Press Brakes

Bending for better throughput

By Lynn Stanley

A fully automated tandem system triples fabricator’s capacity

March 2012 - Rising demands for electricity and the need to update an aging infrastructure continue to drive the substantial growth projected for the U.S. transmission and distribution industry. According to the Edison Electric Institute, the U.S. electric utility industry will need to make a total infrastructure investment of $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion by 2030.

This massive framework carries electricity to consumers through a complex network of power plants, transformers, transmission lines, substations and distribution lines. Products like tapered tubular steel poles play a key role in supporting transmission and distribution lines.

Dis-Tran Steel LLC, Pineville, La., fabricates high-strength steel poles for the industry and saw the expanding market’s activity as an opportunity. The manufacturer has been producing high-quality utility industry transmission and substation steel structures for more than 45 years. The team also designs and engineers tapered tubular poles, wide flange, square tube and lattice structures.

“Dis-Tran was growing right along with the market and we wanted to leverage that growth to become a bigger player on the transmission side,” says Jodie Robeau, operations manager for Dis-Tran. “To gain the productivity we needed and maintain profit while increasing our market share, we knew we needed to expand our capacity.”

The company also wanted to eliminate a bottleneck with its bending and forming operation. “The material-handling portion of the process was very time consuming,” says Robeau. “We planned to purchase a new press brake but we also wanted to automate all aspects of the operation.”

The fabricator looked at vendors that made big press brakes and companies that offered automation packages.

Collaborative approach
Pacific Press Technologies LLC, Mount Carmel, Ill., offered a turnkey solution, says Robeau. “They were willing to partner with us to custom build what we needed. We knew the market, and they knew press brakes. By combining our knowledge and experience with the team at Pacific Press, we knew we could figure it out,” he says.

In 1945, Pacific Press introduced a hydraulic press brake in the United States and has continued producing hydraulic press brakes, presses and plate shears. “Jodie and the rest of the Dis-Tran group were great to work with,” says Steve Schurman, director of sales and marketing for Pacific Press. “They understood that this was Pacific’s first fully automated system and there would be some modifications necessary along the way. They were great partners in the development of what has become an extremely productive system that Pacific has to offer its customers.”

Pacific Press designed a CNC-controlled tandem press brake configuration and installed it at Dis-Tran in November 2009. Two 1,250-ton hydraulic press brakes, fully synchronized and interfaced electrically, gave Dis-Tran the option of one 2,500-ton press brake and up to 60 ft. of bending length. The size of the new operation required Dis-Tran to build a new facility to house it. The tandem press brakes can air bend high-strength steel up to 3⁄4 in. thick. The fabricator also can run the system as two presses for shorter poles or one press for longer poles.

“The new system has reduced our material-handling time dramatically and tripled our capacity,” says Robeau. “Previously, we were running our press brake seven days a week, 24 hours a day and still sourcing shells for processing to other suppliers to keep up with customer demand. The Pacific Press tandem brake system has allowed us to go to a five-day, eight-hour shift schedule and still keep up.”

Increased throughput
For shorter poles, Dis-Tran can bend 3⁄16-in. steel in the system’s smaller die and 5⁄16-in. material in the larger die. When used as a single press brake, the system can form extra-long pieces. “We can bend material as thick as 1 in. but are limited to 38-ft. poles because width and tonnage become limited at that point,” says Robeau. Sided poles are used for the utilities market because they offer greater rigidity and strength than round poles.

The ability to run a fully automated bending operation has boosted throughput and eliminated human error. The operator programs tooling parameters and part configurations, including the number of sides and material thickness, into the control. Sheet material is plasma cut then loaded on a feed bed. The operator inputs the appropriate program for the job number and initiates the bending cycle.

Once the material is moved onto the press, encoders measure its length to determine where to position the material on the press bed. Four manipulators push the material under the punch. Equipped with sensors, the manipulators continually calculate measurements during each bend cycle to ensure the pole remains within specification. Once the cycle is complete, an extractor moves the pole to an exit bed where it is ejected to a staging area. When the staging area is full, an operator grabs the load with a forklift and takes it to the next production process.

“Once the CNC control is programmed, it’s as easy as loading the part, punching in the job number to start the run and then letting the press brake system take over,” says Robeau. “With our older press, it used to take 15 to 20 minutes to load the press, complete a bend cycle on one pole and then unload it with a crane. We are now able to process a finished tapered pole in five to six minutes.

“We’ve also been able to produce more accurate parts because of the real-time data being generated from the sensors. The older press required a line or scribe mark and used laser lights for alignment. When you have an operator standing at the end of a 30-ft. pole trying to line it up with a laser, it’s easy to have a part that’s slightly off and not realize it. With the new system, if the first bend is slightly off for any reason, the press automatically recalculates on the fly to deliver a perfectly formed pole or half shell.”

Heightened accuracy
According to Robeau, the poles are so accurate that rework has been minimized. “The percentage of parts that are right the first time off the machine is substantial,” he says. “We’ve gained in the areas of production and throughput not only on our bending operation but on the processes that follow bending like seam welding because the poles are so accurate.”

Dis-Tran is running approximately 2.8 million lbs. of steel a month with the new press brake system but still hasn’t reached full capacity. In addition to the work shift dedicated to power pole production, the fabricator has added second shift work to bump bend large sidewalls for barge companies. “It’s capacity we can use and add to our bottom line,” says Robeau.

Service for the system also has been an important factor for Dis-Tran. “The service from the group at Pacific Press has been exceptional,” Robeau says. Pacific Press uses factory-trained service technicians instead of dealers. “Every person that works on Pacific Press machines comes out of our factory,” says Schurman. “When our technicians aren’t on the road, they are in the plant building the machines. We have very low turnover with our technicians, so we’re able to offer customers like Dis-Tran service personnel with very high levels of experience.”

The automated tandem press brake system continues to support the company’s thriving business and its ability to take on new work. “Pole companies pride themselves on having the latest technology,” says Robeau. “Not a lot of companies can handle the size or volume of poles we’re able to produce. The new system and facility represents a huge investment for us. But there’s no doubt we made the right decision. Now we can take on any job we’re offered.” FFJ

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  • Dis-Tran Steel LLC
    Pineville, La.
    phone: 318/448-0274
    fax: 318/445-4454
  • Pacific Press Technologies LLC 
    Mount Carmel, Ill.
    phone: 618/262-8666 
    fax: 618-262-7000

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