John Henry's last challenge or a Rube Goldberg device?

Picking the right press brake

September 10, 2003
By: Steve Benson

Picking the right press brake has never been an easy task and it continues to get harder all the time. New hydraulic systems offer unbelievable control and sophisticated hydraulic valving that were unimaginable just a few short years ago.


Both original equipment and after market manufacturers have made available machines with world class crowning and yaw compensation, and the newest controllers are inspired. But, how much is too much and how much is not enough? Are you buying a machine that would be appropriate for John Henry to use to make his last stand or are you buying a Rube Goldberg device requiring so much data that a stylus is necessary just to input data?

But do you really need it all? Or, will just a simple machine do? This leads to a question: "Is your machine too little or too much for your needs?" In other words, Is it John Henry's last great challenge or a Rube Goldberg device?

John Henry

The legend of John Henry says that he was "the strongest and most determined steel worker to have ever lived." Whether he was real or not, no one really knows. But his tale has been repeated as long as steel workers have been around. The story goes that a steel worker named John Henry really did work on the Big Bend tunnel (wherever that might have been). The legend also says that he used two hammers swinging them one after another in an attempt to beat the new steam powered machine. Incredibly he did do it; by a little over three feet, but it also cost him his life, or so the legend goes.

In the real world of press brake operation there are only two pieces of information that a controller needs to know in order to work: depth of penetration into the V die and the location of the back gauge. As anyone with a few years in the business can tell you, you don't even need a controller to complete these simple operations. The old mechanical press brakes are proof of that.

But, is your product line too sophisticated for this lower level machine? Are your employees and operators using two hammers swinging them one after another in an attempt to beat the new steam powered machine? If your product line is high tech with tolerances of plus or minus ten thousandths with multiple bends in a lean environment, then perhaps your operators are swinging two hammers after all.

That is a situation that will hurt your bottom line and cost you much more than the cost of a newer high tech machine. However, if the situation were reversed would you be facing a Rube Goldberg device?

Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg lived from 1883 to 1970 and was a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor, and author. A practical man, he went to college to become an engineer. After graduating from the University of California Berkeley, Mr. Goldberg went to work for the City of San Francisco Water and Sewer Department as an engineer.Quite the artist, he began submitting his work to a San Francisco newspaper. He kept sending his drawings and cartoons to the editor until he was finally published. He became such an outstanding success that he moved from San Francisco to New York, drawing daily cartoons for the Evening Mail.

His cartoons spawned the inventions that made him famous. Rube created difficult ways to achieve easy results. His cartoons were symbols of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results. He believed that there were only two ways to do things—the simple way and the hard way. Surprisingly there are a large number of people who prefer doing things the hard way. Go figure!

While most machines (including press brakes) work to make difficult tasks simple, Rube's inventions made simple tasks amazingly complex. Dozens of arms, wheels, gears, handles, cups, and rods were put in motion by balls, canary cages, pails, boots, bathtubs, paddles, and live animals for simple tasks like squeezing an orange or closing a window—absurdly designed machines functioning in extremely complex and roundabout ways to produce a simple end result. Because of this Rube Goldberg has become associated with any convoluted system of achieving a basic task.

Even today Rube-like devices are intriguing. Yet owners of high tech precision sheet metal shops caught up in a high-tech revolution are still seeking simplicity—hoping to add to the bottom line through the use of technology in their press brake operation. Some press brakes require so much data that remote storage is required just to maintain the program files and this just to input data when a simple press brake can be all that is needed for you operation.

What Works for You?

Which type of press brake and/or controller is best for you, I couldn't say. It's all about the product mix that you have in your facility and matching the physical attributes of the press brake—ram control, yah compensation or the type of hydraulic valuing available—to the type of the work to be preformed. Know what you need and don't let a sales rep distract you from the best, simplest means to achieve your goal.

Over-buying or under-buying functions, features, and controls when purchasing a new press brake can cost you money. There are many to choose from, far more than the two extremes that I just discussed here. Finding the right one or getting the wrong one may be where you will win or lose the game. Just how sophisticated do your press brake and/or controller need to be? Will your operators be like John Henry or work with Rube Goldberg?

Steve Benson

Steve Benson

2952 Doaks Ferry Road N.W.
Salem, OR 97301-4468
Phone: 503-399-7514
Fax: 503-399-7514
Steve Benson is a member and former chair of the Precision Sheet Metal Technology Council of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International®. He is the president of ASMA LLC, 2952 Doaks Ferry Road NW, Salem, OR 97301, Benson also conducts FMA’s Precision Press Brake Certificate Program, which is held at locations across the country. For more information, visit, or call 888-394-4362. For more information on bending, check out Benson’s new book, The Art of Press Brake: the Digital Handbook for Precision Sheet Metal Fabrication, © 2014, available at