Press Brakes

Protection plus productivity

By Lisa Rummler

March 2009 - When in proximity to something potentially dangerous, most people try to maximize the distance between themselves and the possible threat to their safety.

Take volcanoes, for example. The sight of lava and smoke spewing into the air tends to send people scurrying for shelter. But for some, including scientists and nature photographers, a volcanic eruption is something to study up close--while taking every precaution to ensure their safety.

Although they don’t have to worry about volcanic hazards, press brake operators do work with large, heavy, potentially dangerous machinery. And to minimize risks, they require safeguarding devices and technology, such as the LazerSafe from Omron Scientific Technologies Inc., Fremont, Calif.

The Category 4, world-certified device allows press brake operators to get within 0.75 in. of a hazard but still be protected, says Christopher King, product manager at Omron STI. The LazerSafe is applied to only hydraulic and servo-drive press brakes--older versions, such as mechanical friction press brakes, don’t stop fast enough to use the technology.

The standard laser in the device is 1.5 in. wide and 2 mm thick. Another version of the LazerSafe, which is used for higher-speed machines, has two beams, each 1.5 in. wide and 2 mm thick. The block laser version is used for the highest-speed machines, and it has a 2.5-in.-by-2.5-in. block of laser beams that are deselected in 2-mm increments, according to King.

"As of today, manufacturers of machines don’t typically make a control system that monitors itself and the machine’s performance from the factory," says King. "The LazerSafe itself, by continually monitoring the stopping performance of the machine and the speed at which the punch is closing, is measuring that consistently. [With] every stroke of the machine, we can tell if the machine is starting to see wear, if it’s out of adjustment or if a valve is starting to hang up. By seeing an increase in the stopping distance of the machine, by monitoring it with its own separate encoder and relays, it creates a much safer machine because, typically, these events wouldn’t be seen until a catastrophic failure happened."

Philosophical change
The notion of allowing press brake operators to get so close to a hazard represents a fundamental shift from the attitude behind earlier safeguarding technology.

"Typical safeguarding in the past has moved operators away from the face of the machine, usually with light curtains or palm buttons, 12 to 16 in. away, depending on the machine, which makes it so they can’t form certain parts, can’t make parts at all, or have to bypass or misadjust the safeguard to make the parts they’re being asked to make. In the past, safeguarding has been based on maintaining a safe distance from the machine," says King. "The newer technology is moving away from the old [idea of] preventing somebody from ever getting to the hazard or getting to the hazard within a [specific amount of] time. We’re actually controlling the hazard. We’re controlling the hazardous movement with the new technology."

This idea will be applied to other machinery as time goes on, according to King. He also says this attitude about safeguarding technology arose out of necessity.

"Insurance companies, OSHA inspectors, and employers and manufacturers have realized that there wasn’t a good safeguarding device for press brakes, being that they’re a flexible machine--they can do small parts, multiple bends, large parts, and different types of shapes and configurations," says King. "And nowadays, press brakes are even being used for a variety of tooling that those machines weren’t seeing years ago."

The desire to create a device that could meet these needs presented some challenges, but the result was ultimately a benefit for many companies.

"Everyone [was] stymied as to how to have a productive safeguard, and that was what generated the interest and the engineers that developed this product, researched it and created it," says King. "They were focused on the need to create a safe work environment for press brake operators and actually give them a safeguard that really works--without compromising productivity."

Beyond safety
In addition to controlling the point of operation through closed-loop monitoring of speed, direction, position and stopping distance of the ram, as well as improving the safety of press brake operators, the LazerSafe can help companies keep their equipment in good shape, according to King.

"We’ll take the example of a machine that’s been running for a year, and all of a sudden, it started to have speed faults," he says. "The LazerSafe was saying that it was taking a little longer for the machine to stop, that it was getting to the point that it was almost unsafe, so the secondary circuit was taking care of stopping the machine safely."

Further, the knowledge gained from this can be incorporated into preventative maintenance programs at some companies, according to King.

"They see that, and they immediately say, ‘OK, we need to look at adjusting the gibs, or maybe we have a valve sticking. The machine needs some maintenance before it’s completely out of service in the main production line,’" he says. "This gives them a heads-up before something catastrophic happens, and they either have the machine completely down, or they have an injury."

Additionally, King says the LazerSafe has the potential to eliminate some of the observations and some of the monitoring safety directors, production personnel, supervisors and setup technicians have to do.

"This isn’t the end-all-be-all, perfect safeguard for every application or press brake," he says. "But if properly applied, it’s a self-sufficient, productive device that, most importantly, protects the operator."

Reducing incidents
One company that’s found success with the LazerSafe is Betco Inc., Statesville, N.C. It manufactures self-storage facilities, swine and poultry houses, general-purpose metal buildings and metal components, and it purchased the device in the spring of 2006.

Nick Cornett, industrial engineer at Betco, says the LazerSafe is more efficient and requires less setup time than the light curtains the company once had on its press brakes, and it’s helped decrease the number of safety-related incidents.

Additionally, Cornett says the company has had a positive experience with Omron STI over the years, which has been an indirect benefit of the LazerSafe.

"They’ve always had good customer service and technicians come out if we need it," he says. "I’ve had to send some lasers back to have them [looked at], and they checked them out and sent them back in a timely fashion." FFJ

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  • Betco Inc.
    Statesville, N.C.
    phone: 800/654-7813
  • Omron Scientific Technologies Inc.
    Fremont, Calif.
    phone: 888/510-4357

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