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Fabrication Focus: Aluminum MIG Welding

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Author: Conor McArdle

Metropolis Makerspace (6C-006B) is one of the few places on MIT’s campus where students can learn how to weld. As Audrey Y Cui (Computer Science and Brain Cognitive Sciences), one of our student makerspace mentors explains: “I love recommending Metropolis as a place where people can learn how to weld because we have pretty accessible trainings. Afterwards, after people are trained, they can come during open hours to work on their own projects.” This sort of flexibility and openness is rare around MIT’s makerspaces, especially for welding. And even rarer still is Project Manus’ Aluminum MIG welding capabilities.

To bring the relative ease of learning MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding to aluminum, we recently added a MIG aluminum welding capability (as well as a CNC plasma cutter) to our hotwork space, in addition to our steel MIG and TIG welders. MIG welding is fairly straightforward to learn, according to Audrey, and is “basically a hot glue gun for metal.” Since aluminum is regularly machined in our sister shop The Deep, having an aluminum MIG welder is especially helpful for some student’s fabrication workflow. Seth Avecilla, a Maker Technical Specialist at MIT Project Manus, explains that there are certain reasons why aluminum is the material of choice for some projects, like machinability or corrosion resistance. “We’ve had some marine stuff go through where [the object] was going to be exposed to salt water” — something which would not be ideal for rustable steel.

Aluminum Die by Seth Avecilla

Raymond Turrisi, a Manus mentor and a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, explains: in the MIT Marine Autonomy Lab where he is a member, “we have a large 16-foot autonomous surface vehicle that we deploy out on the Charles River and in coastal regions that we use for research and education.” This 10 year old vessel, originally acquired for the RobotX competition, recently started to show signs of decay on the structure that supports the inflatable pontoons and motor. Raymond continues: “when we were discussing how we were going to go about fixing this, I offered [aluminum welding] to my group, because I was the only one in our group aware of the especially unique equipment on campus, and I had the overall experience and training with welding in general.”

The Remote Explorer (REx) IV vessel, MIT Sea Grant AUV Lab

Raymond was able to use his skills in the hotwork space to re-weld the frame with the new aluminum welder, as well as use the pneumatic tools like the grinders and Dremels to grind away the old welds and then weld over them to repair them. “There’s a ton of research opportunities in the marine industry”, Raymond says, “Everything which we put into the field and intend on getting back, must be made corrosion resistant. Aluminum is pretty corrosion resistant, easy to work with, and reasonably durable for our applications, so it is very common for marine applications''.

Details of the Aluminum Weld

The specialty aluminum MIG welding tool is valuable to our students and staff because, as Audrey puts it, welding aluminum in general is quite difficult: “Aluminum has a really high capacity for heat. So when you heat it up, it heats up very quickly.” Raymond explains that a challenge when welding aluminum is that since heat quickly spreads and the melting point is close to half that of steel, you are much more likely to blow a hole through the piece. One of the special features of the aluminum MIG welders is something called a pulse mode which, in addition to controlling the arc, helps manage the heat by alternating current at a high frequency to reduce the heat that is dumped into the system.

The structure from the vessel

Recently, Audrey has used the aluminum MIG welder to fabricate a 100 pound grill stand with 80/20 aluminum, a T-slot construction system you can use to build virtually anything. Audrey’s friends had a grill, but not the stand. “People would sit down on the ground cross-legged while grilling,” which wasn’t ideal according to Audrey. “So I took some scrap pieces of 80/20, welded them together and it was a fun opportunity to get a bit of welding practice in.” This aluminum base, much lighter than steel, lets her friends grill the “ideal way… while standing!”

The demand for welding on campus is high. Students come in to learn how to weld for their MechE, AeroAstro, and Architecture classes, as well as for the How to Make Everything course run out of the MIT Media Lab. There has also historically been a welding prerequisite for the popular IAP bicycle building course. “There are a good number of people who are just like, ‘welding looks really cool, and I just wanna learn a new skill,’ and that was kind of me when I first got into it”, recounts Audrey.

“I think it's just a really empowering skill to have — you've got a bunch of sparks flying everywhere! You're sticking metal together. It's a lot of fun”

As to her role as a mentor with Project Manus, Audrey believes that beyond welding, being a peer mentor has built her confidence as a maker, and she wants to continue to give back to the makerspace that has taught her so many skills. “The great thing about this makerspace is I can still continue to be a student in many other ways — I still have a lot to learn in terms of welding and all the other equipment around the shops.”

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