Press brakes: the quest for a happy ending
Manufacturers, users hope technology is the ticket
Screen some press brake owners and manufacturers these days, and it's like they're all reading from the same script:
Cast:Press brake manufacturers and users.
Plot:Our hero, Press Brake Professional, fights a life-and-death struggle with the forces of Foreign Competition and his nefarious gang of cohorts—Tiny Orders, Slow Economy, and Skilled Labor Shortage. With multiaxis brakes and advanced software, Press Brake Professional wages a desperate battle to save himself and the entire industry.
Subplots:Worldwide political uncertainty keeps buyers at bay; cost of high-tech equipment creates fresh market for budget machinery.
Reviewer's note:If this picture has a happy ending, it will be a shock to most of the cast, to say the least.
The China Syndrome
When the information technology boom went bust three years ago, the U.S. telecom industry bolted for the exits and didn't stop until it got to Beijing. Now the job shops that supported the telecom run-up are hurting even for bit parts—if they're around at all.
"When the IT bubble burst, it wiped out a big segment of the fabricators involved in that," said Nick Bach, product manager for Amada America's Bending Division. "Lots of those companies are flat-out gone. Most of that production has gone overseas—the word is China."
Skip Brown can verify that. His job shop, which serves the electronics industry and other markets, employed 76 people three years ago. That number is now 26.
"Everything went to China," said Brown, president of FTB & Son. "It's tough to beat 35 cents an hour, 25 cents an hour, whatever they're paying those people. Everyone wonders why the recession is hanging on so long; it's because we're not making anything. We've become a service country."
Market uncertainty, due in large part to tensions in Iraq, is the most universal problem facing the press brake market, and it has spawned all sorts of other challenges, according to Vance Hays, vice president of Standard Industrial Corp.
"I see a lot of activity, a lot of bidding going on," Hays said. "However, like us, the smaller companies are being challenged by the bigger companies, and the bigger companies are being challenged by overseas fabricators. We have been forced to stock many more machines than we used to. It was very common for us to have very few, if any, stock machines. Now, since 2001, we always have stock machines but have had a lot of success selling them."
Moving work overseas might be unpopular among workers, but times being what they are, OEMs are being forced to cut wherever they can to stay afloat. And that means exporting work to emerging economies.
"The [domestic] labor rates are as cheap as they are going to get without going to Mexico or China," said Casey Schlachter, national sales manager for press brakes at Mitsubishi subsidiary MC Machinery Systems Inc.
"This China thing has become a great concern in the industry. They work for 40 cents an hour! But since other costs accrue [in] getting products back to the U.S.A., it's not always perfect financially."
Today manufacturers are more apt to hear "Keanu Reeves" and "Academy Award" in the same sentence than "perfect" and "financially." Finding themselves cash-strapped because of sluggish sales, job shops' customers are proving ever more demanding as they try to keep above water as well. That has meant smaller and smaller lot sizes, a years-old trend that job shops simply have to live with if they want to stick around.
"When you're in the contract job market like we are, you're kind of the last guy; that's kind of how it works," said Brent Thorn, co-owner of JTV Mfg. Inc. "[Shrinking lot sizes] has been the general trend over the course of the last 10 years. As our customers tend to lower their inventories, they want to keep less capital tied up, so they're ordering on shorter lead-times and smaller inventories."
FTB's Brown couldn't agree more —and it's killing him.
"My business is 60 percent off what it was three or four years ago—nobody wants to buy anything," Brown lamented. "They want only five or six right now, but they want it at the volume price."
One glaring problem is that many fabricators are trying to compete on the world stage with old technology that requires too many skilled operators and too much setup time, said Lynn Moore, sales product manager for TRUMPF Inc.
"The continuing decline in the availability of skilled press brake operators is a major issue for fabricators," said David Bishop, business development manager of tooling manufacturer WILA USA. "The lack of interest that younger Americans have in developing a career in the metal fabrication industry has metal fabricators concerned about the future availability of skilled machine operators."
Some press brakes now incorporate intelligent software with touchscreen graphics to show operators how to set up tooling and form parts.
"A continuing issue for fabricators nearly everywhere is the difficulty in finding and retaining experienced operators," agreed Cincinnati Incorporated's Todd Kirchoff, product manager for the company's line of press brakes. "Experienced press brake operators are retiring. Trade schools and apprentice programs are rare. This has caused a growing shortage of skilled operators."
"Today we are seeing shorter production runs become increasingly common for press brake operators," said TRUMPF's Moore. "These shorter runs create more pressure on the operators to reduce setup times. At the same time, press brake operators are trying to increase part accuracy and are struggling to find skilled operators with the understanding and ability to quickly set up press brakes."
"We've introduced [press brakes] with intelligent software that makes up for operator skill level, educates on how to make parts, and speeds the learning curve," said Kirchoff. "Touchscreen graphics show the operator how to set up the tooling and form the part [see Figure 1]."
