Flexible bending

By Lynn Stanley

Bender runs fabricator’s test batch as efficiently as large production runs

September 2012 - According to the National Fire Protection Association, the first fire sprinkler system emerged in England in 1806 using an arrangement of strings that attached counterweights to valves. Once a fire burned through the strings, the weights fell away releasing water from the valves. Today’s heat-activated automatic fire sprinklers are attached to a network of piping containing water under pressure. Manufacturing the components for these systems requires fabricators to submit parts for laboratory testing before they can be listed by the NFPA.

Afcon, based in South El Monte, Calif., has been designing and producing hanging, fastening and bracing products for fire sprinkler systems from steel for more than 40 years. Afcon’s patented products are installed in commercial, industrial and residential buildings across the United States, Canada, Europe, South America and Asia.

The fabricator’s core work philosophy is built around proprietary innovations that are coupled with Afcon’s ability to design and develop its own dies in-house. “We try to improve on existing part designs to provide the industry with advantages such as easy installation and elimination of special tool requirements,” says Randy Leonhardt, project manager for Afcon. With increasing production requirements, the fabricator needed a second bending machine. The company looked at a model identical to one on its production floor and found that over time the price of the equipment had doubled. “In this day and age you want your dollar to go further,” says Leonhardt. “We wanted something more cost-effective but with the same capabilities. I was going through some old literature and came across the Bentec ram-type bender from Kiffer Industries. It had the features we were looking for at a cost that fit our budget.”

Small footprint

Based in Cleveland, Kiffer designs and builds custom machinery like the Bentec hydraulic bender as well as vision systems, robotic integration and contract machining. Kiffer’s climate-controlled 55,000-sq.-ft. facility is equipped with technologically advanced equipment for machining parts of all sizes.

In January 2012, Afcon installed a Bentec BT 3000 ram-type bender with a 5-horsepower power unit and 10-gallon hydraulic reservoir. Afcon is working to develop eight dies for pipe clamps, approximately 15 dies for clevis hangers and another 15 for seismic braces, all from hot rolled steel. “It’s very important that we create these dies so that in the future, when we acquire more of these machines, we can put them into production right away,” Leonhardt says. “This machine’s compact design lends itself to that. We needed a machine with a small footprint because we use every square inch of space we have for production and storage of raw material and finished parts.”

Afcon’s die design process focuses on fit and function. The new dies and the parts they produce have to conform to testing criteria for each product’s Underwriter Laboratories Listing. And according to Leonhardt, the market is growing as more jurisdictions require sprinklers in residences. “The installation of sprinkler systems means cities don’t have to have as many fire stations in a given area,” Leonhardt says. As an aside, he adds that systems don’t work quite the same way as their on-screen counterparts. “In the movies you often see a scene where a small amount of smoke triggers the entire sprinkler system in a building and everything gets soaked,” he says. “Fire sprinkler systems actually are heat-activated one sprinkler head at a time. Most fires typically require only one or two sprinklers to be extinguished.”


Afcon had a representative on the original NFPA 13 Hanging and Bracing Technical Committee, and continues to have representatives serving on standard technical panels for both UL and FM. The technical features of Afcon’s hangers enhance labor savings unique to their design and specific to their installation.

Afcon’s new dies range in size from 7 in. by 7 in. to 15 in. by 15 in. and weigh from 7 lb. to 22 lb., respectively. They are being used to create tests parts so Afcon can verify the components’ precision.

“Typically for these part runs, during testing, we’ll make a dozen parts to check for uniformity, then perform a quality check on a sampling of those parts to determine compliance,” says Leonhardt. “The bender’s repeatability contributes to helping us get the precision we need while adjustable stops help us control material springback.”

The ram bender’s limit switches ensure accuracy and repeatability. Rigid frame construction and a steel worktable also make for reliable bending.

“Materials from the mill can vary by a few degrees, requiring the operator to make small adjustments,” says Mike Semrau, sales and applications engineer for Kiffer Industries. “The machine’s adjusting stops allow the operator to make larger adjustments quickly on the fly or fine adjustments, like a micrometer.”

The bender’s ability to support Afcon’s die design and testing activities, and fabricate a dozen parts as easily as a large production run, has allowed the company to free up other equipment for more value-added work.

“Previously we were using our punch press to make test parts,” says Leonhardt. “You don’t want to have to tear down a press setup to run just a few parts. The bender allows us to use our bigger punch press for high volume production. And because of the bender’s easy setup, we can run a few parts as efficiently as we can larger volumes.”

Easy operation

Leonhardt adds that making better use of equipment has helped the company increase production. In addition to its ability to handle a mixture of part volumes, the bender also offers an appealing choice for Afcon employees. “We’ve found that women who come to work for us tend to shy away from the punch presses,” Leonhardt says. “We offer them the option, but the noise and vibrations generated by the press–-and its size and speed–-can be challenging. The bender is easy to operate and quiet.”

With its worktable built at countertop height, the bender’s controls also are easy to reach. “You don’t have to lean in to reach the control box,” says Semrau. “The control is attached to a swing arm that can pivot 180 degrees. The bender also can be operated with a twin foot-pedal control that plugs into the side of the machine. An operator can push the swing arm out of the way and change from hand to foot control in just seconds. This frees up an operator’s hands to more efficiently load and unload parts, especially if they are working with heavier materials.”

Afcon orders material in 10 ft. strips, blanks it to required widths, then sends the blanks to its bending machine. From there parts are assembled, boxed and shipped with a sampling set aside for compliance testing. “We sell our parts to distributors who in turn sell them to sprinkler system companies,” Leonhardt says. “Our production runs are dedicated to re-supplying inventory. Our shipping department alerts production when stock needs to be replenished.”

Leonhardt expects testing on the new bender to be completed by the end of the year, when it will be put into production. Currently the company runs shifts on a 40-hour work week. “We may expand into other parts at that point,” says Leonhardt, “because the Bentec bender gives us that flexibility. The accuracy and adjustability of the bender help support our goal to develop parts the industry is looking for. We get feedback from contractors that have ideas for parts that are not currently available, so we try to develop products with multiple uses.”

Flexible and expandable, the bender doesn’t limit Afcon’s tooling designers or its development team. “Sometimes with a custom machine, once the part’s life is finished the machine’s life is over too,” says Semrau. “Not so with our bender. This equipment can be easily re-tooled and used for rotary style bending of tubing and pipe, not just solids.” Leonhardt adds. “We’ll look at buying this machine again.” FFJ

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  • Afcon
    South El Monte, Calif.
    phone: 626/444-0541
    fax: 626/444-3887
  • Kiffer Industries Inc.
    phone: 216/267-1818
    fax: 216/267-1850


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