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TIG Welding Opportunities: Working Magic In Cylinder Head Emergencies
Working Magic In Cylinder Head Emergencies
By Ric Havel
Is there a machine in your shop that can be said to work magic? Not only can it fill cracks and repair broken castings, it has the power to create profits, restore power and turn back the hands of time. You might call it a TIG welder, but many of your most desperate customers will call it a miracle machine - especially at this time of year.
With March come several constants: spring rain, my birthday and the annual "March Madness." No, not the NCAA basketball tournament - this one directly involves you; but like the Big Dance, this madness features hopes, heartbreak and unbelievable faith in last second miracles.
Like the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, racers are starting to come out of hibernation, stick their heads out of their dens and look for the best time of the year - the start of race season. What? Groundhog Day is in February? Well, just like a groundhog that missed his wake-up call, many of your racing customers have waited too late to get started on their engines and are panicking - hoping that you'll save them.
In some cases, it's simply been too short an off-season spent saving for the newest and greatest components. Now the race motor has to be quickly weaned from the dyno room, put into the trailer and hauled off to the track.
There are too many types of competitive racing to list but I will suggest that they all have something in common: they all share the "oops factor." Simply put, the "oops" moment is that point in time when the brand new combo that has had hours of modifications and trial and error either breaks on the dyno or on the track. Whether you're watching the stopwatch, the E.T. clock or the horsepower gauge to see how your new creation will perform, when you identify the weak link, "oops" is NOT the word you're likely to say - it's just the only thing I can get away with. But I'm sure you know the feeling.
Even when the broken component seems like an inconsequential part of the puzzle, if it causes damage to an engine you'll suddenly realize its importance.
Here's the dilemma racers face: something broke, the season is upon us and every parts manufacturer is doing the best it can to keep shipping parts it hadn't budgeted for. Now there may be an infamous 4 to 6 weeks before shipping.
Here's the dilemma shops face: by the time the parts may be available, we're all up to our ears in pressure from the customer who needs this replaced and worked on yesterday, even though it didn't break until today. We are constantly faced with trying to be everything to everyone and keep all of our customers happy.
By now, you're asking why I'm telling you this. After all, we live the scenario every year at this time, and there's nothing new to think about it. Actually, maybe there is a new approach you can take to deal with engine casting emergencies.
I have spent most of the past four months on the road as a shop consultant, visiting customers all over the country. It seemed like everywhere I went, I found another shop in the midst of this "March madness," all begging for a solution to their problems.
I can't begin to tell you how many shop owners I visited who felt haunted by aluminum heads, blocks, manifolds and other components that had been damaged. Whether it was a NASCAR Busch Series head that was ported just a little too much or a custom race head that went "pow" on the last dyno pull or just some unexpected little gremlin in a sport compact performance head that reared its ugly face, things came to a screeching halt.
I wonder which came to a halt faster: the rotating crankshaft or the owner's heartbeat while he contemplated how to minimize the expense and get the job rolling once again? In most cases these products had been CNC'd and hand-massaged to extract that final bit of power. Now all that custom work is worthless and wasted…or is it?
My observation tells me there is a fantastic opportunity to fill a need and get the noise going again by offering repair, not replacement, of the damaged head, block or manifold.
In the last issue of Engine Builder, Larry Carley raised some very important questions about the justification for the money spent in the ever-advancing performance cylinder head market ("Hot Heads for Cool Cars, February 2004, page 32). He asked experts in the business about their concerns and difficulties and left me with the realization that a lot of horsepower is hiding above the pistons in the cylinder heads. Many of the people he interviewed explained that even after the CNC process was completed there was still the final signature of the "Head Man's" final finishing touches.
I was surprised by the number of folks I have met who were dealing with just this scenario, yet who don't simply weld damaged components and move along with the task at hand - why not turn an "oops" into an opportunity?
Shop owners all had reasons why they did not want to weld: most had to do with success (or rather, failure) rates and the perceived notion that you'll have to spend your children's college fund to just get started. Other excuses I heard ranged from "We used to do that but the only guy I had who could weld went on to greener pastures and I just don't have time to do it myself," to "I used to send them to a local welding shop but when I got them back they were usually worse than when I sent them out."
Several shop owners said they have sent components back to the original manufacturer or the CNC specialists hoping to have the damage repaired - only to be told (after paying for an inspection, of course) that the casting is too thin or it has been ported beyond repair. The only solution, they were told, was to buy a new casting, have it delivered in four to six weeks and start over on the handwork.
When your casting repair specialist doesn't want to fix somebody else's welding work because a hard job has now become a real challenge and there are plenty of easier jobs to do, I think you should realize that the opportunities ARE there for you to offer aluminum welding services.
