It’s hammer time for welding grads
Photos and Story by James Hill
Hal Hickman’s PowerHammer Co. started in 2000 with a great idea for a tool to chip off excess material from cast metal parts. His business has grown by leaps and bounds, shipping his invention to manufacturing clients all across the globe. But he wouldn’t have made it this far if it weren’t for capable welders from PCC’s welding program.
The program, based at the Rock Creek Campus, teaches students skills that are used by many trades like sheet metal workers, ironworkers, diesel mechanics, boilermakers, carpenters, and more. The program offers flexible class schedules and paths to earning an associate’s degree in applied science, or either a two- or one-year certificate.
And the welding program is looking to grow. Thanks to increased funding, PCC plans to expand the welding offerings to southeast Portland this spring. If the college decides to go for a bond measure this November, welding would be a part of expansion efforts. For Hal Hickman, this is music to his ears. Instructor Scott Judy has fostered a close relationship with him, providing the fledgling business with qualified welders.
"Scott has done such a good job choosing the best people for us," said Hickman, whose wife worked in the PCC business office for a time and whose daughter is a nursing program graduate. "My guys in the shop love the work. They are enthusiastic. That’s what you want to see in people."
These PCC grads help put together a tool called a power hammer. PowerHammer Co. makes portable hammers that break excess material off of cast metal parts. Because of their sheer weight, the hammers are supported by a chain that is connected to a crane high above the job site. The worker takes the suspended tool and chips off the material with every blow of the air-compressed hammer. PowerHammer makes five models that are sized to fit any kind of job, from big to small.
"It’s been a success," said the 68-year-old Hickman, whose biggest customer is Portland’s Esco Corp. "The area that tends to use our hammers the most is mining. I’ve sold them in Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, China, Brazil, Thailand and Malaysia. We’ve tried to sell in Europe but there is a lot of red tape. It’s a protected market. But for us a big market because countries there aren’t allowed to send their manufacturing overseas so it has a big manufacturing base."
Hickman got the idea after seeing a mechanical pile-driver and thought he could develop a similar tool using compressed air. He knew foundries had problems knocking off the excess parts to their molds. So with a power hammer in their hands the workers wouldn’t be at as much risk. All they’d have to do would be aim and press a button. In the past, this job was done with sledge hammers and blow torches. Now, his devise makes this critical work easier and faster.
"The work was often time-consuming and dangerous," said the Southern California native, who came to Oregon in the late 1960s. "It was terribly hot."
The company uses local vendors to supply parts for the hammer, which typically is made in six to eight weeks. The product is made of steel and the parts are sent out to machine shops where the shapes are cut. Once they return the shop’s four welders weld them together and are sent back out to receive heat treatment. Once they return again, they are assembled by the shop crew to make the hammer.
One of the crew members is Nicolas Dillon Bernie, who attended PCC’s welding program from 2005-07. He had started out in the aviation technology program, but a chance meeting with Judy aroused Bernie’s interest in welding.
"He got me fired up," Bernie said. "He knew I needed to work and he got me my first welding job. It’s pretty cool stuff. I didn’t think I’d be doing this. I thought I’d be under a hood all day welding."
And that is Hickman’s recruiting advantage – the welders weld very little and spend much of their time in assembly and as troubleshooters to repair hammers or service a part.
"Our guys do everything, from testing to building the crates, painting and customer service when we install them," Hickman said. "This is a nice job for these guys."