TIG welding aluminum
Metal fabrication for the marine industry demands high quality and attention to detail. Boat ladders, handrails and tuna towers not only must have a flawless appearance — they also require durability and strength to withstand constant corrosive environments and the roughest conditions.
A manufacturer of stainless steel and aluminum marine hardware, G.G. Schmitt & Sons has built its reputation with high-quality products and specialized design. Family-owned since launching in 1951, G.G. Schmitt is headquartered in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with an 80,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Sarasota, Florida, and a newly opened location in Summerville, South Carolina. The three locations have about 170 employees.
G.G. Schmitt serves some of the country’s largest original equipment manufacturers as well as boutique specialty boat builders.
“Our customers are building anywhere from 100 units a year to 5,000 units a year,” says Kurt Bender, G.G. Schmitt vice president. “We’re supporting their production lines, and we don’t stop a production line. On-time delivery is critical, and as the economy and industry has improved over the years, it’s more and more critical.”
As boat builders have rebounded from the 2008 recession, G.G. Schmitt has undergone substantial growth. The marine industry is also trending toward custom designs and specialization, as more buyers want to purchase a boat that reflects their preferences. These changes spurred the company to look at its welding operation, with a goal of reducing rework and improving productivity to keep pace with the expansion.
“The marine industry is booming, and we try to meet our customers' demands at all times,” says Seth Holl, general manager of G.G. Schmitt’s aluminum division. “It’s difficult sometimes, but that’s what drives us to be better than our competition.”
After testing several options, a switch to Miller Dynasty 400 TIG welders has saved significant time for the company — cutting hours of rework and additional welding passes on some parts —while also delivering high weld quality and ease of use. The company initially invested in 13 machines, with plans to purchase about a dozen more.
“It’s been a huge advantage,” Holl says.
Staying on top of hundreds of jobs
G.G. Schmitt’s Sarasota facility often has 800 to 900 jobs underway on any given day in both the stainless steel and aluminum divisions. Smaller projects can take four hours to complete, while larger projects like a custom tuna tower can take three weeks.
Each project starts with the design and engineering department. From conceptual design and engineering to prototypes and part production — G.G. Schmitt is a one-stop shop for customers.
“A lot of other metal fabricators don’t have the engineering and prototype depth that we have,” says Richard Strauss, director of technical sales and marketing. “We work hard with boat manufacturers to develop and design unique products to set them apart.”
Producing smaller volumes of parts, rather than high-volume, repetitive parts, has challenged G.G. Schmitt to find efficiencies in tooling and production. For example, a five-axis CNC laser table has the capability to cut sheets and plates and long tube and pipe, saving considerable time over manual milling and cutting. The company also has one of the largest CNC benders in the marine industry. Material bending that previously took 20 minutes per part can be done in seconds with the machine.
“With all the challenges today, equipment is certainly a focus — equipment and support from the manufacturer,” Bender says. “It’s critical to our business plan moving forward to continue to concentrate on new technologies and new machinery for our manufacturing.”
This focus on having the most efficient equipment and processes includes the company’s welding operation.
Challenges of welding anodized aluminum
TIG welding and fabrication in the aluminum division is mostly custom extrusions and pipes that range from schedule 40 to schedule 80, with wall thickness from .109 to .276 inch. G.G. Schmitt works with many types of aluminum round pipe, including no finish, mill finish and bright dip anodized (BDA).
Bright dip anodizing adds a special coating that enhances the glossy appearance of aluminum for cosmetic applications, resulting in a very reflective surface. To avoid scratching or damaging BDA aluminum during welding, operators often change their technique slightly to ensure the cups are farther off of the material surface.
“Welding anodized is a little bit more difficult,” Holl says. “It has to stay bright, with perfect finish and polish.”
If the welder “arcs out” or flares up it can cause spatter, which can leave marks on the surface of the BDA material. Any scratches or blemishes mean that leg must be cut out and replaced — without damaging other sections of the part. This rework process could take several hours and cost hundreds of dollars each time.
“It’s expensive,” Holl says. “You have to cut the leg out, replace it, then you can’t scratch what you’re cutting out on the rest of the product.”
Rework and scrap reduced by 10 percent
As G.G. Schmitt evaluated new welding equipment for its expansion, it was also important to invest in machines that offered benefits for welding BDA aluminum, to help reduce the time and money spent on rework and scrap.
“The Miller Dynasty 400 was the choice we picked after countless tests,” Holl says. “It provided us what we were looking for.”
The welders previously used by G.G. Schmitt were transformer-based machines that tended to flare up, which meant a lot of rework on BDA aluminum.
The inverter-based Dynasty 400 TIG welder uses Blue Lightning™ high frequency arc starter technology and refined arc starting routine, which deliver more consistent non-contact starts and greater reliability compared to traditional equipment.
“Miller is by far the best to do anodized,” says Pedro Medina, G.G. Schmitt assistant plant manager. “You don’t take the chances to ruin a part.”
The switch immediately reduced scrap rework by 6 to 8 percent for G.G. Schmitt — a payback that continues to increase as the welders become more familiar with the Dynasty 400 machines. The company is starting to see 10 to 11 percent less scrappage of the BDA aluminum associated with tungsten spitting and flare-ups.
The machines also include independent amplitude/amperage control, so electrode positive and electrode negative amperages can be set independently. This allows G.G. Schmitt welders to precisely control heat input to the work and electrode. In addition, extended AC balance controls the amount of oxide cleaning (amperage time in electrode negative), which is essential for high-quality welds on aluminum.
“You’re always going to get the best results,” Medina says. “Your weld is going to look good.”
Greater efficiency and productivity
The machine’s AC waveforms provide a fast freezing puddle, deep penetration and faster travel speeds — allowing G.G. Schmitt to improve productivity and efficiency in the welding operation.
“You want to make that weld look nice,” Medina says. “With the Dynasty 400, you pretty much do your first filling and you’re done with it. It’s much better efficiency.”
The fast travel speeds allow G.G. Schmitt welders to complete projects more quickly so they can move on to the next job.
“I can achieve faster welds, and the quality is a lot better,” says Cesar Jaramillo, who’s been a welder with the company for seven years. “I can adjust my amperage to make my welds cleaner, as well. I saw a huge improvement in the quality of my welds.”
The ability to save up to nine program memories in each machine also helps G.G. Schmitt welders save significant time. If operators go from welding thin 16-gauge material to welding something much thicker, they can simply press a button to change to a different set of pre-programmed parameters. In addition to saving time, this also helps ensure welders are using the proper pre-set parameters.
“In the marine industry, welders are a lot of times on their backs, on their knees, standing up, on the ladder. When you start going back and forth — time becomes a factor,” Holl says. “With these settings, it’s really decreased that time. It’s increasing efficiencies, and it’s increasing productivity.”
A growing operation
As G.G. Schmitt looks to the future and continued growth, the company needs welding equipment that helps improve productivity and efficiency while also reducing scrap and rework.
And as the company continues its plan for sustainable growth, support from suppliers and equipment manufacturers like Miller is a critical part of success. In selecting and implementing the Dynasty 400 TIG welders in the operation, G.G. Schmitt worked closely with Miller to choose the right solution, train welders on the new equipment, and optimize the systems for the company’s specific applications.
“The customer service from Miller was just a huge advantage over the competition,” Holl says. “That’s what we look for to help increase our productivity.”