provides shop fabrication and field erection, fabrication and maintenance/repair welding.
Having made the business case for selecting a suitcase style feeder, the remainder of this story focuses on how to determine which type of suitcase feeder best meets your welding needs.
Understanding feeder technology
Broadly speaking, there are two different types of suitcase feeders: constant speed (also called remote control feeders) and voltage sensing feeders. Miller’s SuitCase 8RC and 12RC feeders are constant speed feeders that provide Remote Control of voltage; wire feed speed is adjusted at the feeder (as it is with all feeders). The motor for this type of feeder receives 24 VAC power from a welder via a 14-pin cable. This cable, sometimes called a “brain cord,” also provides the remote voltage control capabilities, as it enables the feeder and the welder to communicate with each other (see Fig. 5).
The SuitCase 8VS and SuitCase X-TREME 12VS are Voltage-Sensing feeders whose motor receives power from a combination of open circuit and arc voltage. These feeders are sometimes said to be “powered across the arc,” so they do not require a 14-pin power/control cable. With a VS feeder, the operator sets voltage (or current) at the welder and controls wire feed speed at the feeder.
When connected to a welder with a CV output, such as the XMT or Trailblazer, all Miller SuitCase feeders provide equal arc performance. To reiterate: when operated in the correct mode and connect to a CV welder, VS feeders and RC feeders provide identical arc performance.
Which feeder should I choose?
VS feeders are popular because they eliminate the need for a power supply cable. Many operators feel the extra cord is just one more item to carry, lose or get damaged (“run over by a truck” is a common cause). Also, VS feeders can be used hundreds of feet away from the welder, where an RC feeder is limited to about 75 ft. (150 ft. round-trip distance). Lastly, VS feeders work with nearly all DC CV/CC welders, so they’re more flexible than RC feeders, which require a CV welder with 14-pin control.
With a VS feeder, voltage is set at the power source. This can present a headache if you work remotely from the power source and need to adjust voltage to compensate for changes in joint design or welding position.
Contractors that select RC feeders typically want the convenience of controlling both voltage and wire feed speed at the feeder. This function is handy if the operator is working up on scaffolding, in a trench or inside a large weldment and wants to adjust voltage parameters. Secondly, some welding procedures and codes require guaranteed wire feed speeds, and RC feeders provide this guarantee. Thirdly, voltage and amperage values remain constant unless manually adjusted, and both can be adjusted independently of each other. When welding procedures specify wire feed speed and voltage (instead of amps and volts), a constant speed feeder is the best choice.
Overall, the SuitCase X-TREME 12VS is the most popular choice for most contractors, steel erection, equipment maintenance and field/shop fabrication. It offers the simplicity of one cable between the feeder and the welder, and it can be located hundreds of feet from the welder. When small size and lightweight portability are important, the 23.5-lb. SuitCase 8VS is a popular choice. For code work, such as when a mechanical contractor makes a root pass on pipe or works on pressure vessels, Miller recommends a SuitCase 8RC or 12RC.
For details specifications and information that helps guide feeder selection, view the Miller SuitCase Feeder Selection Chart. The list below simplifies selection by providing system recommendations based on common applications.
- Structural Steel: SuitCase X-TREME 12VS + XMT 350 VS
- Contractor: SuitCase X-TREME 12VS + Trailblazer 302 or XMT 350 CC/CV
- Gen Fab: SuitCase VS feeder + Trailblazer 275 DC or Bobcat 250
- Shop/Field Combo: SuitCase 12RC + XMT 350 CC/CV or
- Shop Combo: SuitCase 12RC + XMT 350 CC/CV or Dimension NT 450*
- Pipeline: SuitCase 8VS + Pipe Pro 304
- Shipbuilding: SuitCase 8VS + Dimension NT 450
- MIG Gun: Bernard Q300 or Q400 with Centerfire consumables
- Flux Cored Gun: Miller FC1260
Slam, drop, smash, kick or drag
Suitcase feeders get abused. Not intentionally, but the environments in which they work are as rugged as the welding operators that use them. As a result, surveys show that suitcase feeder owners rate “reliability/durability” as the single most important feeder attribute. Companies that service wire feeders agree, and they add “ease of maintenance” to the list.
When selecting a suitcase feeder, look for the following features and benefits:
- A super-tough case that protects feeder components from damage. Can you run over the feeder with a 1-ton truck? Some feeder can take this abuse and keep on welding (see Fig. 6).
- A main printed circuit board that is protected against grinding dust, dirt and corrosion by being “potted and trayed” (epoxy encased).
- A stainless steel shroud that protects the controls and faceplate from routine impact damage (especially in the back of a service truck).
- Slide rails that permit dragging or pushing feeder without wrecking the case. Slide rails also keeps debris from piling up on front panel if the feeder gets dragged.
- A Lexan or similar faceplate overlay to protect the digital meters, and digital meters that can be read from a distance, even in direct sunlight.
- Gun cable strain relief, which prevents cable damage when feeder is pulled by the gun or weld cable. The strain relief also keeps the wire feeding smoothly even when the gun cable is bent at sharp angles.
- Rugged, weld cable connections that are tougher and minimize voltage drop; 1/0 and 2/0 are good cable sizes.
- A double-filtered gas valve to keep dirt from clogging and affecting gas flow.
- Ease of service. Some feeders disassemble in 15 minutes with one tool, such as a 5/16th nut runner. Others take up to four hours and require multiple tools.
- A heavy-duty contactor rated for high loads, which will increase deposition rates and improve productivity. The SuitCase X-TREME 12VS sets the industry benchmark with its rating of 425 amps at 60 percent duty cycle.
When selecting a wire feeder, allow for growth and future needs. Don’t make the mistake of just thinking about how you weld now. Instead, think about how you’ll weld five years from now. If you’re buying a SuitCase feeder for the first time, don’t hesitate to ask your local welding supply distributor for a demonstration. If you’ve been in the business for years and have had feeder reliability and maintenance issues (or if you want the 425 amp rating of the SuitCase X-TREME 12VS to