Revised by Geoff Melton
The MIG process is a versatile welding technique which is suitable for both thin sheet and thick section components. It is capable of high productivity but the quality of welds can be called into question. To achieve satisfactory welds, welders must have a good knowledge of equipment requirements and should also recognise fully the importance of setting up and maintaining component parts correctly.
In MIG the arc is formed between the end of a small diameter wire electrode fed from a spool, and the workpiece. Main equipment components are:
- power source
- wire feed system
The arc and weldpool are protected from the atmosphere by a gas shield. This enables bare wire to be used without a flux coating (required by MMA). However, the absence of flux to 'mop up' surface oxide places greater demand on the welder to ensure that the joint area is cleaned immediately before welding. This can be done using either a wire brush for relatively clean parts, or a hand grinder to remove rust and scale. The other essential piece of equipment is a wire cutter to trim the end of the electrode wire.
MIG is operated usually with a DC power source. The source is termed a flat, or constant voltage, characteristic power source, which refers to the voltage/welding current relationship. In MIG, welding current is determined by wire feed speed, and arc length is determined by power source voltage level (open circuit voltage). Wire burn-off rate is automatically adjusted for any slight variation in the gun to workpiece distance, wire feed speed, or current pick-up in the contact tip. For example, if the arc momentarily shortens, arc voltage will decrease and welding current will be momentarily increased to burn back the wire and maintain pre-set arc length. The reverse will occur to counteract a momentary lengthening of the arc.
There is a wide range of power sources available, mode of metal transfer can be:
A low welding current is used for thin-section material, or welding in the vertical position. The molten metal is transferred to the workpiece by the wire dipping into the weldpool. As welding parameters will vary from around 100A \17V to 200A \ 22V (for a 1.2mm diameter wire), power sources normally have a current rating of up to 350A. Circuit inductance is used to control the surge in current when the wire dips into the weldpool (this is the main cause of spatter). Modern electronic power sources automatically set the inductance to give a smooth arc and metal transfer.
In spray metal transfer, metal transfers as a spray of fine droplets without the wire touching the weldpool. The welding current level needed to maintain the non short-circuiting arc must be above a minimum threshold level; the arc voltage is higher to ensure that the wire tip does not touch the weldpool. Typical welding parameters for a 1.2mm diameter wire are within 250A \ 28V to 400A \ 35V. For high deposition rates the power source must have a much higher current capacity: up to 500A.
The pulsed mode provides a means of achieving a spray type metal transfer at current levels below threshold level. High current pulses between about 25 and 200Hz are used to detach droplets as an alternative to dip transfer. As control of the arc and metal transfer requires careful setting of pulse and background parameters, a more sophisticated power source is required. Synergic pulsed MIG power sources, which are advanced transistor-controlled power sources, are preprogrammed so that the correct pulse parameters are delivered automatically as the welder varies wire feed speed.
Welding current and arc voltage ranges for selected wire diameters operating with dip and spray metal transfer:
|Wire diameter (mm)||Dip transfer||Spray transfer|
|Current (A)||Voltage (V)||Current (A)||Voltage (V)|
||30 - 80
||15 - 18
||45 - 180
||16 - 21
||150 - 250
||25 - 33
||70 - 180
||17 - 22
||230 - 300
||26 - 35
||100 - 200
||17 - 22
||250 - 400
||27 - 35
||120 - 200
||18 - 22
||250 - 500
||30 - 40
Wire feed system
The performance of the wire feed system can be crucial to the stability and reproducibility of MIG welding. As the system must be capable of feeding the wire smoothly, attention should be paid to the feed rolls and liners. There are three types of feeding systems:
- pinch rolls
- spool on gun
The conventional wire feeding system normally has a set of rolls where one is grooved and the other has a flat surface. Roll pressure must not be too high otherwise the wire will deform and cause poor current pick up in the contact tip. With copper coated wires, too high a roll pressure or use of knurled rolls increases the risk of flaking of the coating (resulting in copper build up in the contact tip). For feeding soft wires such as aluminium dual-drive systems should be used to avoid deforming the soft wire.
Small diameter aluminium wires, 1mm and smaller, are more reliably fed using a push-pull system. Here, a second set of rolls is located in the welding gun - this greatly assists in drawing the wire through the conduit. The disadvantage of this system is increased size of gun. Small wires can also be fed using a small spool mounted directly on the gun. The disadvantages with this are increased size, awkwardness of the gun, and higher wire cost.
The conduit can measure up to 5m in length, and to facilitate feeding, should be kept as short and straight as possible. (For longer lengths of conduit, an intermediate push-pull system can be inserted). It has an internal liner made either of spirally-wound steel for hard wires (steel, stainless steel, titanium, nickel) or PTFE for soft wires (aluminium, copper).
In addition to directing the wire to the joint, the welding gun fulfils two important functions - it transfers the welding current to the wire and provides the gas for shielding the arc and weldpool.
There are two types of welding guns: 'air' cooled and water cooled. The 'air' cooled guns rely on the shielding gas passing through the body to cool the nozzle and have a limited current-carrying capacity. These are suited to light duty work. Although 'air' cooled guns are available with current ratings up to 500A, water cooled guns are preferred for high current levels, especially at high duty cycles.
Welding current is transferred to the wire through the contact tip whose bore is slightly greater than the wire diameter. The contact tip bore diameter for a 1.2mm diameter wire is between 1.4 and 1.5mm. As too large a bore diameter affects current pick up, tips must be inspected regularly and changed as soon as excessive wear is noted. Copper alloy (chromium and zirconium additions) contact tips, harder than pure copper, have a longer life, especially when using spray and pulsed modes.
Gas flow rate is set according to nozzle diameter and gun to workpiece distance, but is typically between 10 and 30 l/min. The nozzle must be cleaned regularly to prevent excessive spatter build-up which creates porosity. Anti-spatter spray can be particularly effective in automatic and robotic welding to limit the amount of spatter adhering to the nozzle.
Recommended shade number of filter for MIG/MAG welding:
|Shade number||Welding current A|
|MIG Heavy metal||MIG Light metal||MAG|
||up to 70
||up to 70
||70 - 125
||up to 125
||70 - 100
||125 - 175
||125 - 175
||100 - 150
||175 - 250
||175 - 225
||150 - 225
||250 - 350
||225 - 300
||225 - 400
||350 - 450
||300 - 400
||400 - 600
||450 - 500
||400 - 500
See EN 169:2002 for more information on shade numbers.
See Equipment for Plasma Welding for micro-plasma and plasma welding recommended shade numbers.
This Job Knowledge article was originally published in Connect, February/March 1996. It has been updated so the web page no longer reflects exactly the printed version.