Press Brake Tooling

Press brake tooling enters the 21st century

By Greg Farnum

The new global economy and press brake tooling aren’t usually linked. But the free flow of goods and the ability to transfer production to low-wage countries is ratcheting up the pressure on manufacturers in the developed world to be more cost effective and productive. All aspects of metalworking are affected, and that includes press brake operations.

When it comes to increasing press brake productivity, there’s one word you’ll hear from all the experts, setup. "Reducing setup time is the biggest factor in reducing press brake down­time," and thus boosting productivity, says Mike Morissette, product manager for press brakes, Trumpf Inc. Reducing setup time, he says, is part of a complete systems approach that begins with the right tooling, progressive ground and segmented tooling, and includes hydraulic clamping, a feature that most of the major press brake manufacturers now offer. Fast and accurate, hydraulic clamping is an essential part of the overall package.

Progressive ground tooling is more precise, and more expensive, than traditional so-called American-style tooling that is machined on a planer. It’s this precision that allows it to be segmented, that is, manufactured in standard sizes that can be put together like large Lego blocks to form a complete tool in the needed length.

"Progressive grinding allows you to take tool segments of standard width and position them together and not have any mismatch or misalignment between one tool segment and the next," explains Morissette. The implica­tions are, if not revolutionary, then mighty close to it.

"Traditional tooling is in the form of a solid block, often several feet in length," notes Paul LeTang, senior press brake applications specialist for Strippit/LVD. "To change it, the operator needs a helper or, often, a crane or a forklift. With progressive ground, segmented tooling, let’s say you have a 36-in. tool in the machine, and the next job calls for a 12-in. tool, then you simply take out segments of tooling amounting to 24 in. Or let’s say you have a 10-in. tool and you need a 12-in. tool for your next job. You can just add a 2-in. segment. So, you have huge gain in time, along with a labor cost savings, by being able to add and remove these segments by hand.

"In addition, since the tooling is ground to very high tolerances versus standard tooling, the centerline of planer cut tooling could be 0.005 in. off center while with precision ground, you would expect it to be more like 0.0005 in.," he says. "You don’t introduce so much variation into the system when you change tools and go from job to job. Press brakes are prone to this sort of stack up of error, and the precision ground tooling helps you avoid that. As a result, there are fewer test bends and corrections to make before you start producing good parts. This means you not only save time, you also decrease the need for highly skilled labor or inter­vention by management."

Digital tooling
The fact that the new tooling can be held to more precise dimensions than the old style, planer cut tooling makes it a known quantity that software can accurately calculate and digitally manip­ulate. Today the two are typically used in concert. In fact, precision ground segmented tooling and bending software can be thought of as two sides of the same setup reduction coin, each helping to optimize the productive potential of the other.

"In the old days, after the press brake tooling was changed, the setup man on the shop floor would take over," Le Tang says. "He would take his tools, his protractor, his notebook, maybe a few of his buddies and make the test bends. Now, he’s generally a very capable individual, highly skilled, but while he’s doing all that you are losing production time."

The answer, provided by Strip­pit/LVD and other leading press brake suppliers, is offline programming software. "Offline programming software is optional, but almost everybody who buys a new press brake now buys the software," says Le Tang. "The exceptions largely being shops that make the same part over and over. However, that type of application is diminishing."

Why? "What the software does is take those calculations off the shop floor and come up with the best way to bend the part given the restrictions that you have in your shop," explains Le Tang. "It has a built-in expert system, so programming is less a matter of making decisions than it is of simply navigating the software. The computer tells you what tools go where on the press brake, where to place the piece part, the bending sequence, etcetera. It also simulates the bending sequence so you can see how the part will look in production."

The upward spiral of software and control capabilities, long evident else­where in the manufacturing world but relatively new in bending, continues, with press brake manufacturers vying to outdo each other with sophisticated features and ease of use. Amada America Inc., for instance, touts its AMNC-PC control with a touch screen that allows operators to quickly call up setup data and bend sequences and even view 3D simulations right at the machine, as well as its robotic load/unload system that can easily be programmed via the bending software package.

The other major press brake suppliers also have their software and control stories to tell. This degree of automation though, hinges ultimately on the pre­cision that the new tooling provides, assuring, for instance, that after a tool change the bending radii will be precisely where the machine’s controls expect them to be.

