Technology’s economies of scale

By Lynn Stanley

Affordable, high-performance, bi-directional folder enters the mainstream

May 2014 - Price cuts. Technology is turning once costly consumer products into bargains as game-changing advances promote efficiency in production and expand competition. Where GPS devices used to cost $70 to $300, GPS service now exists as a free smartphone app. A growing number of households are dropping their landlines in favor of going wireless. You can even own a small, baseline 3-D printer for as little as $299, down from other desktop models at $2,200 and higher.

David Prokop, executive vice-president for MetalForming Inc., sees a similar trend in capital equipment. “High tech doesn’t necessarily mean high dollars,” he says. He’s referring to an evolutionary leap that is putting a high-performance bi-directional folder at an affordable price point into the hands of mainstream job shops and fabricators.


Changing history

The Peachtree City, Ga.-based company is a North American dealer in sheet metal machines for architectural applications. It also provides software, training and consulting services for the metal building and roofing industries. MetalForming has become the U.S. importer for Schröder Group’s new bi-directional folder. Headquartered in southern Germany, Schröder manufactures a range of equipment from manual folding tools to fully automated folding centers like its Evolution series for industrial sheet metal processing. The PowerBend Professional represents advanced engineering Prokop calls a game-changer for fabricators that previously understood bi-directional bending to be out of their grasp. “There has never been a system like this,” he says. “It’s really quite revolutionary.” 

But to understand the weight of this development, Prokop points to sheet metal folders’ somewhat problematic history and the factors that created the need for a competent, more cost-effective machine.

Such equipment came on the scene during the 1940s. Slow operating speeds and geometric limitations restricted market appeal. “If a panel was large enough to require a second operator or [was] hard to form due to its size, a folder made sense,” says Prokop. “Production benefits were lost, though, if the part had a reverse flange, which meant using another operator to help flip the part.” The folder migrated to the building and construction trade because the flimsy nature of large-size architectural panels was a good fit for the equipment. “When bi-directional folders were first introduced, they eliminated the need to flip large parts, and so expanded their market share slightly, but they still had some fairly significant geometric limitations,” Prokop explains. “Technology breakthroughs eventually produced high-end folding machines, such as Schröder’s Evolution series, which all but eliminated the geometric limitations that previously plagued folders.” 

That said, the new machines came at a high price, says Prokop. “Despite its expanded capabilities now comparable to those of a press brake, fewer shops could afford to invest over $500,000 in a folder.”


Breaking barriers

Fabricator interest in folding continues to grow because the technique is less tool and labor-intensive than traditional bending methods, says Prokop. Reshoring, the need for greater accuracy and efficiency, and the shift to smaller lot production requirements with faster turnarounds have combined to drive new technology developments in capital equipment, including folders. “The U.S. has become an expert at making short-run products and that is one of the factors saving the soul of manufacturing in this country,” he says. “Companies are not ordering parts in the thousands. They need hundreds in lots of 10 parts each week. Folders are perfect for bending small quantities.”

Fabricators also are finding ways to save time by producing parts that demonstrate higher dimensional and angular stability. Accurate parts that exhibit a higher degree of stability mean minutes can be trimmed from downstream processes. “Advances in equipment like lasers allow a fabricator to cut a very accurate blank,” says Prokop. “You are starting with a precise blank. You want to finish with a very accurate formed part. Folders are more efficient, require less labor [and] can produce any quantity with an efficiency that adds value to a part.  Fabricators today can’t afford not to consider different ways to economically throw bends into a blank.”

Greater efficiencies

Over time, folding has become more about the need for better process control than part geometries. “While certain geometries do lend themselves to folding, anyone looking to achieve better throughput, reduce costs or form a more accurate profile should be looking at a folder. Lot size also continues to drive the market for folders,” Prokop explains. 

The PowerBend folder, first unveiled at Euroblech 2013, will also be presented at Fabtech 2014 in Atlanta. “The machine is available now and the market response in Europe has been very strong,” Prokop says. He expects rapid market expansion for the folder in North America. A well-equipped PowerBend bi-directional folder carries the same price as a mid-range press brake (about $250,000), a significant drop from folders of previous years priced up to double that figure. 


The cost-competitive machine will put folding capabilities into the hands of fabricators that previously were unable to justify the cost of a bi-directional folder. And while the ticket price has been reduced, the machine’s quality hasn’t, as was demonstrated recently by a customer in the U.K. “The company was running three to four first part runs a day,” says Prokop. “With the PowerBend they are now producing 10 first runs an hour.”  

The new folder will take part type and quantities out of the equation for fabricators eyeing the technology. “You don’t need a product type with this folder,” Prokop says. “If a fabricator needs to produce low quantities at a high production velocity or be able to use the same machine to make parts they might not see again or have yet to see come through the door, the folder offers a flexible option.”

With skilled labor getting harder to find, the folder’s design and control system make it easy for manufacturers to quickly train unskilled operators. Feedback from fabricators also has helped drive development of the new machine. “Manufacturers have been telling us they need production that is efficient and accurate yet fills the gap left by skilled workers,” he says. “They have looked at the fact that folders can reduce their production costs, improve throughput, raise efficiency and produce better parts and asked us, ‘What can you do for me?”’ 

With the last barrier—price—eliminated, Prokop expects that the job shop of the future will have mixed capabilities using both folders and press brakes. “The body of parts that fits the folder is growing rapidly,” he says. “Manufacturing in the U.S. has to continue to grow and get stronger. Technology developments like the PowerBend represent a huge leap ahead for fabricators looking to take their business to the next level and that’s what will help industry grow as a whole.” FFJ




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