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Press Brakes

Know how to fold 'em

By Sue Roberts

Open that file drawer, ask the bank teller for an item from the cabinet below the counter or grab an orange from a refrigerated cart in your grocery store. Then stop to think--metal bending.

Seems like an odd thought process combination until you look at the intricate bends in the components that make up office furniture, under-counter bank equipment and refrigerated cases. American Furniture Systems and its subsidiary Advantage Custom Fixtures produce products for all three industries.

Designs for each standard and custom piece flow through the mind of company president Allen Sterris who established American Furniture Systems in 1987, a spin-off from an office furniture manufacturer that began in 1931. Refrigerated case goods were shifted to Advantage Custom Fixtures at the end of 2002, nearly doubling the company's volume.

More volume, more parts
Keeping an eye on technical machine-tool advances within the fabricating industry helps Sterris achieve production goals with about 45 employees shared between two facilities located across the street from each other.

Thousands of different parts for the three product lines are produced in the 23,000-sq.-ft. American Furniture Systems plant. Assembly of the larger refrigerated cases that takes a considerable amount of floor space is done in the 15,000-sq.-ft. Advantage Custom Fixtures shop.

Drawer bodies, tops, backs, sides, faces, drawer fronts, canopies, shelves, pedestals and a never ending list of possible parts garnered by Sterris' reputation for custom designed systems make flexibility and productivity key to the company's continuing success.

Enhanced flexibility
"Customized products are constantly growing," reports Sterris. "We used to be at 25 percent, then last year we were at 35 percent. This year I've got to think we're well above 50 percent of customized product."

Customization allows customers to add their own personality to office-furnishing functionality. In addition to a choice of 25 paint colors and 26 laminate surfaces, heights, widths, depths, door options, types and number of shelves are a few of the variables considered for a design. Customers can begin with work stations, conference tables, lateral files, open-shelf files, bookcases and mobile-plan files from the standard product mix and can add their own requirements or start completely from scratch with individual concepts.

Timing on the customized projects is often a critical element, making production flexibility a necessity. For one West Coast manufacturer, American Furnishing Systems produced 100 workstations with a custom finish for delivery in only five weeks.

Innovative product design joins advanced fabricating equipment to rapidly form the broad mix of complex parts from material including stainless, aluminum, cold rolled, galvaneal or galvanized stock. The majority of parts are produced from cold-rolled steel in 20 gauge, 18 gauge or 16 gauge. A design may call for a collection of one-up parts or the company may be running a batch of dozens of panels to go into standard equipment.

New technology
In 2002, Sterris added the first Salvagnini Performer panel bender to his shop capabilities to lessen the burden on the press brakes. A second Performer was purchased in 2004. Small or very difficult parts still go to a press brake, but the vast majority of components for all three product lines run through the Performers because of productivity, flexibility, accuracy and safety.

Sterris says that manpower reduction is one big advantage. "Now I really only need two operators during the day on the press brake where before we were running three to five guys on the brake," he says. "That department was always getting behind because our products have a lot of forming. We were always struggling to have people with the skill set to produce product. The panel former has totally taken that bottleneck out of the factory."

Two operators on the Performers supply the panel fabricating needs for the three product lines. One complicated drawer part that took 8 min. on a press brake, takes about 45 sec. to form on the Salvagnini. The operator loads the blank, the machine automatically accomplishes the bends, then the operator unloads the finished part.

While the next part is being formed, the operator can complete an additional operation such as spot welding, deburring or corner rounding, eliminating a step in the production process.

Ease of use also factors heavily into the productivity equation. Sterris believes that a good press-brake operator takes months to develop. With the panel benders he can assign any employee from the shop floor or pull in temporary help when needed and have a productive operator within three hours.

Why so easy?
Salvagnini refers to the Performers as semi-automatic panel benders. They share the capabilities of the larger P4 Salvagnini benders with two differences: a somewhat smaller work envelope and no robotic load and unload capabilities. The only non-automatic function is the loading and unloading of parts. Considerably less floor space is needed.

Once a blank is loaded, the automatic sheet manipulator with integrated rotator turns the blank to the proper angle for bending. Notches in the blank are used as reference points rather than the part edges. Automation eliminates the chance of placement error.

Salvagnini's patented Universal Bending Tool simplifies setups by eliminating the need to change tools. Sterris explains,"You never change tooling other than the blank width based on your part sizes. You don't really take tooling in and out of the machine so you're not leaving the machine to pull tooling off a rack. It's all on-board the machine and very user friendly."

Positive and negative bends are straight and consistent regardless of type or thickness of material. The Advanced Bending Technology, a proprietary Salvagnini product, instructs the Performers in how to form the finished parts. The software automatically compensates for thermal expansion and bending springback.

"The interface for the operator," says Sterris, "is very operator friendly. The program the operator uses to make adjustments is simple to understand and easy to learn." He adds that changes are usually minor compared to those needed on a press brake, "A 1/2 degree or 3/4 degree; if you are doing something very tricky, maybe a 3 or 4 degree adjustment is needed."

Generally the programming for the panel benders is done in the office. Sterris' programmers work from his designs to create the programs for the Performers. But Sterris points out that operators can quickly learn to program on the machine control with copy and paste commands.

Salvagnini's control enhancements instruct the machine and its workpiece handling system on how to form the finished parts. All necessary technology is transferred to the machine. Algorithms are used to compensate for material thicknesses and bend profiles.

More complex, more proprietary
Ease of production has allowed Sterris' designs to become more complex. Several multiple-part components have been redesigned for production from one blank.

"Without the tooling you can make your product quite complex with no worrying about all the tool sets to purchase and what machine they are going into," Sterris says. "It's just basically a programming operation."

For one of the standard drawer bodies for an under-counter piece of bank equipment, Sterris reduced the number of parts from four to one. In addition to the time savings for creating blanks and forming individual pieces on brakes, spot-weld time was reduced. "It all gets formed on one blank and gets closed up and the part is accurate," he says. "So all you're doing is putting two spot welds to hold the part together. A couple of spot welds where before you maybe had 20."

Components have not only become more complex, but more proprietary since the addition of the folding automation.

Sterris says that the Performers have allowed him to make complicated parts in a way that baffles competitors. Even though they may be able to figure out how to make the part, they're stumped on how to make it profitably, if they're not thoroughly familiar with the technology behind the production.

More knowledge
"There are a lot of benefits to that machine that over time you tend to develop if you are innovative," says Sterris. "If manufacturers are looking at the machine just to solve a problem or make a part, and they don't interface with it, it's not going to get used to its full potential.

He continues, "You have the precision of the part, you have the elimination of parts, you've got the proprietary nature of the part so you're not just another me too in the industry who has a product that anybody can duplicate."

He adds that general sheet manufacturers could produce many of his products, but customers would have to educate them to the industry before they would get a saleable one.

For his rapidly growing list of custom buyers, Sterris typically begins with their concepts and takes it from there. American Furniture Systems designs, produces and finishes products for companies ranging from a single-location office to internationally recognized software manufacturers.

"We already know what people want when they come to us, so it makes the experience less painful for them." FFJ

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