Press Brake Tooling

Tailored tools

By Lynn Stanley

Tooling gives fabricator flexibility to produce nontraditional parts

November 2012 - When it comes to alignment systems and under-vehicle service equipment, Hunter Engineering Co., Bridgeton, Mo., builds its products with the strength and durability to withstand the rigors of auto repair and service shops.

“Vehicles up to 16,000 lbs. are being driven on and off of our products numerous times a day,” says David Dennis, manufacturing engineer for Hunter. “Our equipment is exposed to salt, chemicals and corrosion. When we build and ship our products, we expect them to last.” The firm’s Durant, Miss., manufacturing facility recently ratcheted part throughput and quality to an even higher degree by upgrading its press brakes and converting to segmented, precision tooling.

“If you aren’t moving forward, someone is passing you by,” Dennis says. “You constantly have to be improving your processes across the board.” Hunter designs, manufactures and sells a wide range of passenger car and truck service equipment including wheel alignment, suspension and brake testing systems, as well as wheel balancers, brake lathes, tire changers and vehicle lifts. Hunter’s products are used by vehicle manufacturers, automobile, truck and tire dealers and service facilities around the world. The 175,000-sq.-ft. Durant plant fabricates lift racks and alignment systems.

The right partner

“Throughput and quality are the two keys that drive everything we do,” Dennis says. In 2011 and 2012, the fabricator replaced five aging press brakes with three new ones, equipped with controls that allowed offline part design and programming. Hunter also looked at new tooling options. “We were using older American tooling for coining operations,” says Dennis. In addition to using more tonnage, coining requires the punch and die to fit each other exactly, dictating a separate set of tools for each angle and shape. “We were dragging out large, long bars of tools and then having to pull the tool for each new part,” he says.

In addition to new standard tooling, Hunter needed a company it could partner with for custom tools. “Our business also is based on innovation,” says Dennis. “When our design engineers develop new parts to support a product improvement, it sometimes requires us to source a custom tool. We found that tooling manufacturers tended to carry proprietary products and would say no to custom work if it was something they did not want to deal with. Wilson Tool not only had a cost competitive product that is not proprietary, but their staff of engineers makes it easy for us to get the custom tools we need.” 

Wilson Tool, headquartered in White Bear Lake, Minn., is a large independent supplier of U.S.-made tooling for sheet metal manufacturers.

The company’s WT Style Precision segmented press brake tooling also has allowed Hunter to transition from coining to air bending. “With air bending you can get away with about 30 percent less tonnage, which means you can use a smaller press brake with a smaller footprint and free up valuable floor space,” says Dennis. “The new precision tooling also means less machine wear and greater part accuracy.”

Interchangeable tools

Hunter sources flat stock cold rolled and stainless steel in 5 ft. by 20 ft. sheets in thicknesses from 20 gauge to 1⁄2-in. plate. Once the sheet metal is laser cut, it is fed to the press brakes for bending. Parts are then sent to welding or machining stations, sanded and prepped for processes like PEM insertions, welding and powder coating before being assembled, packed and shipped.

“Our old American style tooling was not interchangeable because of throat height limitations,” says Dennis. “With the new tooling, if one machine gets backlogged I can run a job somewhere else because of the tool’s interchangeability. A changeover kit from Wilson allows our new press brakes to accept older proprietary tooling that we still have to use to make certain parts.”

While Hunter knows its products won’t remain pristine due to daily use, it is always looking for ways to improve performance. This year, the company designed a new alignment system that required a nontraditional part—a back post made from 10 gauge steel with an open hem. The back post was developed to house pulleys and a weight system that would permit the system’s T-feature to move up and down during tire alignment.

“Most manufacturers wouldn’t consider a part like this,” says Dennis, “because hemming material this thick is not the norm. Our material selection gave us the strength we needed so that the back post could support the pulleys and weights, but because the product was going to an end user, we didn’t want the back post to have sharp edges,” he continues. “The part was not manufacturable with the current tooling we carried in the building so I called Greg Clifton, my Wilson Tool representative out of Nashville, Tenn. I sent him a print of our part and within two to three days, Greg provided me with an electronic file for the custom tool we would need to do the job.”

Increased productivity

Dennis also has been able to tap Wilson Tool’s engineering expertise to achieve greater efficiencies with certain parts. The company makes turn plates with stainless steel handles for its rack systems. The turn plates eliminate lateral force on the front tires allowing for more accurate alignment. Because the design required the handles to be bent into a U-shape, the operator had to perform two hits on the press brake to fabricate one handle.

“I wanted to be able to produce multiple handles with one hit,” says Dennis. “We don’t hard tool on a flatbed press because we’re not making millions of parts, like Ford or GM. The price per part wouldn’t be feasible for us, so we do it through press brake tooling. After talking with Greg about what we needed, they provided us with a custom one-hit die that has the capability to make both hits at once for four good parts. I was able to increase productivity on the handles by almost 500 percent. That’s valuable.”

“It’s harder for CNC manufacturers to get the large throughput you might see on a stamping press,” says Clifton. “The ability to provide Hunter with custom tooling allows them to process parts faster and leaner. We’ve invested a lot of money in engineering—that’s on our dime. Because our engineers focus strictly on tooling, we’re able to take a part print and then provide recommendations on the type and amount of tools needed for the job,” Clifton continues. “Once the tool is approved, we test bend parts a number of times to ensure the tooling works. This allows us to tweak the design if necessary. The tooling has to make the part Dave wants—bottom line.”

Removing limits

This resource gives Hunter the flexibility to continue stepping outside the box with its part development. “I wanted to produce a 0.375-in. offset in 10 gauge steel,” Dennis says. “The dimension was not a standard measurement and we also were using thicker material. Prior to working with Wilson Tool, I was told it could not be done due to tonnage limitations with the press brake. The offset was required to form the brackets which carry the cameras on our alignment system. We were fighting the part during the prototype stage and knew we needed custom tooling to solve the problem. We sent a print of the part to Greg and had the tool in three to five weeks.”

When it comes to lift racks and alignment systems, Hunter is at the top of the food chain. Its ability to develop innovative designs and produce prototypes that also are manufacturable is helping fuel the company’s ongoing growth. “With Wilson Tool, I don’t have to carry a tooling guy in-house to dream stuff up—they do it for me,” says Dennis. FFJ

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