Tim Andrechek,
Ferris Industries,
Munnsville, N.Y.

Ferris Industries, a Munnsville, N.Y., producer of landscaping equipment, found that a return to welding basics, especially with respect to welder training and shielding gas, helped improve its mower products. Changing its shielding gas improved the cosmetics of its parts, increased wirefeed rates, and improved productivity and quality.

Ferris sought to improve the fit and finish of its mower decks using cleaner welds with little spatter. This reduced the amount of grinding and other rework required before painting. Shown is a deck-lift pivot, as welded, and another freshly painted with no rework.

Closeup shows corner of the mower deck as welded (above) and another as painted (below).

Many welds on Ferris' products require integrity and appearance. Focusing on the basics has allowed the company to improve productivity of its capital and its labor, and also improve its products.

Ferris builds a complete line of riding and walk-behind mowers used by commercial landscapers. The mowers' frames and decks are fixtured, jigged, and welded by hand at 18 MIG welding stations on the shop floor.

Ferris Industries had some serious problems with spatter, and it was gumming up the works. The Munnsville, N.Y., company builds a complete line of riding and walk-behind mowers used by commercial landscapers. The mowers' frames and decks are fixtured, jigged, and welded by hand at 18 MIG welding stations on the shop floor. The welds are primarily structural, but appearance and integrity are just as important — if not more so — than strength.

Because paint highlights spatter rather than hides it, the shop has to remove spatter before painting parts. Due to large amounts of spatter, however, it spent an inordinate amount of time reworking parts for painting.

When Simplicity Manufacturing purchased Ferris Industries in 1999, Simplicity's management committed to build Ferris' leadership position in the market. As part of its strategy, management decided to improve the fit and finish of the mower decks. That is, make cleaner welds with little spatter, thereby reducing the grinding, wire brushing, and other rework required before painting.

So Ferris set out to reduce spatter while looking at the welding shop as a whole to determine what other improvements it could make and how to make them.

Training as the basis for improvement
Most of Ferris' welders have little formal training. They're either self-taught or they learned welding from a relative or friend. So it appeared that some problems arose because the welders didn't fully understand the equipment or processes they were using. For instance, the welders believed that more was better when it came to gas flows and flowmeters.

Upon further inspection, it turned out that many rework problems could be attributed to improper machine settings because the welders didn't appreciate the effect that voltage, amperage, and wirefeed controls had on the process. Consequently, Ferris developed a training program to teach its welders what happens during the weld and why, so they know how to adjust the machines.

The shop-floor training covered the MIG-welding process, the operation of the equipment, the power source, and the wirefeeders, as well as the qualities of various shielding gases. It also reduced maintenance topics such as how to set drive rolls, how to keep them clean, and what to look for when something isn't going quite right. The entire workforce, including management, received the overview.

Finding the proper shielding gas
Then the company looked at its welding methods and procedures, as well as the general operation of the welding shop. Management wanted to upgrade the workers' skills and give them better tools and methods. Aware that the welders should be comfortable with what they were using, the company sought tools and methods they would embrace, and took the time to demonstrate the advantages.

Because most of the rework was necessitated by spatter and cosmetic concerns, Ferris decided to prevent the problem as much as possible by finding a shielding gas better suited for the job.

The welding shop had been using a 15% CO2 shielding gas, but that made the puddle too unstable. The welders had little control over the puddle, and that contributed to the large amount of spatter. So Ferris decided to find a shielding gas that offered greater control through the formation of a puddle that's less erratic and more manageable.

The company conducted an Internet search to identify suppliers that had developed gases aimed at spatter-free welding. One gas in particular —Airgas Gold Gas SteelMix Extra — seemed to fill the bill. A special combination of helium, argon, and CO2, the gas is commonly used for robotic sheetmetal welding in the automotive industry because it offers good appearance and spatter-free performance.

The firm considered several other products, but SteelMix Extra stood out because it creates less smoke, thereby maintaining a cleaner environment in the shop. Ozone emissions with SteelMix Extra are lower, and the gas also provided the desired arc qualities for the job. Consequently, Ferris asked Airgas to provide a sample for testing.

Welding specialist lends a hand
Pleased with the gas' performance during various trial runs, Ferris asked Airgas to recommend specific procedures and techniques for the work being done. That's when Dave Schaffer, process welding specialist for Airgas, got involved.

Schaffer is a Certified Welding Inspector (CWI) and a Certified Welding Educator (CWE) who joined Airgas when the company purchased Air Products & Chemical Inc.'s U.S. packagedgas business. He's one of a nationwide team of process welding specialists who tested various shielding gases and added the SteelMix Extra product to the Gold Gas line-up.

