Delicate bends

By FFJournal staff

October 2010 - Bending very thin stainless steel or Inconel can be a challenge, but a company in England has found a way to manufacture custom exhaust systems from specialty materials successfully.

Good Fabrications, Buckinghamshire, England, fabricates race exhausts and manufactures tubes and custom bends. The company, which Steve Good founded in 1984, specializes in stainless steel and Inconel bending, merge collectors and silencers. The specialty materials the company uses, such as Inconel, titanium or stainless steel, might have a wall thickness of only 0.375 mm to provide weight reduction.

"Racing vehicles produce a tremendous amount of heat and pressure in their exhaust systems," says Phil Levett, works manager. "These often have to be very lightweight and able to withstand these conditions for a prolonged period of time. Because of these conditions, there are very few companies that can produce these unique, one-off systems. You just can't buy them off the shelf."

Although best known for automotive exhaust production, the company also works for the defense, aerospace and marine industries. The fabrication of these specialty components has allowed the company to find a niche market with unusual demands on its craftspeople and equipment.

Consistent qualities
Although the company has two software-driven benders and a manual mandrel bender, Levett says it's not so much the bender but the tooling that will create a quality bend. Because of this, the company continues to use its original tool supplier, Tools for Bending, Denver, Colo.

"Steve Good, who founded the company, was the one who picked Tools for Bending, and we've just carried on their relationship with the company," says Levett. "We tried a few English companies who make bending tools, but these companies haven't given us the quality we get from Tools for Bending."

When bending exotic materials using thin-wall tube and tight bending radii, high-quality tooling is a necessity, and Tools for Bending provides that for Good Fabrications, says Levett.

Eric Stange, president of Tools for Bending, says the experience the company has gained from working in different applications makes it stand out.

"Our experience came from my father, Ron, who founded the company. He started in Southern California in the 1950s, and at that time, there probably was a higher concentration of tube-bending companies for aircraft tube bending than anywhere else in the world," Stange says. "My father became very good at aircraft tube bending, and this is one of our fortes."

The experience has allowed Tools for Bending to learn what tooling and equipment is necessary for delicate bending applications. Not only does the company build bending tools, but it also offers bending services.

With the amount of tooling Good Fabrications requires, there have been multiple companies that have tried selling the company bending tools, says Levett. "We've dabbled with some of this tooling now and then, but the things that we get from Tools for Bending are high-quality tooling, good price and the lead time is always spot on, which is what we haven't gotten from other suppliers."

When Good Fabrications works with thin-walled tubes, the tooling has to be to a very high specification using very tight tolerances to get the proper bends without damaging the tubes, says Levett. "For instance, if we have a 0.5-mm-thick wall tube and the mandrel is 0.5-mm off from specifications, we have a real problem. This is the reason we use Tools for Bending tools. The company gives us exactly what we need and at the tolerances we require. When we give them our specifications, we know we'll get the proper-size tooling back every time."

Unique systems
The company also builds tubes from sheet metal and does custom bending. It has a skilled team of fabricators and welders, tube manufacturers and tube benders responsible for each part of the systems the company produces. Good Fabrications uses an advanced CAD system to help with designs, and it even can interpret models and design jigs without an existing exhaust system from which to work.

Good Fabrications forms its own tubes for certain materials to get the proper wall thickness and then welds them. The company would not make its own tubes for a 304-stainless-steel exhaust header, but it would for titanium and Inconel exhaust systems. "We make our own tubes because of the problem with availability of the tubes, especially when we get into odd sizes," says Levett. "We also find it more cost effective to produce them ourselves."

Levett credits the company's experience as the main reason it can produce rare exhaust systems. "We understand how materials react to bending through a lot of trial and error and experience through the years," Levett says. "So it's not so much that another company couldn't do it. It's just a matter that we probably have more experience than other companies with light-weight, thin-wall materials for the production of exhaust systems that are required in today's motor-sports industry."

The company can bend a tube with a wall thickness of 0.375 mm, says Levett. "But we usually work with a 0.5-mm and 0.7-mm tube thickness for many of our parts that are made from titanium, stainless steel and Inconel. With thin walls and unique materials, these exhaust parts are very difficult to bend without breaking or splitting," he says.

Fragile operation
Tools for Bending's tooling goes through several production processes, says Levett. Some of it is precision ground, and some has a special coating. It's heat treated and then machined. "There's obviously quite a bit of work in producing high-quality tooling. And when you bend thin-wall materials, you need this," he says.

Along with tool production, "the configuration of the tooling and how it's applied are important," Stange says. For instance, bend dies have to be made a certain way to ensure they will remain rigid during the bending process, he says. ÒEach tool has its own function. A bend die requires that it has a substantial amount of rigidity, but it also has to be precisely machined. The people at Good Fabrications understand why this is important, and they know what they want. This makes our job easier," says Stange. "When you're clamping the tube, the clamp die clamps against the bend die, and you need a clamp die that is robustly made that is going to fit into the tube bender properly."

Another part of the application is integrating the tooling to each machine, says Stange. "Our experience has to go beyond the tooling to the machine itself. Part of our service is evaluating the applications that our tools are being used for. For instance, will the tube material be feasible for a particular bend, and what is the best machine for an application?" Building proper tooling requires some knowledge and experience, because not all tube-bending equipment can do delicate bending of thin-wall materials, he says.

"There's quite a few companies that build bending tools within a 50-mile radius of us," says Levett. "But it says a lot for Tools for Bending that we go all the way over to Denver to buy theirs. We just want the consistency of tooling that we get from this company." FFJ

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  • Good Fabrications
    Buckinghamshire, England
    phone: 011/44-1844 202-850
    fax: 011/44-1844 202-833

  • Tools for Bending
    Denver, Colo.
    phone: 800/873-3305
    fax: 303/777-4749

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