December 13, 2001
A case study looking at how Superior Joining Technologies Inc. got into the microwelding business, the welding equipment they use, how the meet customer requirements, and how they use a solid foundation in welding to keep up with today's stringent requirements.
Consider the various applications for microwelding and some of the first images that come to mind are the highly intricate weld operations performed on hardened tool steels and machined weldments—synonymous with a high level of precision and craftsmanship.
An increasingly large number of products, including batteries, capacitors, sensors, pressure devices, lightbulb filaments, vacuum tubes, thermocouples, metal bellows and seals, and surgical instruments, require precision welding to seal, shape, or join to complete the manufacturing cycle.
Today, the two most popular methods used for precision joining are gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), also referred to as tungsten inert gas (TIG), and plasma welding. These methods were first used extensively during World War II to provide acceptable weld quality on aluminum, stainless steels, tool steels, and high-temperature alloys.
During the past decade, significant advances in power supplies, welding techniques, and process controls have allowed for even greater weld accuracy and increased microwelding practices. The process continues to be used widely for precision and miniature applications on wall thicknesses as thin as 0.003 inch.
"There is no question that today's welding requirements have become more stringent with regard to the quality and appearance of typical weld," explains Thom Shelow, president of Loves Park, Illinois-based Superior Joining Technologies, Inc. (SJTI).
Since 1992, Shelow and his staff of 10 full- and part-time employees have functioned as a full-service precision welding laboratory offering customers in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin fabricating, fixturing, machining, microwelding, prototyping, and tool and die repair support services.
For Shelow, working in fabrication and weld shop environments has been more than an occupation — it's been a career on the fast track.
Beginning with his own on-the-job training, he acquired the intuitive knowledge and skills that would come in handy as he started his own shop. Recognizing there were a number of fabricators in northern Illinois, he was determined to provide customers with quick quotes, while-you-wait tool and die repairs, and on-time deliveries as he strived to differentiate his business from others in the local market.
After just two years in Rochelle, Illinois, SJTI relocated (in 1994) to a nearly 4,000-square-foot facility in Loves Park, next door to Rockford. The Loves Park facility now houses the company's administrative offices and complete welding laboratory.
The lab is home to six welding machines. These include two Lincoln Electric Squarewave GTAW units — 350/355; two Miller Electric Syncrowave machines — 250/300; one Miller Electric Aerowave 300; and one ST International BTW orbital tube welder.
A Cordax 5000 coordinate measuring machine and an Olympus S240 microscope, designed for intricate weld repairs on plastic injection molds, also are featured in the facility. Various support equipment, including a Varian Auto-Test dry leak detector 960D, surface plates, and a vacuum atmosphere welding chamber, round out the lab's equipment portfolio.
"Whether it's this business or another manufacturing endeavor, it comes down to service and listening to one's customers. We can all learn from each other and work together to achieve better quality. What was important to me when I started SJTI was providing clients with the highest levels of technical service and craftsmanship," says Shelow.
One such example was an extensive project that SJTI handled for an aerospace client. Based on a detailed inspection of the waste handling system, "flatness" on a critical flange was observed and found to be out-of-tolerance. Following several client meetings, SJTI built a new fixture to meet the customer's specific requirements. Since the initial project, Shelow and his staff have worked on other certified programs for the same account.
He adds that welding can be an extremely complex process with a significant number of variables to consider, not only in the welding methods and equipment on the market, but also the time requirements and close tolerances associated with microwelding.
Besides the aerospace market, SJTI serves a growing number of customers representing the automotive and general fabrication markets located principally in the Midwest. There are exceptions, of course, including a local client that has since relocated to Arizona and continues its business relationship with the company.
Shelow acknowledges, "We don't pretend to be engineers. Our job is to make informed suggestions and communicate observations to clients without meddling in the design area. Engineers may be looking for specific design recommendations, so it's important that we understand our role.
"As we see it, offering insight into the welding process and its effect on the product is a value-added service we provide. In turn, we take their plans and convert them into a working prototype," he adds. When it comes to tool and die repair, SJTI offers evaluations covering warpage, stress, and the length of time a repaired part is likely to operate before it fails.
As the company expands its own market presence and lineup of technical services, it also has taken the time to consider its future and the need to recruit both trainees and experienced personnel. For example, last year, Greg Lamm, a 33-year welding industry veteran from the Rockford area, joined Shelow's staff and has brought considerable business insight and microwelding expertise to SJTI.
An interesting sidelight: Lamm's late father, Pat Lamm, was one of the early welding pioneers in northwestern Illinois during the 1940s and later mentored Shelow as he pursued his own career in industry. "It meant a lot to learn from someone like [Pat], and I credit much of my success to his basic skills training and words of encouragement," adds Shelow.
Today, many of these same skills are being passed on to the next generation of young workers interested in pursuing their own careers in the welding field. Many of the welding basics are taught through on-the-job training, according to Greg Lamm. This includes providing a working knowledge of these GTAW guidelines:
1. Receive clear and complete instructions from the customer.
2. Predict and anticipate what the welder's work will do to the part.
3. Identify the material and how it's being used.
4. Know the preheat temperature for base metal — this may vary.
5. Select proper filler material for all types of tool steels, plastic injection molds, stainless steel, etc.
6. Have good text and reference materials available for easy access.
7. Prepare the weld area through proper pre- and postheating.
To remain on the cutting edge of manufacturing technology, the company continues to hone its precision welding expertise to help ensure quality service and responsiveness to a diverse customer base. A solid welding foundation is a key to its growth.
Superior Joining Technologies Inc. is located at 7960 Crest Hills Drive, Loves Park, Illinois 61111, phone 815-282-7581, fax 815-282-7583.
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