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Press Brakes

Five easy (bent) pieces

By Sue Roberts

Bigger, faster, better, safer, more accurate, more versatile, lower initial investment, durable and productive. That has been the shared mantra of press brake manufacturers for years. The chanting continues.

Add to those areas of focus the need to eliminate the mystery of setup and just plain making the process easier.

In the last two to three years, brake manufacturers have embraced the world of robotics. Whether approaching the combination of press brakes and robots within their own research and development departments or partnering with manufacturers dedicated to automation, robotic tending is becoming an integral piece of the puzzle to kick press brake productivity to the next level.

Robots designed to tend production machines certainly are not new. They have been steadily moving onto shop floors since the first installation tending a die casting machine in 1960.

Growing numbers
According to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), Ann Arbor, Mich., the first quarter of 2006 saw orders of 3,722 robots by North American manufacturing companies. RIA estimates that overall, there are 160,000 robots installed in American factories, placing the United States second only to Japan.

Press brake tending robots, specifically, are also not new. They have been thought about, talked about and implemented to some degree for the last 20 years.

According to Brian Turner, special services manager of Automated Concepts Inc., it was the advent of CNC press brakes coupled with the drive for lean manufacturing environments that opened the door for seriously joining the tending robots with press brakes.

"What's happening is the whole [robotic tending and press brakes] process is being driven toward the true lean manufacturing environment," says Turner. "Manufacturers of both high-quantity parts or low-quantity parts can use this combination to embrace lean right now."

Broader applications
When robots were introduced to the bending process, the majority of systems catered to creating efficiencies for smaller parts produced in higher quantities. These systems were basically found within larger, integrated manufacturers because of practical applications and cost.

But the focus has shifted. Adding robots to a press-brake cell is becoming a logical and economically sound decision for manufacturers and job shops of all types and sizes making larger parts, smaller lots and requiring quick turn-around.

"If you are running as low as five pieces you have the ability to really employ robotics," Turner says of today's opportunities. He estimates that most job shops, paying $16 to $18 per man-hour, will see payback within 18 months of installing press-brake automation.

Ed Bosse, sales manager with Cincinnati Inc., elaborates on how robotic tending initiatives are affecting their press brake developments. "We are trying to push the effective order quantity down to a lower number," he says. "We are working closely on tool changing with tooling experts and we have partnered ourselves with some software that allows the programming of the machine and robot simultaneously.

"We're developing a robotic cell that will be very affordable for smaller parts, up to 4 ft. max," adds Bosse. "It will include the press brake, a start-up tooling package, robot, software, and tables for indexing and referencing. We?ll make it more financially feasible for a smaller shop to step into the automation area."

Any size parts
What about the larger parts? The limitation of the part size and material thickness is determined only by the capacities of the robot and the brake itself. According to Turner, robots have been developed to work with brakes, loading, bending and off-loading parts that are as small as a business card up to large, long parts weighing in excess of 1,000 lbs.

As part of the automation, the programming for the robotic systems directs which arm-end tooling is needed--magnetic grippers for larger plates, oiled, or rusted steel; vacuum cups for thinner gauge material and material that is drier; or two-jaw grippers for specialty parts, particularly parts too small for a magnet or vacuum cup to hold.

An automotive press-brake cell with robotic tending described by Bosse produced a mild steel part that was 10 ft. long by 48 in. wide by 1/4 in. thick. "It's like a big helicopter blade," he says. Justification for the robotics for this cell, he points out, was relatively easy, "The ergonomic issues, cost reduction issues and labor reduction issues were self-evident."

When handled manually, the lifting and maneuvering of each of these parts required two operators. By installing the tending robot, the company eliminated the heavy lifting that could cause potential injuries, gained a continuous lights-out operation and was able to reassign the operators.

Economics
Leo Wegner, robotic bending product manager at Amada America Inc., sees robotic tending for press brakes as the solution for shops of all sizes to combat the need for significant savings in time, the need to reduce labor costs overall and the challenge of how to best utilize their most skilled operators.

