Solving production puzzles

By Lynn Stanley

Oven fabricator fights off competition with unique technology

May 2013 - Television shows like “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” have introduced viewers to the world of forensic science. According to the National Institute of Justice, the vital role forensic science plays in solving crimes is through information gleaned from the analysis of physical evidence with unique characteristics. Whether it’s a carpet fiber, latent fingerprint or DNA sample, these one-of-a-kind clues often close a case. 

Fabricators also are looking for answers that can solve manufacturing challenges. Like crime scene investigators, fabricators find themselves working against the clock to meet small batch, short run and just-in-time or zero inventory deadlines.

In the last decade, automated folding technology has emerged as a flexible option with the ability to make parts production less tool- and labor-intensive while improving part quality. Typically the advantages of folding technology have been reserved for larger parts. In 2011, a folding center was introduced with characteristics almost as unique as a fingerprint. The RAS MiniBendCenter automatically folds complex parts as small as 2 in. by 3 in.  “There’s nothing else out there quite like it,” says Rick Wester, vice president of RAS Systems LLC, Peachtree City, ffj-0513-bending-image1Ga. “We’ve always been folding people. We saw fabricators trying to make parts tiny enough to fit in your hand on stamping presses with hard tools or on petite press brakes manned by operators sitting on stools. For small parts production, these types of processes can be very labor-intensive.”

Automating small parts production

RAS is the American partner of Reinhardt Maschinenbau of Sindelfingen, Germany. RAS has been producing fabricating machinery for nearly 75 years and is known for its innovative folding, forming and shearing machines. RAS built its first folding machine in 1949 and introduced the world’s first CNC folder in 1968. To put regional services and support at the fingertips of U.S. companies, RAS opened its North American distribution center in Peachtree City, Ga., in 1995. 

“We felt like this kind of small parts processing could be automated for lower costs per part and higher throughput,” says Wester. “The trend toward greater flexibility is impacting the entire industry. For fabricators, it’s about being able to make an article of one or a few parts and turn them around quickly and cost effectively. In addition, fabricators can change components on the fly without having to spend $10,000 or more on new tooling.”

The MiniBendCenter can accommodate small- to medium-sized batches and part sizes up to 24 in. by 24 in. Blanks made from 11 gauge material are fed, squared and measured automatically. The material stack’s top blank is picked up by a suction cup system and fed to a transfer table for optical scanning. A manipulator then moves the blank from one folding station to the other while ensuring the workpiece is oriented properly. Because the manipulator never releases the blank, the workpiece can be folded without positioning stops for faster folding sequences and significant cycle time improvements. The folding cell also is able to bend flanges up and down before automatically unloading parts.

Higher throughput

“The folding center is intelligent,” says Wester. “If a part is not right side up, the machine’s manipulator will place that part in a different bin to indicate that it needs to be turned over.” The ability to automatically fold small parts caught the attention of XLT Ovens, Wichita, Kan., which installed the MiniBendCenter in 2011. To date, it is the only fabricator in the U.S. to have the machine. The third-generation company manufactures a wide range of conveyor ovens and exhaust hoods for markets that include quick service restaurants, casual dining establishments and schools.

“We were looking to take as much work off our manual press brake as we could,” says Tim Gile, CNC programming supervisor for XLT Ovens. “We already had two RAS MultiBendCenters, so we had a good understanding of the part quality we could expect. We were in the market for a machine that could fold smaller parts. We had faith RAS Systems would hold up its end.” With shorter delivery requirements and smaller production windows, XLT Ovens is steering its operations toward a higher level of automation. The fabricator sources stainless steel sheets 48 in. by 128 in. in thicknesses of 14 gauge to 

20 gauge. An automated laser and turret punch cut blanks that, depending on their size, are shuttled either to the MultiBendCenter or to the MiniBendCenter. 

Each XLT oven contains nearly 100 parts. The MiniBendCenter produces a variety of 2 in. by 3 in. stainless steel components. The parts, once folded, are assembled into oven units that are then packaged and shipped. Production for the fabricator varies based on customer requirements.


Tight tolerance

“Our company lives off our business philosophy of ‘quality, cost, delivery and service,’” says Gile. “The MiniBendCenter’s capabilities directly correlate with those things because we’re able to get parts out faster and more efficiently.”

XLT Ovens runs a large number of lower volume jobs on the MiniBendCenter ranging from 50 to 100 parts. Accuracy and tolerance requirements for the pocket-size parts are critical. “The components also have to have a cosmetic appearance. The MiniBendCenter is able to run our parts without marks,” Gile says. 

Parts are designed offline. A programmer then accesses the job and initiates the machine. The parts are quicker to fold on the automated folding center because of their complexity. “With a press brake, cycle times are slower, there’s more setup time and more chance for human error,” Gile says. “Also, you have to have one person at each press brake versus one person monitoring multiple folding centers, which just have to be loaded with blank stacks.”

Training on the easy-to-use MiniBendCenter is minimal. “It’s very accurate the first time,” says Gile. “We sometimes make minor adjustments, but once we do, the machine holds true over thousands of parts.” 

XLT Ovens’ customers expect high-performance products at an economical price. By designing ovens that use fewer components of higher quality, the fabricator finds it can produce a competitive unit that is durable and offers the features restaurants look for. 

“Fast bake times and a consistent temperature are keys to making a great slice of pizza,” says Gile. “But it’s the quality, cost, service and delivery that differentiate us from other manufacturers. With the MiniBendCenter, we’re able to get parts done faster to meet shorter production schedules, and we’re able to deliver a better quality product in less time.” FFJ

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