All things considered, your investment in a TIG welder pales in comparison to the amount needed to buy some of the latest engine rebuilding machines. It feels like there is always some newer, better, faster machine ready to replace the one you haven't even finished paying for yet, preventing you from getting to the point where you'll realize the real benefits of the machine. Remember: no payments and no obsolescence spells PROFITS.
The newest welder in our shop is a Lincoln Precision TIG 375 and though it has fewer bells and whistles than its predecessor it is more efficient. Many of the former adjustment knobs and handles are no longer there because the microcircuitry and multi-function capabilities are now handled by the machine. There is no need to be making constant adjustments. It has proved to be the best investment that we could have made.
A current, well-outfitted TIG welder is one of the least expensive investments you can make, and will give you many years of repeatable, reliable service. Consider this: all you are doing is melting metal. How many times will the fundamentals of electricity and metallurgy change? Sure, there are always ongoing improvements being made to TIG welders but frankly, most are not for the benefit of "the girls we dance with." In other words, most of the recent technological innovations in TIG welders benefit the aerospace, aircraft and automotive OEMs more than they benefit the aftermarket.
Of course, even the aftermarket can go after these "A-list" type jobs. I have seen automotive machine shops doing jobs such as fuel cell prototyping for the OEMs in one part of the shop, building race engines in another room and taking care of the more mundane head and block reconditioning and general engine reconditioning all under one roof. For us it generally requires a one-time investment in equipment - once your skills are mastered the sky's the limit.
A great example of the opportunity you can expect is the Honda race head pictured throughout this article. It was sent to our shop for evaluation of repairability. The shop owner who sent this to me explained that he felt it was probably too hard if not impossible to fix. But before he broke the bad news to his customer that his race season was about to be shortened (and bank account reduced) while another head was purchased and then sent out for further port and chamber modifications, he figured it wouldn't hurt to let us take a look.
From start of job to finish, the job took less than 4 hours in my shop. The photos tell the story: the head is as good as it was before the "oops" so the racer is happy and the engine builder comes off looking good too. In that 4 hours of time, I was able to charge and collect from a very happy customer over $135 per hour - and there is still a stack of other heads waiting to be done. The subsequent deposit to MY bank account will make the CPA happy.
The long and short of this is to demonstrate there is a golden lining in every "oops." If you've never done aluminum welding before and you need any info on welding and its related topics (including training) just send me an e-mail. I will do whatever I can to answer your questions and respond to you comments and concerns. Let me know what you would like to know about welding aluminum.
If you used to offer aluminum welding but don't anymore (for whatever reason), I encourage you to take a second look at the market opportunity and do what you can with it. It's nearly all labor and many times that's the only part of our business that we still control and that is a very handsome return on our investment.
Believe me, this is one of the really magical ways we can continue to make our customers happy and hopefully generate a profit and capture a niche opportunity for ourselves.
Technical Specifications for Pictured Cylinder Head Repair
The photos throughout this article show a damaged Honda VTEC cylinder head that no one else wanted to touch. It took four hours of my time and was a very successful project.
- Welder: Lincoln Precision Tig 375.
- Shield Gas used: Pure Argon @20 CFH.
- Filler Material used: 1/6? & 3/32? 4043 (welding rod non-heat-treatable)
- Torch used: WP 20 (an industry generic ID)
- Tungsten used: 3/32? dia. Ceriated (orange band)
- Alumina nozzle used: 5/16? I.D. x 1-7/8? length (P/N A796F72) another industry common P/N)
- End mill used: Standard 1/2? center cutting for all prep work
- Lubricant used during machining: Tap Magic (for aluminum)
- DCM Tech seat and guide machine used for prep and final finishing including the necessary guide bore repair.
- Sunnen Thermal Cleaning unit used for not only cleaning but also the airless blaster was used to do the final surface conditioning (cosmetic blending). This was a big time saver.
- Sunnen/ AM/PRO head straightening oven (used for preheat and guide and seat installation)
- Sunnen Submersible Universal Plate Pressure Tester
The average amperage used during the welding was from a low of 25 amps to a high of 215 amps for the heavy areas and guide bore (this is all with only one setting and controlled by the foot pedal rheostat. No changes during the welding necessary)
And finally the hand detailing, which is kept to a minimum by proper welding sequence, was accomplished using several angle head pneumatic die grinders (both 30 deg. and 90 deg.) with common carbide burrs specifically for use on aluminum.
The cleaning temperature never exceeded 500 degrees F. and the same temp was used for the preheat prior to welding. After the welding was completed the head was just set to rest (cool off) on the shop floor with appropriate warning HOT PART until such time as it was manageable to handle.
And last, but not least, thanks to the as-always helpful group at Engine Builder who allow me a forum to present another profit opportunity to you.