"We've witnessed an overwhelming number of cases where just one automated system quickly equaled the output of three or four conventional press brakes," says Wegner. "When you think about the cost-cutting implications--work hours saved, tool setup elimination, floor space reduced, maintenance costs cut and the personnel that can be allocated to other tasks, such as secondary operations--you begin to understand the exciting possibilities posed by robotic bending. The possibilities for savings and growth are simply too attractive to ignore."

Joe Pognant, southeast regional manager for Cincinnati Inc., talks about an air conditioning product manufacturer that was ready to expand. They needed more capacity for new and existing product lines and wanted to cost-effectively maintain manufacturing in the United States. Automating their metal fabrication processes as much as possible was one of their major directives.

Part of the automation solution was to invest in new, advanced equipment from a variety of builders. They found, however, that even when maximizing productivity from the new equipment, they had a large number of parts requiring basic bending that were time and labor consuming. This brought them to work with Cincinnati to add tending robots to several brakes.

Savings accumulated in many areas including manpower. Robotically tended brakes function lights-out as many shifts as needed. The only operator interaction is keeping the raw material supplied and removing pallets of finished parts. This allowed shop personnel to be redirected to jobs where their skills were better utilized. Additional operators were not needed, and the plant was able to maximize its assets, both equipment and manpower, to run cost effectively with expanded capacity.

Moving on
To continue the march forward, robotic capabilities need to move beyond loading and unloading for the forming process. Bosse points out that if a part is coming from another operation in the forming cell, there might be a hand-off from robot to robot. Or a robot may be programmed to run down a track to retrieve a part from or deliver a part to another processing area.

The pre-process and post-process steps, says Turner, open up much more opportunity. "For example, we can bring a 4-ft.-by-8-ft. sheet of material that needs to be laser marked or ink-jetted, do that, and then take it through the bending process. Then we can deburr it, edge it or buff it, or even hang it on a paint line. There is a lot of opportunity for interaction."

Easy to start
One nice thing about the robotic systems available today is that they do not require a new brake. Many press brakes currently in operation can be retrofitted.

Automated Concepts offers RIBS, Robotically Integrated Bending Solution, the first retrofitable robotic system for press brakes. It can be installed on any down-acting CNC-controlled hydraulic press brake.

Another positive is found within the software arena. Software has taken, and continues to take, huge steps forward making the programming of combined automated systems as easy as working with any computer program.

Bosse explains that the software combined with the Cincinnati robotic-tending programs creates a simulation that shows all motions of the press brake, the robot and the part being formed.

Software available can now, for some systems, automatically direct choices such as press brake tooling, robotic arm-end tooling and completed part hand-off, in addition to the more familiar CNC brake settings. Once the program is established, operators simply need to enter part numbers, quantities and supply the raw materials.

Plan ahead
Considerations before getting involved:

  • Be ready to make parts, particularly when running lower quantity batches that will be completed quickly. Have the programming and raw material ready to shift from one job to another. As Pognant says, "Once you get set up and started, you make a lot of parts. When the cell starts rolling, it runs through a lot of steel."
  • Have a plan for completed parts. Without down-stream coordination, the increased production resulting from robotic tending can create a bottleneck for another process or eat up valuable floor space waiting for shipment.
  • Combine a robotic tending system with a robust, reliable press brake. The combined system, with its possibilities of running around-the-clock, will take its toll on less durable equipment. Along those same lines, schedule maintenance so the press brake downtimes do not create surprise production delays.
  • As with any machine tool purchase, work closely with the manufacturers involved in developing the cell to size the robot, select the grippers and develop the software to best meet individual production requirements. Automated Concepts works hand-in-hand with the manufacturer or will analyze parts or a family of parts from the fabricator and recommend the entire system.

    A driving force is, as always, economics. Parts need to be made faster, and the cost of fabricating parts needs to be driven down. Manpower needs to be managed whether by simply finding enough qualified people to do the job, as many within the current workforce reach retirement, or training those already on the job to use the new tools.

    Today, an investment in robotic tending for nearly any press brake is becoming a logical, money-making proposition. It's beginning to be attractive to OEMs, job shops and manufacturers across the board--small and large. Available robotic bending solutions are now as varied as the manufacturers.

    "This movement speaks to just one thing," says Wegner, "the realization that competitiveness today demands the adaptation of technology on all shop floors, not just those of the industry's giants." FFJ

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