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Fabrication Education: Supplying an Industry in Demand

The Fab School located in Riverside, Calif., has been training young fabricators for more than a decade. To fill the need for skilled fabricators, companies such Pratt & Whitney are eager to hire the school’s graduates.

Once required in all American public high schools, shop class taught generations of young people practical fabrication and maintenance skills such as woodworking, metalworking, small engine repair and automobile maintenance. Shop class was representative of an era when “America” and “industry” were synonymous. Names like General Motors, McDonnell-Douglas and U.S. Steel represented American ingenuity, prosperity and a hard work ethic. Although the presence of shop class has declined in schools, there is an increased demand for skilled labor in the United States.

With the increasing influence of the service industry sector on the U.S economy, along with the baby boomer generation approaching retirement age, manufacturing companies are in need for young skilled fabricators. Companies are willing to pay premium salaries and benefits to enthusiastic young workers willing to take the reigns from the previous generation of fabricators. That’s where Troy Johnson, founder of The Fab School, enters the picture. The Fab School in Riverside, California, has become a training and proving ground for the nation’s next generation of skilled fabricators. It has been so successful that companies are lining up to hire its graduates. To teach students the most advanced fabricating equipment technology and techniques, The Fab School stocks its classroom with equipment from Miller Electric Mfg. Co.

A Dream Is Born

“During my high school days, I loved going to shop class,” recalls Johnson. “I remember turning on a welder for the first time and saying, ‘This is cool!’ I’d weld from one side of the welding bench to the other. I would even weld stuff to the side of the building. Whatever could be welded, I welded it.” That’s how Johnson knew he was a born fabricator.

Early in his life, Johnson also realized that he was a natural-born racer. He started racing dirt bikes and later Baja with a friend. Johnson combined his interests in racing and fabrication to jump-start his career. He worked as a fabricator for several auto manufacturers, including Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge, Kia, Ford and Nissan.

“While working for these companies, I acquired a tremendous amount of fabrication knowledge, skills and experience,” explains Johnson. “It was a huge learning experience, and I applied this knowledge to my own projects.”

After 20 years of factory automotive fabrication, Johnson pursued his dream and returned to motorsports. Johnson hired friends to help staff his fabrication shop, Johnson Fabrication. In the process, he discovered other young or novice fabricators willing to pay him to learn advanced fabrication skills. Thus, The Fab School was born.

Originally, Johnson intended The Fab School to be a temporary side business, which he planned to shut down after he hired enough permanent fabricators devoted to building race vehicles full-time. Two years later, The Fab School is still in operation. Johnson discovered that companies were desperate to find skilled fabricators, and he knew that The Fab School could fill that need.

Although most of The Fab School’s students have prior fabricating experience, some students have none. Television shows such as Monster Garage, American Choppers and American Hot Rod are peaking people’s interests in fabrication.

“I’ve got 20 year old guys that come to The Fab School for the first time and they had never even turned on a welder,” says Johnson. “It’s bizarre that these guys are interested in fabrication but don’t know how to weld. We teach them various MIG and TIG welding techniques. Surprisingly, these new guys end up being the best welders we have.”

Class Action

“At The Fab School, we say if you can fabricate an off-road vehicle, which is very complex, you can fabricate anything,” says Johnson. “Students don’t come here to work on individual projects. At The Fab School, we teach the students how to fabricate, and they must hone their skills and use them to pursue their personal projects.”

As part of the curriculum, The Fab School students fabricate an aluminum trashcan. The project enables the students to learn TIG Welding skills such as adequate weld penetration and heat input control.

The Fab School currently offers a six-month-long Introduction to Fabrication course. The class teaches students tube bending, notching and cutting, pattern design, chassis design and theory, MIG and TIG welding, suspension design and theory and sheet metal fabrication. Johnson also trains his students on the use of a suspension design program called Front Suspension Geometry Pro. For students who wish to pursue additional fabrication skills, The Fab School also offers Intermediate Fabrication and Advanced Fabrication courses.

“The Fab School’s mission is to plant seeds of knowledge in all the students’ heads. It’s up to them to water those seeds and make them grow,” says Johnson. “We expect our students to go home and practice what they’ve learned here. Once they perfect their skills, they can apply themselves creatively to any fabrication project.”

The Fab School gives students the opportunity to build customized off-road and racing vehicles that are later sold.

To develop their skills, students work on various fabrication projects while in class. For example, Johnson requires every student to build a welding bench. The project provides students with a free welding bench that they can also use at home to practice their welding skills. To develop their TIG welding skills, each student fabricates an aluminum trashcan. The project requires students to learn the importance of heat control and adequate weld penetration while TIG welding thin gauge material.

Later in the course, students learn how to fabricate more complex components, such as A-arm suspension fixtures. Once students complete the fixtures, they fabricate the actual A-arm.

After completing numerous individual fabricating projects, the students begin to work on the class project cars. Johnson has a unique way of funding the class project cars. He handpicks which students will have the opportunity to build the car and, in return the school receives advertising on the final product. While the customer is responsible for putting up the money for the project, students and instructors all participate in the build. Johnson personally works with each customer to establish build concepts and specifications, and the time that students spend in class working on a customer’s car is not charged to the customer. At the end of the build, each customer gets a customized car for a relatively reasonable price, and students gain a sense of accomplishment and valuable experience.

Given the opportunity to work on actual project cars is the ultimate test of the students’ abilities. The Fab School’s customers have high expectations for quality, and the students’ performance is reflective of Johnson’s reputation for building high-end customized automobiles.