On lot sizes of 10 to 20 parts, setup time might be as long as actual production time, making setup time a huge issue, said Michael Zakrzewski, vice president of sheet metal processing systems for Bystronic.
"A lot of the productivity you get from a press brake is shorter setup time," Zakrzewski said. "Actual process time is not that great. It's not so much an issue when you're running 500 pieces, but it is when you're running one to 50 pieces."
"Fabricators are seeing a demand for increasingly smaller lot sizes, which is forcing them to change tooling in their press brakes more often," said Bishop. And this increase in tooling changeovers is driving the need for speed even further.
Flat out, press brake users are trying to get the most out of their equipment by going to CNC, quick-change tooling, and camber-compensation devices, said National Sales Manager Cary Marshall of E.G. Heller's Son.
"Press brakes are going to become faster and more accurate," Marshall said.
In addition to quick-change tooling, shops are looking for features such as hydraulic ram clamping. It's a good thing they are, said Accurpress America Marketing Manager Stuart Hodgson.
"Those are big issues in a lot of operations, and they should be, because they can [mean] big-time savings if they have a lot of tooling changeover," Hodgson said. "Ease of control and operation are still extremely important."
"[There is a] focus on developing versatile tooling configurations that reduce the total number of tools required to produce the majority of the parts that are processed by sheet metal fabricators," said WILA's Bishop.
"[Tooling systems should] enable the press brake operator to change tooling in a fraction of the time that was previously required, allowing both the press brake and the operator to spend more time producing parts."
As shops operate under that constant demand for speed, they are looking for technology that helps them to reduce production costs, Amada's Bach said. These are machines with quick tool changeover, but also offline programming that allows operators or engineers to use press brakes as bending machines rather than programming tools, he explained.
"It primarily boils down to setup," Bach said. "What can I do to shorten setup time, not only on new jobs but repeat work?"
To keep step, Amada continues to push its offline programming and data-sharing capabilities, two features that make part information available to various machines at the same time and even give operators freedom to change fabrication specs on-the-fly, if necessary.
"Now, if it's done once by one operator, any operator can have access," Bach said. "That seems to be the trend in the industry."
And instead of operators standing at the machine—which they still can choose to do with modern equipment—offline programming soon will be done by part developers who can model a part in the virtual world without prototyping it in metal, Strippit/LVD Corp. Marketing Manager Larry Peake said.
"People are recognizing the value of that tool, if you will, of doing offline programming," Peake said. "You prejudge the part before it even hits the shop floor."
The eternal quest for faster production has led many shops to purchase laser machines the past few years. However, laser speed has pushed other shop processes to keep up, said Thomas Wessel, director of sales for UMV (formerly Pullmax).
"To some extent, the secondary processes have been a little bit overlooked, because the buzz word has been 'laser, laser, laser,'" Wessel said. "They're gradually finding out the laser is a fantastic tool. All of a sudden they're making more complex parts and more complex shapes. It's created quite a bottleneck in the ending area. They don't have the capabilities that match the laser technology, so they're looking for ways to improve the bending."
To accommodate that, UMV is throwing much of its effort into reducing setup times and enabling fabricators to make the first piece of a production run accurately—enhancing ergonomics to make tool changes easier and stressing programmable dies that help to keep tool changes to a minimum.
In the next year more and more companies are going to have to update their machinery just to stay alive, according to TRUMPF's Moore.
"Job shops are increasingly competing on a world market level and are going to have to upgrade their technology to stay competitive and productive, further reduce setup times, increase part accuracy, and eliminate material scrap," Moore said. "We're seeing more and more companies looking to integrate offline software to achieve these goals."
Using automation and robots with press brakes is one way manufacturers are trying to overcome manufacturing problems.
"The trend in technology is very clearly leaning toward higher-end, more sophisticated press brakes, controls, and tooling systems. With the number of parts in the average job continuing to decline, combined with the introduction of high-efficiency laser machines that can be programmed and made ready to run in minutes, driving the supply of parts to the press brake, end users that do not invest in more efficient technology and improve their productivity will struggle to survive," agreed Bishop. "This will be the case even in areas with low labor costs as the cost of non-value-added time will be too great to bear when fabricators are pitted against more efficient competitors."
Ah, yes, accuracy—shops forget this at their peril, even when speed is king.
"The machine needs to be pretty accurate," said Patrick Canning, vice president of sales and marketing for Finn-Power Intl. "Accuracy is becoming part of that bid procedure. In terms of the tolerances they're requiring you to meet, they're much tighter."
Canning said that Finn-Power is focusing on robotic material handling and other automation for brakes for many reasons, including repeatability, productivity, safety, and fabricators' need to do more in the same amount of manufacturing space (see Figure 2).
Another traditional obstacle is deflection, which Bystronic believes it has dealt a death blow to with its three-point bending system (see Figure 3), which can nearly eliminate deflection and produce uniform straightness across an entire bending line, Zakrzewski said.
