Changing up the daily grind

Aluminum fabricator switches abrasives, sees immediate results

Practical Welding Today March/April 2011
March 14, 2011
By: Amanda Carlson

A manufacturer of aluminum radar arches found that a simple change in grinding discs yielded big results.

custom-fabricated arch

This custom-fabricated Tramm radar arch has been meticulously ground down and finished to ensure a seamless product once it is primed and painted.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? It's safe to say that not all change is good and that change for the sake of change seems a little unnecessary, especially if a particular system gets the job done.

But sometimes finding the ability to be open-minded toward change can result in a positive outcome. Just ask Wade Tramm, owner of Tramm Manufacturing Inc. The Isle, Minn., company manufactures marine equipment such as stainless steel railings and custom fuel cells. Its specialty, however, is fabricating custom radar arches and hard-top struts for high-profile boats, yachts, and ships.

"We do some OEM work but otherwise it's private customers. It's an elite group of people and I like working with them," Tramm explained.

Since customers turn to Tramm to help improve the appearance of their favorite pasttime—sailing their yacht—precision and quality—from initial design all the way to final aesthetics—are of the utmost importance.

In an effort to keep a close eye on quality and precision, Tramm has chosen to keep the business small, just Tramm plus three welders/fabricators.

Taming the Aluminum Beast

Fabricating and welding aluminum require specific attention to detail, particularly when it comes to surface preparation and quality.

The process starts with a picture of a customer's yacht or hull. From this Tramm formulates a design either via a CAD program or a hand-drawn sketch. After customer approval, the design is then laid out on a flat sheet of either 5052 or 6061 marine-grade aluminum. Tramm must then evaluate the best way to cut the material—by waterjet, plasma, or manually with a nibbler—based on the size and shape.

Once the material is cut, all weldable edges must be ground down to ensure surface cleanliness.

Interior components are assembled with gas metal arc welding (GMAW), and everything is tied together with gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW). GTAW provides the penetration necessary to hold the components together after the weld bead is completely ground away.

The entire fabricating process takes approximately two weeks.

custom-arch finished product

The final product is ready for shipping. Tramm said many people mistake his aluminum radar arches for fiberglass because of their fluid appearance.

No Improvement Is Too Small

Grinding is an important part of the aluminum fabrication process at Tramm. The material must be impeccably clean prior to welding to ensure final weld integrity and full bead penetration. This is especially important since 100 percent of the GTAW bead is removed before priming and painting. Improper weld penetration would result in disaster.

"To ensure that we achieve full penetration, we have to have clean material. Otherwise, if we were to grind [the weld] off, the arch would fall apart," Tramm said.

Aluminum grinding often is a messy process. At Tramm, the welders used to add wax to the 7-in. grinding wheel to help prevent the disc from filling up with aluminum dust.

"Whenever you sand aluminum, your discs fill up because the component gets hot and the material softens."

The process was messy and time-consuming, but necessary. Quite frankly, Tramm saw no reason to change.

That is until Tramm's equipment supplier introduced him to the NorZon BlueFire R884 flap disc from Norton Abrasives. The disc can perform simultaneous deburring and cleaning on aluminum.

According to Tramm, the disc gets excellent results on aluminum weld grinding because the zirconia grain microfractures, producing sharp cutting points throughout the grind. Polyester flaps help to extend disc life, and the semi-open coat gives the aluminum a place to go other than building up on the disc itself.

Once Tramm tested the Norton disc, a change started to look better.

"This new abrasive disc eliminated the need for us to use that wax, the cleaning, and the wiping down. We just immediately sand it and weld it. It saves us a lot of time, and it eliminated the need for wax 100 percent," Tramm said.

Since then Tramm has been happy with the results. The new discs have made the grinding process much faster for his welders, and it has even helped create a cleaner, more pleasant shop environment.

"The way we had been doing things had been the norm for years. It's just what we had done and it worked. I guess now with new technology we can do things differently. I'm young enough that I can be open-minded enough to try new things. By doing so I found something that works wonderfully."

Tramm Manufacturing Inc., 34994 Hwy. 47, Isle, MN 56342, 320-676-3729,

    Tags: eye, GTAW, IPS, mult

Amanda Carlson

Amanda Carlson

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8260

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