Into the groove

By Nick Wright

With CNC grooving machine, fabricator reduces bending radii—sharpening its services and clients in the process

February 2013 - To bend sheet metal or plate, the go-to machine usually is the press brake. As material thickness increases, though, forming a sharp corner at the bend doesn’t get easier. Cutting the metal, beveling it and welding it is one way to solve that. But it doesn’t end there—without grinding and polishing the weld, it won’t look like a seamless bend.

At custom fabrication company iMetal Inc., Toronto, a cutting-welding-grinding method had been the modus operandi for creating sharp corners. Its architecture and design clients would specify sharp angles in thicker materials such as stainless steel for high-end retail fixtures or museum displays.

“To achieve a sharp corner on 11 gauge material is a lot more difficult because of the larger bend radius,” says Danny Zoldos, director of operations at iMetal. “The only way this process was achieved in the past was by welding and polishing, which is very difficult, time-consuming, and thus, costly.”

Architects often specify sharp corner details in their projects and call out various material thicknesses that require a huge bend radius with conventional bending technology.

“They don’t necessarily understand how various materials and thicknesses react within tooling,” Zoldos says.


As those details showed up more frequently on CAD drawings, iMetal needed an effective way for its press brake to form knife-sharp corners. In summer 2011, iMetal turned to the V Groover, manufactured by Hydrapower International Inc., based in Marco Island, Fla.

The V Groover makes it easier for a press brake to do its job. It works like a metal planer, except in the V Groover, the worktable is stationary and the CNC machining tool moves. After the V Groover cuts out square keyway-like grooves, as well as semicircles, V angles and more, the press brake makes its bend along the groove, reducing the bending radius and creating a sharp corner.

“This is a relatively new technology,” Zoldos says. “It’s helping us open up some new markets and it’s expanded our capacity to bend thicker materials at longer lengths.”

Some of those markets include high profile retailers such as Christian Dior’s flagship store in Beverly Hills, Calif., as well as Victoria’s Secret, Givenchy, Tag Heuer and other luxury brands.

Adding value

iMetal works with an array of metal, processing primarily steel, stainless steel and brass on its V Groover,  which has a 4 m by 1.2 m (13 ft. by 4 ft.) table. Hydrapower offers larger and smaller table sizes.

Operators load sheet metal by hand onto the table, and must be attentive during setup, like with any machining operation. Then, they enter the groove needed, material thickness and number of machining passes. Grooving some pieces, such as U-channels, requires multiple passes. Once everything is dialed in, pneumatic clamps secure the sheet metal on either side of where the machine tool makes its groove.ffj-0213-bending-image3

It’s vital for operators to keep an eye out for metal shavings during processing. If the pressure feet clamps come down to secure a piece of mirror finish stainless steel, for example, little bits of trapped scrap can blemish the metal easily.

“It requires a diligent operator to keep the bed clean along the way,” Zoldos adds.

The grooving capabilities allow iMetal to do more than create sharp corners. By machining grooves in sheet metal, the V Groover has increased iMetal’s ability to manipulate thicker steel in terms of press brake tonnage.

“For example, if you have a piece of 1⁄4 in. thick stainless over 8 ft. long and you want to bend it on the press brake, it might not have the tonnage (strength required) to bend it,” Zoldos says, noting that iMetal has experimented with materials thicker than 1⁄4 in. Thicknesses vary, but 1⁄4-in. stainless is generally as thick as iMetal will process on the machine. “By removing much of the material, you’re not bending a piece of 1⁄4-in. thick plate any more. It’s maybe only 20 gauge at the bend even though the rest of the sheet is 1⁄4 in. thick.”

To illustrate its productivity, the V Groover can make a 10 ft. by 0.045 in. deep groove in 16 gauge stainless steel in about five seconds. It takes about one minute to process a complete panel with four grooves at 10 ft. long, according to Rob Wissing, president of Hydrapower.

“The whole process isn’t something engraved in stone,” he says. “The feeds, speeds, depth of cut and processing times can vary with the material.”

The V Groover’s software has a pause function, which releases the clamps and lets operators turn material so the machine can run perpendicular grooves. After grooving, operators take the metal to the press brake or box-and-pan style brake (iMetal uses one for smaller pieces) for forming—rendering a complete part.

ffj-0213-bending-image1Tool talk

For Hydrapower, which Wissing started about 40 years ago in Australia and relocated to the U.S. in 1970, the V Groover is a young product in its line of metal fabricating machines.

Custom fabricators making sleek modern racks and displays are the V Groover’s most frequent buyers. Customers have used it to groove metal displays for the likes of Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Apple, as well as architectural curtain walls for notable skyscrapers, says Wissing.

“You could spend a couple hours looking at all the things we’ve grooved, and most of the public wouldn’t know,” he says. “Fabricators like iMetal use it because they get a graphic designer who needs an advanced design, which we turn into reality. Those guys create the demand for V Groovers.”

Because grooving puts material under different conditions created by the tooling, iMetal has a few methods up its sleeve for balancing material throughput with tooling life. For one, it uses standard carbide tips that are common in lathing operations. It also has had success with high-speed tooling.

“There are many variables as far as the V-grooving process such as feed rates, how much material you remove on a single pass, how you configure the tool block and multiple tools may be set up in succession,” Zoldos explains. “As the tooling moves down a linear path, you can have three to five cutting applications that allow you to remove that material.”

As a result, iMetal has charted its own standards for successful tooling-material combinations.

“We’re very comfortable completing V-grooving for customers and metal shops efficiently without question,” he says.

As of this year, Hydrapower is developing its V Groover tooling in-house to streamline its products with customer service. Because of a lack of industry knowledge in tooling for CNC grooving technology, Wissing says, “It’s time for us to do it ourselves.”

The V Groover’s flexibility has imparted added value to iMetal’s services beyond its workflow.

“It fits nicely as a complementary service to our fabrication processes,” Zoldos says. “Not just things we fabricate as complete entities, but we’ve also had other shops subcontract us. Some people just want the grooves made and bend it themselves.”

The V Groover is not only key to making high-end press brake shapes, but also unlocking business with clients that aren’t aware of it. Sometimes, people visit iMetal to see samples of things it has V-grooved and formed. “They say, ‘Wow, we didn’t even know some of these things were out there,’” Zoldos says. “iMetal is continuing to open up new markets based on introducing new technology that metal shops are not typically involved with.” FFJ

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