Claims and reality
Let’s see, ease of use, built-in expert system, simply navigating the software, it sounds easy when the experts describe it. FFJ went out in the field to get an idea of how the software and the whole systems approach to tooling works in real life, speaking to people like Sylvain Cayouette.

Cayouette is head of manufacturing for Rotobec Inc., a family-owned business that specializes in fabricating parts for the forestry industry. In business for many years, Rotobec relied exclusively on manual press brakes. That changed when Cayouette went to IMTS 2004.

"I went to the Bystronic booth and they gave me a demo of what their new machines could do," he says. "Frankly, I was surprised by what they could do, such as measure springback and compensate for it. I asked them to do a simulation of one of my parts and they did it in less than 5 min."

Cayouette was impressed, but Rotobec hasn’t managed to stay in business for decades by throwing money around, so months of careful study followed. Then, in April of 2005, the company purchased a Bystronic PR8 250-ton machine with Bysoft software and upper and lower hydraulic clamping systems from Wila USA, as well as progressive ground, segmented tooling from Wila. He explains that many of the people he had spoken to during his research used Wila tooling as their reference point. Not only is the tooling precise, it’s also tough.

"Most of the time we are working in hardened steel, which is hard on the dies," says Cayouette. "Over time this degrades machine precision." The Wila tools, however, stand up. Gunter Glocker, president of Wila USA, explains why. "We use a special hardening process," he says. "We call it CNC deep hardening that hardens the tools to 60 HRc. This results in tools staying accurate seven to nine times longer than planer-made tools."

The machine has lived up to expectations, and tool change time has been drastically reduced. "We have a tool magazine on the side of the machine and with the aid of a slide support we simply slide the tools in and out of the machine," says Cayouette.

And as for the software? "I didn’t know a thing about CNC, I told our

people when I got back from IMTS that with one hour of training I could operate the machine," he notes. "The screen tells you which die to put on, where to put it, it simulates your process, the whole thing.

"Maybe just a few hours of training," Cayouette admits. "But it’s really, really simple."

Beyond the press brake
The impact of the new tooling stretches beyond the press brake. Upstream, its greater precision means that fewer test blanks have to be cut. For many plants this can amount to significant savings over the course of the year. Down­stream, as Trumpf’s Morissette notes, "Tolerancing is becoming more critical so the systems approach is becoming more of a necessity. For example, more people are moving to robotic welding that requires better fit-up between parts, so they are tightening the tolerances on the parts coming from their press brakes. Precision ground tooling with hydraulic clamping can provide the needed tolerances. Even with conventional weld­ing, better fit-up yields benefits, such as allowing you to use less filler."

Just as progressive ground, segmented tooling, or, as Morissette insists, the systems approach that includes that tooling, impacts such high-tech processes as robotic welding. It also affects, and reflects, the position of North American bending operations in the wider world.

"There is still a market here for older-style, planer-made tooling," says Casey Schlachter, Bystronic’s product manager for press brakes, "but that market is diminishing, it’s going away. The reason is that the newer tooling saves labor. Planed tooling isn’t evident in Europe because the labor force there is more skilled and costlier. They can no longer compete and still afford labor intensive practices. Here we’ve been able to get away with cheap labor, cheap machines and cheap tooling, but that’s changing as customer demands force companies to be more efficient and more cost effective."

It’s not just labor cost that’s pushing the new tooling and the systems approach, it’s labor availability as well. "Today, in many areas of the country, finding a good press operator is a problem," notes Wila’s Glocker. "Availability of operators is becoming just as important as the cost of labor."

In Glocker’s view, these forces will soon add a new element to the tooling/systems mix: robotic tool change. "We are seeing it now in Europe where their high cost of labor makes them more automation conscious," he says. "Robotic part feeding is now quite prevalent there, and to a large extent, when the robot is used to change the tool as well as the part, it’s just a matter of changing its gripper." The relatively small size of segmented tool sections facilitates this innovation.<P. "In five to ten years, I predict, you will see this become significant in the market here," says Glocker.<P. Trumpf’s Mike Morissette agrees. "Robotic tool change is the next step, and it’s definitely coming. It will become a necessity as companies struggle to compete. We’ll probably see it introduced here within the next 12 months." FFJ


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