Unseen forces

By Lynn Stanley

Above: The automatic RAS MiniBendCenter cuts cycle times in half for processing of small parts.

Contract manufacturers combat economic pressures of small parts production with automatic folding center

February 2016 - Intense pressure—725,000 psi—can form a diamond. As a phenomenon, pressure can be measured as a physical force applied to a unit area of surface. It can also be exerted in the form of circumstances or situations that influence people or events. Contract manufacturers in particular, are under constant pressure to reduce costs while maintaining part quality and accuracy. Companies feeling the squeeze of lean production practices are finding ways to carve out some breathing space with RAS Systems LLC’s folding technology. 

“Pricing pressure is what makes our phone ring,” says Bill Kennedy, vice president of RAS Systems. The Peachtree City, Georgia, company was formed in 1992 by parent company RAS Reinhardt Maschinenbau GmbH, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2014. 

Despite its pedigree in bending and folding equipment, the German firm found penetrating North America’s precision metalforming market initially challenging.

FFJ 0216 bending image1

Because the tool rolls away in a 3-D movement on the material surface, forming is scratch free.

Clearing the air

“Air forming was not an accepted practice in the early 1990s due to the lack of accurate and repeatable CNC forming equipment or because air forming’s bend radius was too large,” explains Kennedy. “If a contractor reached capacity he thought the solution was to buy another press brake and hire another operator. But technology developments over the last decade have changed that mindset.”

Education and demonstration also helped early users see folding machines as flexible options that made parts production less tool- and labor-intensive, while also improving quality. 

“The technology was somewhat misunderstood,” says Kennedy. “A lot of fabricators saw press brakes and folders as competitors but the machines actually complement each other. Operations that are easily done on a press brake may be difficult to perform on a folder and vice versa. A job shop really needs both.”

Kennedy adds that RAS’ software developments has boosted customer acceptance of folding equipment. With just in time production on the rise, RAS began to receive requests for a folding center that could handle small parts. Customer input and RAS research and development resources led to the introduction of the MiniBendCenter in 2011. Able to fold complex parts as small as 1.5 in. by 2 in., Kennedy says the MiniBendCenter is the world’s first automated folding center for small parts. 

Blanks can be chaotically stacked on a skid or in a box. The robot scanning device will identify the part needed then measure, feed and square it automatically. Tools are also set up automatically. The blank manipulator then moves the workpiece from one folding station to the other as it rotates to the correct position. During the production cycle the MiniBendCenter is able to fold parts without positioning stops. The mechanized operation performs fast folding sequences for high throughput. Cycle times are shortened and cost per part reduced. 

FFJ 0216 bending image2

The MiniBendCenter uses optical scanning technology to square the blank prior to folding.

Software advances let programmers create complex parts quickly from solid models. Once programmed, a fabricator can make half a dozen parts as cost effectively as several hundred. “In the past the mindset was, ‘we’ll run 300 parts and store them so we can amortize setup time,’ Kennedy says. “With the MiniBendCenter, once you spend the minimal time it takes to program a job, there is no setup time. The need to inventory formed parts is eliminated because operators are finding they can run a good part the first time.”

At the end of the day, he says, “it’s not an emotional decision. Time studies prove return on investment. Successful installations and demonstrations are bearing out the results of those studies.”

Mini but mighty

Reports of unexpected benefits have emerged as RAS installs more folding machines. “We’re getting a fair amount of interest from the stamping industry,” Kennedy says. “A number of companies involved in prototyping find the MiniBendCenter an attractive option versus the cost of building a hard tool. Because the MiniBendCenter can economically handle prototype testing and small demo runs, it’s able to act as a bridge for the stamper. They can make the decision to invest in hard tooling once they know they have the job.”

Because the MiniBendCenter produces better parts upfront, companies are experiencing higher success rates with robotic welders and other downstream processes. 

The folding center can also plug and play in a smart factory. “That’s exactly what it is made for,” Kennedy says. “The software eliminates the step we used to call programming.”

In conventional applications CAD drawings were delivered to a traditional programmer and then loaded on a machine to prove out. With the MiniBendCenter, CAD no longer requires a person to interpret its language for a machine. “Parts are created in CAD and the drawings imported to the RASCAM software,” Kennedy says. “It’s a huge time saver.”

FFJ 0216 bending image3

A manipulator uses an upper and lower foot to clamp the part for high precision, fast folding sequences and shorter cycle times.

While such production advantages continue to build a fan base, the MiniBendCenter is also proving helpful in other areas. RAS showcased the folding center at Fabtech 2015 and found customers were asking the right questions.

“Finding good, qualified employees is the biggest pressure fabricators talked about,” Kennedy notes. “The power of our software has lifted the curtain and taken a lot of the black magic knowledge out of forming. In some parts of the country the folding center is also helping companies minimize worker’s comp incidents; factors that are helping fabricators drive costs down.”

The MiniBendCenter is suited for small parts production but can fold components up to 24 in. by 24 in. Since the machine’s axes are servo motor and digital regulator-driven, operators achieve maximum accuracy and repeatability. The folding center is being sourced by customers in a variety of industries including markets that need small parts for cabinets, scales, white goods, automats and medical components.

As for RAS, supporting manufacturing in North America is what it is all about. “It’s the backbone of our country,” Kennedy says. “Making products creates dollars. You start with raw material and turn it into a finished product. Our folding technology has been engineered to support that process.”

Constantly looking for ways to improve its technology, RAS will introduce additional new products this year. According to Kennedy, “We’re combining the latest in software developments with well-engineered machines to solve problems that customers currently don’t have solutions for.” FFJ



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