Time crunch

By Rhonda Zatezalo

Compact welding system helps firefighters save the day

May 2016 - Aluminum has a reputation, in the welding industry, for being difficult to work with. Most times, to get a quality weld with solid penetration takes a lot of time in rework. 

Just how long can that rework take? For Spencer Manufacturing, South Haven, Michigan, welding two sidewalls into position with a solid, paintable edge was taking 16 hours. The Spencer family has been building custom fire trucks for almost 30 years. With that much experience, they knew there had to be a better way to get the seam they needed while meeting customers’ expectations and budgets. 

Spencer designs and builds 20 to 25 trucks per year for municipalities across the nation. It has clients as far away as Alaska and as close as their backyard in southwestern Michigan. Every Spencer-built vehicle is designed to fit the customer’s individual specifications. On a fire truck, nearly every square inch has to be functional, by housing firefighting gear and controls. Spencer has customized items as small as tool brackets up to changing the configuration of access so that no one has to step up onto the truck in order to reach for ladders and gear. 

FFJ 0509 spencer image1

Before (left) and after (right).

Beginning with a 3-D digital model, the frame is configured to the proper specification. Each piece of extruded, aluminum tubing is cut and welded in house. Next, the sidewalls are attached. This step presents the weld radius that has caused so much time in rework: where the sidewalls attach to the frame. On a flat surface, any pits in the weld could be filled in and painted over but, here, any type of filler would flake off with usage and weather. This edge has to be solid metal. 

With the MIG equipment Spencer  previously used, the actual welding took only minutes compared to the hours of grinding, routering and sanding to get a solid, paintable corner. Even with all this work, the company wasn’t highly confident about each of those welds. With the new process, however, Spencer has reduced those 16 hours to four and the shop is more confident in the quality of that seam. 

Family business

What changed? We spoke to Grant and Allen Spencer, brothers in the family business, to see how they’ve been able to reduce the time on this one application by 75 percent. 

“So the one truck, two walls, used to take me 16 hours. With the Fronius TPS 320i Compact welding system, I can do both walls in four hours.” Allen began working with the TPS 320i Compact just a few months ago. For this application the company is using primarily Synchropulse, a pulsed gas metal arc welding (GMAW) process. “It’s one of those tools that, once you have it, you don’t know how you made it without it.” 

The most significant time savings was in the reduction of rework. The TPSi has spatter-free ignition and an intelligent arc that adjusts during welding according to set parameters. Overall there is less spatter, proper penetration and a good bead profile. The resulting seam is solid and requires little to prep for primer and paint.

FFJ 0509 spencer image2

Another advantage came from the smart design of on-torch controls. Allen found these to be incredibly helpful when moving in and out of the framework. With competing weld systems, he says, “you have to move around to see your machine. That’s another feature that saves time, having the controls right on the torch. No need to go look at or mess with the machine.”

These on-torch controls give the user the ability to change weld settings such as hot start, tac and crater fill. These features are especially handy for welding aluminum in order to get through the oxide layer and end the bead cleanly. 

The trickiness of welding aluminum scares many people away from trying it. The Fronius TPSi offers assistance to novice welders by using waveform control to make the process easier. This concept makes the welding system more versatile, allowing one machine to weld aluminum, steel or any other metal.  

Harvesting knowledge

Spencer Manufacturing plans to exploit this versatility at its sister company, Haven Harvesters, which builds blueberry harvesters from both steel and aluminum. Haven works out of the same location—which is at the center of the blueberry capital of the world. 

Why build harvesters alongside fire trucks? When local orchard owners asked the family to fix some of their blueberry harvesters, the Spencers realized they had another opportunity to serve the community. 

Harvesters take a lot of abuse. They have to be designed to endure rough field environments while handling the delicate berries. Steel holds up well in farming conditions, but it rusts and it’s heavy, which means sometimes equipment gets stuck in muddy fields. Aluminum harvesters have been tried before, but when they’re built in the same design as steel ones, they sometimes get ripped apart in the field. 

FFJ 0509 spencer image3

But the Spencer family understands aluminum, “Aluminum flexes more and you have to allow for that,” Allen Spencer says.  Haven expects to manufacture five harvesters this year. 

With the additional work of building harvesters, saving 12 hours per fire truck was a much-needed fix. With the time savings from this one process, Grant Spencer estimates they’ll be able to build an extra one to two trucks each year.  This means the fire-and-rescue vehicles will be on the road helping people sooner, and more communities can be served each year. 

Fire trucks, rescue vehicles and blueberry harvesters—there must be a lot of stories around this shop. We asked about some of the odd customizations or requests they’ve received. Remember that truck for Alaska? “It was the first and only one we built without air conditioning.”

Rhonda Zatezalo is the content specialist at Crearies Marketing Design. She has a passion for helping businesses share their stories and to make advanced technology easily understandable. Much of her work in the past four years has centered on the welding industry.



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