Quality Equipment Yields Quality Results

Just as Johnson provides his students with the best fabricating skills, he also supplies them with the best fabricating equipment. The Fab School has a variety of welding equipment, which includes 13 Dynasty® 200 DXs and two Syncrowave® 250 TIG welders, 10 Millermatic® all-in-one MIG welders, Spectrum® 375 X-TREME® plasma cutters (see side bar story for more details on equipment).

The compact size of the Dynasty 200 DX TIG inverter enables The Fab School students to share bench space with their TIG welders.

Johnson shuns the idea of purchasing inexpensive equipment because, “In my experience, the off-brand welders don’t offer consistent quality. Another major problem with the cheap welders is the unavailability of replacement parts. With Miller, I can call and get replacement parts shipped the same day.”

While using Miller equipment, Johnson has never had any type of welder breakdown. “The reason I’ve bought Miller and will continue to buy them is because I’ve never had to work on any of my machines,” comments Johnson. “I’m not talking about just-recently-bought welders. My Millermatic 135s, 250s and 35s are more than 10 years old. That’s a lot of welding without a problem!”

Built to last: In 1974, Miller revolutionized MIG welding for the automotive and home hobby market when it introduced the Millermatic 35, the world’s first all-in-on MIG welder. As proven by this Millermatic 35 still in use at The Fab School, Millermatics are built to last!

Because fabricators often need their own welder for home practice and side projects, Johnson often counsels his students regarding equipment purchases. While well suited for professional work at The Fab School, the Millermatic 212, Dynasty 200 and Spectrum 375 X-TREME are also popular home units.

A Bright Future

It’s the quality results that students produce at The Fab School that companies around the country are seeking. As an added benefit, the Fab School offers all its students job placement assistance. However, students usually don’t have to look far to find a job after graduation. Companies often call The Fab School looking to hire recent graduates.

“We have well over 100 companies that constantly call us looking for skilled fabricators. They’re even eager to pick up graduates from our Introduction to Fabrication course,” says Johnson. “One student recently got a great fabrication job with full benefits and vacation pay with Pratt & Whitney.”

This situation runs contrary to media claims that manufacturing and fabrication jobs are few and far between. With the baby boom generation entering the retirement age and leaving the workforce, companies are trying to find a solution to fill the shortage of skilled fabricators.

The Fab School is continually working to fill the need for skilled fabricators across the nation. Although The Fab School’s projects focus primarily on automotive applications, the knowledge and skills that the students learn can be directly applied to virtually any fabrication project. Once when asked what he was capable of building, Johnson responded, “I’m a fabricator. I can build anything.” It is the same confidence and capability that The Fab School hopes to instill in all its graduates.

Equipment and Technology Review

As part of The Fab School’s curriculum, founder Troy Johnson ensures each of his students learn the latest fabricating methods while using the industry’s most technologically advanced tools. With the help of his welding supply distributor, Johnson outfitted The Fab School with several Dynasty 200 DX TIG welders and Millermatic 212 MIG welders.

The Fab School students use the Dynasty® 200 DX, a TIG inverter with advanced squarewave technology and AC and DC capabilities, to weld a variety of projects composed of ferrous and non-ferrous metals. The Dynasty 200 DX also features extended balance control (up to 90 percent EN, versus 68 percent EN for conventional technology) and an adjustable output frequency (typically from 20 to 250 Hz).

“I really like the Dynasty 200’s adjustable AC frequency. It allows my students to customize the arc so they can produce great-looking welds on aluminum sheet metal,” says Johnson.

By fine tuning the Dynasty’s "balance control," or adjusting the EN to EP ratio, students can narrow the weld bead and take heat off the base plate. When welding thin metal, the main objective is to avoid warping, burn-through and excessive heat affected zones while still ensuring the weld has sufficient mechanical strength for the application.

Conventional TIG technology can create a wide bead pattern, wider than many applications require. A bead that’s wider than necessary puts unneeded heat into the material, increases the chance of warping and makes it harder to control to the weld puddle.

With the Dynasty 200 DX’s pulsed TIG capability, the arc pulses between a high peak and low background current. A pulsing rate of about 1 pulse per second (PPS) creates a natural rhythm that teaches beginning welders when to add filler rod. Higher pulsing rates (perhaps 150 PPS) increases puddle agitation to produce a better grain molecular structure within the weld. High speed pulsing also constricts and focuses the arc. This increases arc stability, penetration and travel speeds. It also produces a smaller heat-affected zone, minimizing students’ concerns about warping.

Johnson also chose the Dynasty 200 DX because of its power efficiency and flexibility. The Dynasty 200 draws just 15.7 amps of power when welding at 150 amps (230V, single-phase primary). Johnson reports that even when students use all 10 Dynasty units simultaneously, he has never tripped a circuit breaker—and he only has 150-amp primary service!

Dynasty inverters use primary power more efficiently than any other AC/DC TIG welder because they feature Auto-Line™ power management technology. In addition to lowering primary power draw, Auto-Line also enables the inverter to run off of any type of primary power, single- or three-phase, from 115 to 460V, which eliminates the need for rewiring.

For their MIG welding needs, Johnson purchased several Millermatic® 212s. The Millermatic 212 delivers up to 210 amps of welding power and features a patented EZ-Change™ cylinder rack, which allows students to roll gas cylinders on and off the cylinder rack, rather than having to lift gas cylinders into place.

To help students reduce time between wire changeovers, the Millermatic 212 includes a spring-loaded drive roll assembly that requires no tools. An EZ-Access™ consumable compartment and parameter chart conveniently located on the front of the machine keeps consumables and welding parameters close at hand.

Although the initial investment of a Miller machine may seem high compared to inexpensive import brands, Johnson believes Miller equipment is well worth the cost.

“I tell my students that they have to have a high quality welder. In the fabricating business, the last thing you want to do is to work on your own tools to make money,” he says.

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