Pennsylvania School Puts Aluminum Welding Education at a Premium

Pennsylvania School Puts Aluminum Welding Education at a Premium

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To ensure students would be prepared to work in the local workforce, Westmoreland County Community College developed an aluminum curriculum at the school. Westmoreland's "Fundamentals of Aluminum" program includes hands-on welding, in-depth education on various aluminum welding technologies, the mathematics and mechanics behind the process, and how to address the many challenges of welding these tricky alloys.

Pennsylvania School Puts Aluminum Welding Education at a Premium

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To keep up with the growing high-tech sector in the Pittsburgh area, teacher Ben Bilott knew it was time to prepare the up-and-coming workforce by expanding the welding program at nearby Westmoreland County Community College (Youngwood, Penn.). As a vice president of local precision fabricator JB Anderson & Sons, Inc., Bilott was witness to continuous advancements in welding technology, particularly in the area of aluminum welding.

Bilott saw that many workers had not been exposed to advanced aluminum welding techniques, and research revealed that there was need for a dedicated aluminum curriculum in the area to train workers. To ensure his students would be prepared to work in the local workforce, Bilott went to the dean and got the support to develop an aluminum curriculum at the school. The course was an instant hit and now fills very quickly. Westmoreland’s “Fundamentals of Aluminum” program includes hands-on welding, in-depth education on various aluminum welding technologies, the mathematics and mechanics behind the process, and how to address the many challenges of welding these tricky alloys.

Growing Need for High-Tech Talent

Westmoreland offers either a certificate or associate’s degree in welding, which typically takes one and two years to complete, respectively. The school averages about 83 welding students at a time, all of whom are enrolled in standard welding classes on the fundamentals – Stick, TIG, MIG and sub-arc processes. Metal fabrication, metallurgy, blueprint reading, codes and inspection, materials evaluation, and troubleshooting/repair courses are also part of the curriculum so that students get a comprehensive view of what they’ll be doing upon graduation.

High-tech manufacturing industries such as medical equipment, scientific instruments, food processing equipment, as well as the Marcellus shale natural gas play, have been expanding in the Pittsburgh area, creating a demand for workers who have talent in high-precision, intricate welding on aluminum and stainless steel. Such an emphasis on aluminum is not new to the area, as nearby New Kensington, Penn., is considered the birthplace of aluminum for its long-term contributions to the development and use of the metal.

A major part of Westmoreland’s aluminum welding curriculum is introducing students to inverter technology and advanced AC TIG capabilities, such as adjustable frequency and balance control.

“Being able to adjust frequency instead of being locked into 60 Hz, and having the ability to control AC output with balance control provides so many benefits,” said Bilott. “There’s so much we can do with these machines on aluminum, and we study the cause and effect: What’s going to happen if I throw in a certain type of tungsten and run my frequency up to 200 Hz?  How is this weld going to compare to a 60 Hz weld?  What different things can I do? We cover how the power flows through a transformer and how it flows through an inverter power source. Students know not only how to use the machine, they understand what’s going on inside the machine.”

Students have had a positive response to the inverter technology and advanced AC TIG capabilities. Once they’ve had a couple weeks of fundamentals, they have the opportunity to explore different settings on the machines to maximize weld quality.

Inverter technology provides higher frequency ranges (20 to 400 Hz compared to 50 or 60 Hz with conventional technology). Increasing AC frequency allows for a tighter and more focused arc cone with increased directional control and a narrower bead and cleaning area. A lower frequency softens the arc and results in a wider weld puddle and bead. AC Balance Control adjusts the balance between penetration (EN) and cleaning action (EP). Inverter-based TIG welders allow the operator to set the amount of EN from 30 to 99 percent for greater control and fine-tuning of the cleaning action. Some TIG inverters even allow for independent amplitude control, which allows for EN and EP to be set independently. Independent control of the EN and EP portions of the AC cycle allows the operator to direct more or less energy into the work piece, as well as take heat off the tungsten.

For example, when welding a thick piece of aluminum, the operator can put 250 amps of EN into the work and only 60 amps of EP into the tungsten. This provides faster travel speeds, faster feed of filler rods, deeper penetration, and the potential to eliminate pre-heating. Some companies cut production time by up to two-thirds using this technology.

Independently increasing EN amperage while maintaining or reducing EP amperage also narrows the arc cone, lets the operator use a smaller diameter electrode to make narrower welds and may allow the use of straight argon in place of argon/helium.

Building a High-Tech Welding Fleet

To choose the right TIG machines for the aluminum program, Bilott used his own manufacturing experience and selected three Dynasty® 350 TIG welding systems, and two Dynasty 200 systems from Miller Electric Mfg. Co. Having success with the reliability of Dynasty welders at his shop, he wanted that same reliability for his classroom.

“I discussed the quality of the units with our program director and he was supportive of my decision,” Bilott added. “In a student atmosphere, these units get beat up. They’ve been very reliable, and that’s hugely helpful for us. The Dynasty is the only welding unit I considered for our aluminum curriculum.”

To prepare students for real work environments in which older, non-inverter technology may not be on the shop floor, Bilott is able to lock in the Dynasty inverters at 60 Hz to mimic older, conventional technology.

“We start them out, we set them up on 60 Hz, we lock it in just like a normal transformer machine and that’s how we teach them the fundamentals the first couple weeks,” he says. “And then we start expanding into the inverter capabilities. Being that they already know how to weld aluminum, after those first couple weeks, now it gets exciting for them to tweak those machines and explore what they can do.”

Teachers Bring the Real World to the Classroom

The staff at Westmoreland is unique in its breadth of knowledge and experience and its instructors have diverse industry backgrounds. Bilott comes from the high-precision side of welding, while other instructors have experience in the primary metals industry.

Some are experienced with cast iron and brazing, and others are fluent in inspection, non-destructive testing and fabrication. Each teacher has a niche background to share with students.

Bilott brings real parts and prints from his shop into the classroom to help build experience. Such hands-on activities help students understand and retain lessons better than if they had just heard about it in a lecture.

Westmoreland’s welding program has grown so popular that the department is in the process of moving to a new 70,000-sq. ft. building in a nearby business park with overhead cranes and a more true-manufacturing atmosphere, rather than just a welding lab.

“Our dean and director have been tremendously supportive of our welding program, and the students really benefit from all the new equipment and expanded space,” Bilott said. “This kind of in-depth learning, like the aluminum welding curriculum, keeps us all sharp.  In this industry, if you are not moving forward, you are moving backward.”

Updated: February 5, 2020
Published: May 31, 2011