Stainless Steel World Americas spoke with Spiers about his career leading up to his current position as Fabrication Manager and Welding Supervisor, the focus on stainless steels for its corrosion resistance, and what he hopes for the future of the industry as the workforce ages.
By Brittani Schroeder
When Nathan Spiers was in high school, he never imagined that he would find his passion in the world of welding. Throughout his teens and early twenties, he worked for tobacco farms in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. While working for the farms, Spiers learned the art of stick welding and shielded metal arc welding (SMAW).
The stick method is an effective process for welding most alloys or joints. Not only is it one of the most economical methods of welding, it also creates a good bond on rusty or dirty metals. SMAW is a manual arc welding process that uses a consumable and protected electrode; as the electrode melts, the weld area is protected from oxygen and other atmospheric gases.
When Spiers left the tobacco farms at age 23, he started working for JGW Machine Limited, a metal fabricator and contract manufacturer. By this time, he knew that welding was what he wanted to do. “At JGW, I began my apprenticeship as a welder and fitter. I learned about production welding in particular, which is used in a variety of industries. Production welders join pieces of metal, using intense heat, or other methods, to fuse separate metal pieces together,” he explains. “My specific role was as a structural steel plate fitter.”
Spiers also learned about babbitting during his apprenticeship. “Babbitting is a totally different form of welding. A welder will use babbitting when there is a particular surface that he/she wants to weld to. The surface in question must be prepared with a paste that is made of an acid. Once the surface is prepared, the welding media – the babbitt – is used to weld the materials together, and then cooled with water until the weld is solid,” he says.
After taking a break from the industry for health reasons, Spiers re-entered the workforce and joined the dairy sector. “This was a whole new world, because I was working as a welder and installer of milking equipment. A large portion of the work was acting as a millwright, and repairing the equipment,” says Spiers.
Spiers spent a couple years in the dairy industry, and then he joined Walters Group, a family-owned steel construction company. Here, Spiers got back to his roots of fitting and welding structural steel. “We would build component pieces that were used in many important buildings, such as Toronto Pearson International Airport, Nanticoke Generating Station, and the Ottawa International Airport,” he relays. “Working on the Ottawa International Airport was one of my favorite projects, because everyone at the company got to sign the last beam that was installed. It feels great knowing my name is on something I built.”
Spiers spent a few years working for 3D Mechanical, working with stainless steels in water tanks, frames, hanger brackets and other ‘odds and ends’, but recently found his home at Carr Industrial, a millwrighting and fabrication full service facility in Brantford, Ontario. “I have been around the block a few times in this industry—I have been head hunted for new roles, and I have learned when it is time to try something new. Everything I have done up until now has taught me so much.”
Spiers is now the Fabrication Manager and Welding Supervisor at Carr Industrial. “I am the youngest metal fabricator at the company, and I am happy to be back to custom fabrication and welding. I am the only one with a Red Seal Welding Certification, and I took the supervisor’s training from the Canadian Welding Bureau (CWB Group),” he says.
As the Fabrication Manager and Welding Supervisor, Spiers is responsible for a variety of tasks. He assigns projects to the shop personnel, makes sure each person is suited to the task, ensures that each aspect of the job is done correctly, and if there is welding to be done, he makes sure it is done by someone who has the correct CWB training to perform the specific welds. He is also responsible for writing up the quotes for potential work to be done in their shop. “I work very closely with the CWB to set up weld tests for my team to keep their certifications up to date and to guarantee that the strict welding practices are followed,” Spiers relays.
No day is alike in Spiers’ position. “The biggest challenges I face are the situations we cannot prepare for. Everything we do becomes a ‘How can we make this work and/or fix it, quickly and cost efficiently?’ and we need to make sure the customer is happy with our solution,” says Spiers.
Working and welding stainless steels
The majority of projects that move through Spiers’ shop are created for the food industry. He and his team work with a range of materials, including several grades of stainless steel; 304, 308, and 316. These materials are most utilized in areas with high moisture, where the equipment needs to have high corrosion resistance. “Working with stainless steel can present some challenges, including picking the correct grade for the job. Sometimes the grade is already decided by the customer, but other times we need to make a judgement call based on what we know about the application it will be used in. Choosing the material, we need to consider the finish of the metal, and the price, because stainless is not a cheap material,” Spiers explains. “Another challenge is applying the proper welding technique. One of the biggest causes of failure is putting down an improper weld – this is why getting someone with the proper welding training assigned to the project is paramount.”
When procuring materials, Spiers and his team look forward to finding new ways to secure a better end result for the products. “When we want to try something new, we have to present our whole strategy and process for the project for approval through the engineering team,” he says. “Once our strategy is approved, we need to make sure we have vendors that can meet strict deadlines so that we can do our tasks properly.”
Nathan Spiers has hopes for the future of manufacturing stainless steel. “The biggest hope I have is that stainless steel will become more cost efficient, so it is more attainable for more projects. If you make a mistake during the fitting and fabrication process, and have to start over, the costs get higher and higher. I also hope it gets easier to fix minor mistakes made while welding stainless, which could also help lower overall costs.”
An aging workforce
While working in skilled labor industries, Spiers has witnessed a large gap in knowledge and personnel. “I include myself in the ‘aging workforce’ – I will not be around forever, and I have already spent many years in the industry,” he says. “Getting people interested in the skilled labor industries has become more difficult has time has progressed. People do not want to do hard work and get dirty doing it – they want an office job, a nine to five life. There is nothing wrong with those kinds of jobs, but the problem is that there is a shortage of skilled labor workers.”
Spiers believes the solution would be for schools to start talking more about specialized trades, to remove the possible stigma that has been created for the younger generation. “By the time I retire, I feel like there are going to be 250,000 skilled labor jobs empty and needing to be filled. When people start filling those jobs, they are going to request top dollar for their efforts right from the start, even though they have not gained experience first. This will put the companies in a tight spot, because they will need the personnel, but they will not have the budgets to afford it,” he explains. To mitigate this potential problem, Spiers can see companies cutting down their workforce and streamlining their processes, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the aging workforce also comes the topic of aging infrastructure. As equipment gets older, the decision between repair or replace is a hot topic. “Most companies know that the best thing to do is to replace the equipment with better, up-to-date materials or technologies, but sometimes the companies just do not have the budget to do this upgrade,” Spiers explains. “A good example would be when our press brake broke down recently. This is a pressing tool for bending sheet and plate material; it was built in the 1960s and was run by a completely out-of-date computer. As we are a small family-owned company, we did not have the CAD $100,000 to buy a new press brake. Luckily, we were able to find someone who could repair our equipment for a fraction of the cost, but it is likely to need repairing, and eventually replacing, in the future.”
Finding the fresh faces
In Nathan Spiers’ opinion, the welding industry needs new blood. “This does not only apply to welding – it applies to all trades and skilled labor roles. We need new, young people interested in getting their hands dirty, because the work is really rewarding,” he says. “I also believe engineers need to get on the shop floor and build the products they are designing, because it will give them a better idea of what does and does not work. Once we are all on the same page, we can accomplish great things.”