A folding evolution

By Lynn Stanley

A fabricator streamlines its operation and captures new work with a folding machine

May 2012 - When Eric and Mary Isbister purchased Mequon, Wis.-based GenMet Corp. in 1999, they chose to grow the company by empowering employees to participate in decisions that continue to raise the fabricator’s efficiency levels.

“By combining employee-led continuous improvement with automation and state-of-the-art technology, we’ve been able to quadruple our revenue in the same building,” says CEO Eric Isbister.

GenMet produces parts from 1⁄2 in. and thinner steel, stainless steel and aluminum for a diverse customer base including truck and construction equipment OEMs and point-of-purchase display and electrical enclosure manufacturers. Lean business practices like value stream mapping help personnel root out bottlenecks by identifying work processes that slow production.

When setup time and multiple changeovers with different tooling began to bog down the fabricator’s forming department, the company chose International Technologies Inc.’s Evolution 32/4 UD Schroeder folding technology to streamline operations. The machine is part of the Evolution series International Technologies recently introduced. Called EVO, the folding machine has reduced the need for custom tools and improved repeatability of folded parts versus parts formed on press brakes. It also is attracting new work.

Based in Schaumburg, Ill., International Technologies imports metal fabricating, bending, folding, spinning and welding equipment lines.

More value
GenMet’s changing culture dictates flexibility to adapt while continually improving internal processes, according to Eric Isbister. “We’re a job shop with very different customers,” he says. “It’s not just about high volumes any more. We may be required to produce as few as five parts and need equipment that can help us do that quickly and cost effectively.”

The fabricator makes highly cosmetic cabinetry and shelves for stores like Wal-Mart and Target, computer and electrical enclosures and light-gauge products ranging from stairs to wind turbine platforms and service lifts.

“GenMet is set up with a lean flow process or what we call a ‘highway’ where all our parts flow from our cutting area through forming to welding,” says Eric Isbister. “We have to do more today than we did last week. It’s about working more efficiently. It’s our job to stay on top of technology.”

Mary Isbister, GenMet’s president, predicts continuing market changes. “Five or 10 years from now, we’re not going to be producing the same products we are today. Manufacturers must be innovative in finding new ways to add value and create products that are not easily replicated by local or low-wage overseas competitors,” she says.

The fabricator initially was attracted to the EVO folding machine’s ability to eliminate the need for the operator to flip parts during a bending cycle and bend faster than a conventional press brake. The folding machine can bend parts up to 150 degrees per second while its clamping beam moves at nearly 300 in. per minute. Because much of the tooling for the folding machine is universal, setup time is reduced.

Shortly after the company installed the folding machine in December 2011, its ability to handle multiple radii helped GenMet win a significant point-of-purchase cabinet project, says Eric Isbister.

The project called for 610 drawer fronts with radii of 17⁄8 in. and 11⁄4 in. with a cosmetic finish. The component had to be formed using bump bending on the folding machine. Each drawer front was 3 ft. long by 10 in. wide made from 16-gauge hot-rolled, pickled-and-oiled steel and required 55 hits to complete, says Steve Kemp, a lead forming fabricator for GenMet.

“We couldn’t get the accuracy we needed on a press brake, and the job would have required three operators and three press brakes to complete. The EVO folding machine gave us a run time of about two minutes per part. With the folding machine’s 3-D interactive controls and rapid setup changes, we were actually able to run the drawers at the same time we were running the drawer fronts,” says Kemp. “We ran 30 drawer fronts and 30 drawers at a time then assembled the components. The control allowed us to jump in and out of job programs to maximize time and work space. We were able to use one machine and one operator instead of tying up three press brakes and three operators. We gained a time savings of approximately 50 percent,” he says.

The folding machine produced the part’s radii without facets, delivering the cosmetic surface the customer needed along with a high degree of repeatability part to part, Eric Isbister adds. “We were able to produce excellent parts that our customer was very happy with,” he says.

Reducing labor
The folding machine’s 251⁄2-in. stroke and opening for a large part envelope lets GenMet produce bigger parts that typically would require an operator and an assistant. Previously, GenMet ran a fan shroud component on a press brake. Produced from 16-gauge galvanized steel sheet weighing approximately 30 lbs., the part was 60 in. by 60 in. The job required two operators supporting the piece to avoid back bends.

“It was a big part with a large circle in the center and tended to be flimsy,” says Kemp. “When we ran the part on the EVO, the folding machine fully supported the part, eliminating back bending and the need for the operator to lift the part. A single operator was able to run the job.”

Press brake accuracy is dependent on multiple factors, including consistent material and operator experience, says David Prokop, vice president of International Technologies. Material variances can include thickness and tensile strength or hardness, which can impact part accuracy. The EVO ignores the majority of material variances to produce parts more accurately.

Part of the machine’s intelligence is due to its interactive control and sophisticated, adaptive database, Prokop adds. “Once an operator programs a job, the control analyzes the part, knows where the part will be run on the folding machine, how the machine deflects, how the part will bend and automatically applies corrections across all aspects of the bending sequence to provide optimum part accuracy the first time,” he says.

The control’s ability to show how efficiently a job can be formed on a folder convinced a prospective customer of GenMet’s capabilities. “Not a lot of shops have this type of folding machine,” says Kemp. “The customer was looking at high volume, and the control’s ability to visually illustrate the jobs we’re working on gave them a better idea of what we can do. The folding machine allows us to compete with foreign labor price-wise and time-wise.”

GenMet also is using the folding machine as part of numerous tours the shop regularly schedules to teach school students about U.S. manufacturing. The fabricator participates in several science, technology, engineering and math programs including one called First Robotics with area schools. “As an engineer who used to design and build nuclear submarines, we routinely made things that didn’t exist yet,” says Eric Isbister. “If we don’t innovate today, someone else will. The U.S. needs to put its shoulder behind what initially made it great and that’s manufacturing and engineering, which create innovation.”

As the latest addition to the GenMet line-up, the EVO folding machine supports GenMet’s commitment to innovation. “It’s a different platform of bending technology that has not existed before,” says Prokop.

The folding machine has enabled Kemp to think outside the box. “I don’t have to be as concerned about consistency, setup and making corrections,” he says.

For Eric and Mary Isbister, the marriage of advanced machine technology like the EVO with a skilled workforce is essential to the company’s ongoing growth. “The folding machine is pulling in new work with its ability to perform multiple hits quickly and accurately, bend complex parts and handle different radii,” says Eric Isbister. “We couldn’t do what we do if we didn’t have people with the capability to run the high-tech equipment and make decisions about what’s happening on the shop floor.” FFJ

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  • GenMet Corp.
    Mequon, Wis.
    phone: 262/238-7000 
    fax: 262/238-7007
  • International Technologies Inc.
    Schaumburg, Ill.
    phone: 847/301-9005
    fax: 847/301-9509


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