Peake noted that Strippit/LVD also has looked to automation for answers to the productivity challenge."[A fabricator] has to produce a quality product; therefore, he needs a precision piece of equipment," Peake said. "He needs to be able to produce smaller batch lots, and therefore the ability to set a machine up quickly is very important."
Many press brake manufacturers are working to overcome common obstacles, such as deflection, with new bending methods.
One way that new operating software is helping to reduce setup time and increase accuracy is making user interfaces easier to use than a cable movie guide.
Software available from several different vendors not only tells operators what tooling to pull for a certain job but shows a 3-D rendering of the part on-screen, plus the bending sequence. Such software is designed to eliminate the need for expert operators—which is a good thing, because they're more difficult to find right now than a ticket to the Oscars®.
"[Press brake operation] is a labor-intensive process; it does require a certain amount of skill," Peake said. "That skill comes in two ways: It requires the operator to know how to set up the machinery, and it requires the operator to understand the process of bending—if it's a part with six or eight bends in it, which to do first or second. It may take an inexperienced operator hours to figure that out. People are requiring a control system on the press brake that figures that out."
Such control systems usually cost more, and the future doesn't necessarily belong to the highest-tech machinery, some would contend. For those customers who are looking for a simpler solution to their challenges, companies such as Piranha are auditioning more Spartan equipment.
"While some customers are seeking more automation and sophistication, a large portion of the market still seeks basic machine solutions to their fabrication requirements," said John Doswell, Piranha vice president and general manager. "Customers demand that the machine solutions be worker-friendly when it comes to the amount of training or retraining required to operate the equipment. OEMs that ignore this mandate may well 'out-tech' their customers' workers."
Cries for budget machinery have reached all over the vendor world:
- "There are still a lot of people who do not want a sophisticated machine," Strippit's Peake said.
- "In response to customer interest in a basic, standard press brake that also offers additional productivity and automation, we just introduced a Special Edition C series CNC press brake," TRUMPF's Moore said.
- "We've been doing surveys of customers for new products; [they're saying] give me a lower-cost machine that's simple to program and operate �," Amada's Bach said.
MC Machinery Systems' Schlachter said his company sees no need to go the cheap route, though, because customers need certain features to keep operation simple, fast, and accurate.
"We have taken the bottom-line approach that we are going to sell the best multiaxis machines possible with as many features that will decrease the time the operator has to spend to get the jobs done," Schlachter said.
"Multiaxis, but very simple data input and corrections—no special apprenticeships or training required. With extreme accuracy and simple controls come fast setup and high reliability of accuracy."
"We have invested a considerable amount of money in developing new heat-treating technologies that allow tooling to last considerably longer and retain its accuracy longer at no additional cost to the end user," said Bishop.
"This provides additional value and enables the end user to produce more finished parts with lower tooling costs."
Sadly, wherever the press brake market heads, the contract press brake shop is likely to go the way of another once-thriving profession, FTB & Son's Brown prophesied.
"Everything's changing," Brown said. "A lot of us are like the village blacksmith. How many village blacksmiths do you see today? That's kind of where we're headed."The FABRICATOR acknowledges the following sources used in preparing this story:
Accurpress America Inc., 318 Mount Rushmore Road, Rapid City, SD 57701, 605-718-2550, www.accurpress.com.
Amada America Inc., 7025 Firestone Blvd., Buena Park, CA 90621-1895, 714-739-2111, www.amada.com.
Bystronic Inc., 185 Commerce Drive, Hauppauge, NY 11788, 631-231-1212, www.bystronic.com.
Cincinnati Incorporated, Box 11111, Cincinnati, OH 45211-0111, 513-367-7100, www.e-ci.com.
E.G. Heller's Son Inc., 18330 Oxnard St., Tarzana, CA 91356, 818-881-0900, www.hellerson.com.
Finn-Power Intl., 710 Remington Road, Schaumburg, IL 60173, 847-885-3200, www.finnpower.com.
FTB & Son Inc., 11551 Markon Drive, Dept. TR, Garden Grove, CA 92841, 714-891-8003, www.ftbson.com.
JTV Mfg. Inc., 407 S. Beech St., Sutherland, IA 51058, 888-695-3636.
MC Machinery Systems Inc., 1500 N. Michael Drive, Wood Dale, IL 60191, 630-616-2970, www.mitsubishi-world.com.
Piranha, 3310 E. 4th Ave., Hutchinson, KS 67501, 800-338-5471, www.piranhafab.com.
Standard Industrial Corp., 1115 Highway 49 South, Clarksdale, MS 38614, 662-624-2436, www.standard-industrial.com.
Strippit/LVD Corp., 12975 Clarence Center Road, Akron, NY 14001, 716-542-4511, www.strippit.com.
TRUMPF Inc., Farmington Industrial Park, 111 Hyde Road, Farmington, CT 06032, 860-255-6000, www.us.trumpf.com.
UMV Inc., 1201 Lunt Ave., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007, 847-228-5600, www.umvinc.com.
WILA USA, 9135 Guilford Road, Columbia, MD 21047, 888-696-9452, www.wilausa.com.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.