Schaffer agreed that a change in shielding gas could decrease the amount of spatter and increase wirefeed rates for faster welding. With Schaffer's help, Ferris did some sample runs and tried a variety of techniques.

Ferris introduced the new gas to the welders on the shop floor by explainingthe differences between the gases and why the new gas should offer better results. As part of the introduction, Schaffer explained the relationship between gas mix and performance.

"Many customers only want to know the price of the gas and the price of the wire," he says, "when in reality those costs have very little effect on the total cost of the product. For instance, if you double your wirespeed feeds, you'll cut your shieldinggas costs in half because you're depositing twice the amount of material with the same amount of gas."

In Ferris' case, it improved wirefeed rates as a result of the change to SteelMix Extra. Overall rates increased approximately 20%, with some welders able to run the wirefeeders almost 100 in./min more. It achieved a 19% increase in wirefeed speed, which also improved capacity, reduced the need for additional welders, and reduced overtime. The increased speeds were applied to weld times of a sample group of weldments being considered for a semiautomatic welding system. The annual labor savings for this sample group of parts totaled $4,300.

The amount of spatter was reduced by 50%, even though the welders were running at higher speeds. What's more, the welders are comfortable running at those higher speeds, particularly since they're getting better-looking welds because of spatter reduction.

Of course, less spatter and betterlooking welds translate directly to less cleanup and rework time. Before Ferris switched shielding gas, it took approximately 6 min to grind the spatter from each mower deck in preparation for painting. Because there's now less spatter, cleanup and grinding time has been reduced by approximately 2 min per deck. That's a 33% improvement, which translates into annual savings of $6,500 in labor costs.

Even though Ferris now pays about 20% a cylinder more for its shielding gas, the increase in wirefeed rates and the spatter decrease have reduced labor costs. (The savings vary because the welders perform other tasks, such as fixturing and hand fitting.) What's more, lack of spatter means the nozzle stays cleaner longer, and a clean nozzle helps prevent wirefeed problems.

"I credit Tim and Ferris welding supervisor John Szkotak and the Ferris welders with being proactive in wanting to improve their process, and for being open-minded in seeking solutions," Schaffer says.

Lowering the flow
Ferris also has reduced its gas use by adjusting its welders' flowmeters. As noted earlier, most of the welders believed that higher gas flow was better, when, in truth, the company was wasting gas and losing money because the meters were set too high.

Having welders reduce the flow to 35 ft/hr allowed them to still get good results, yet use much less gas. Indeed, when the improvement program began, the company was consuming about 18 cylinders of gas every two days. Adjusting the flowmeters has reduced that number to 10 to 12 cylinders.

Even though the cost of each cylinder has increased, adjusting the flowmeters to the proper setting has saved the company approximately $6,500/yr. In fact, that step alone offset the higher cost of the new gas.

Before Simplicity acquired the company, Ferris faced financial constraints and was operating without an experienced welding engineer. Now that Ferris has the financial backing and other resources of its parent, its welders take advantage of the formal operating procedures and welding techniques that were brought to the company.

For example, they're paying greater attention to torch maintenance, ensuring for instance that the tip is clean and in the right place. And the company encourages the welders to change tips when they become worn rather than extend the life of used ones.

Welders are also cleaning drive rolls when they become clogged and replacing them when they're worn. Previously, they'd run drive rolls until they could barely push the wire, but they've learned that's counterproductive.

Additional improvements expected
Many of the improvements Ferris has made in spatter reduction, wirefeed rates, and gas conservation would not have been possible without the cooperation of those who do the job day in and day out. Their willingness to listen to new ideas and try new ways was instrumental in the current successes.

It's an ongoing process. As new welders come into the shop, they get several hours of orientation on the equipment and the type of welding they'll be doing. They're shown a process that's proven to be nearly spatter free and will give them results that will make their jobs easier and more productive. If they need additional training, their supervisors work with them so they gain the confidence and comfort level they need to deal with their equipment and read drawings and prints.

The shop also conducts monthly "open forum" meetings in which the welders discuss their successes and concerns. That enables it to continue to improve the working environment in the shop and the quality of its product.

Along with productivity improvements and cost savings, Ferris Industries has gained an understanding that even small changes can make a big difference in the long run. Focusing on the basics has helped the firm improve productivity, save time, and cut costs — all while improving quality.

The underlying message is, "If you think there's a better way to do something, there probably is. If you're not sure, don't hesitate to invite a specialist in to observe your process. Sometimes you just need another set of eyes to help you see more clearly."

Author Tim Andrecheck, welding engineer for Ferris, has been in the welding field for nearly 30 yr, having learned the process through military and vocational schools, as well as on-the-job training and other programs. He also holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical-engineering technologies.