Folding technology opens doors for stainless steel appliance fabricator
The H.L. Lyons Co., Louisville, Ky., began 40 years ago as an X-ray equipment company in the basement of Keith and Livingston Lyons parents' house. It later became a general metal fabricating business.
"When I went to college in '72, there was a press brake in my basement and a shear in my parents' garage," owner Keith Lyons said. "We used to spray paint parts on sawhorses in the back yard."
The company now fabricates 20,000 stainless steel refrigerator doors every week for well-known companies such as Whirlpool and General Electric and employs more than 300 people. It also manufactures stainless panels for icemakers, dishwashers, disposals, ovens, compactors, wine coolers, and ice dispensers, as well as cashier station cabinets for the retail industry.
Lyons credits the dynamic expansion of his business largely to the company's use of folding technology, which he said enabled him to meet the production and quality demands of his growing customer needs.
In 1998 the company made its first stainless steel refrigerator for GE. "They [GE] had seen a stainless steel model used in a European tradeshow. They said, 'That could be big in the United States.' They wanted to come up with a stainless model, but they didn't want to invest in tooling for an entire stainless refrigerator, so the best idea was to 'skin one,'" Lyons said. So the original sides, top, and doors of the existing black refrigerator were covered with stainless steel skins.
"And they said, 'Well, that's pretty cool. We might sell 20 or 30 a month, maybe,'" Lyons said. "That model--we do about 600 a month. Then they said, "Well, that's really a great thing; let's offer a stainless door option on every refrigerator we make.'"
Challenges With First Attempts
When the company first fabricated the long, wide panels, it used press brakes to form the bends.
"If you try to make a small flange on a large panel using a press brake, it's usually going to take two or three people to support it. Let's say you take a piece of sheet metal, and you want to put a 1-inch bend down the length of both ends. On a press brake, you would hold the major portion of it out in front of the machine. All you could do is bend off the very small flange.
"Also, the panel is going to rise up on either side, so how well it turns out depends on how well the operator follows the material up, or how well he supports it," Lyons said. "If he doesn't follow it up fast enough, we're going to have what is called back-bending; it'll show a really bad tooling mark right in the form area," he said. "The operator would be worn out by the end of the day."
According to Lyons, controlling the width of the doors is critical. "If you're using a press brake, you're only forming from the outside, so you have no control over the width."
Other challenges the company experienced were with the properties of the material itself-light--gauge (20- to 22-gauge), polished stainless steel.
"Stainless is extremely fragile," Lyons said. "If you scratch a panel, it's scrap—there's no fixing it. If you try to buff out a scratch, it looks worse than the scratch."
After the panel is formed, it has to be welded and polished.
"You're talking about 22-ga., which is less than 0.030 in. thick. You've got to have an incredibly tight corner. When you weld that corner up, if there's any gapping at all, you'll just blow it away--there's not enough metal," he said. "You have to be pretty talented to weld it too.
"You hear about shimming or autocrowning?" he asked. "A press brake's force comes from only two ends, so with a large sheet, you have deflection. There is no deflection or shimming with a folder."
In addition, Lyons said that it was time-consuming to change press brake tooling for each gauge change between shorter runs.
"Four years ago the quantity demands got insane. I came to the conclusion that we just had to find some other way, because the scrap rate was just going crazy," Lyons said.
"If the volumes had stayed rational, we probably could have kept up with press brakes and the existing setup. But when you go from a demand of 120 a month to 12,000 a week, that's a significant increase.
"I'd seen folders at IMTS and FABTECH®, but I'd never really thought much about them." Lyons said he explored the use of folding technology by sending material to the folding equipment manufacturers and watching them run it on their machines. "I thought, 'This is good, this is smart.'
"We got one folder in and said, 'Look how great this is. Let's get another one.'
"Every time we bought one, we could see a significant increase in our production and our quality," Lyons said. The company now has 13 RAS Systems folding machines.
"In large corporations, they do a lot of financial justifications to purchase capital equipment. I've seen them, and most of them are pretty bogus," Lyons said.
"I bought the machines to keep up with customer demands," he said. "You don't shut down a refrigerator assembly line. Customers don't let you do that more than about once. We were in a 'We need it now' state."
Compared to press brakes, machine to machine, the cost is about the same, Lyons said. "The savings are in your tooling and setup. In folders, the tooling is almost universal. With press brakes, you're buying tooling for every gauge and for a lot of different kinds of bends."
Folding Forms Solution
"The thing is, not only does the folding machine support the material, it supports it through the whole cycle, so you've taken out any kind of dependency on whether the operator has the ability to follow up the material, like you do on a press brake," he said.
In addition, some of the wear and tear on the operator is reduced, and he now can operate the machine without additional operators to help hold the material.
The folding technology also helped resolve challenges with measuring and gauging a large sheet. "Having this part supported by the type of sheet support and gauging system the folder has, you're gauging the overall width of the part, not just the flange [seeFigure 1].
"The folder supports the whole blank, and you gauge off the very back of it, so the only thing that is exposed out the front of the machine is the flange to be folded. It folds it, then you spin it around, and you gauge off the width of the part, so you're not gauging off the two edges.
"It doesn't matter if your blanks vary at all; you can always control your width very accurately," he said.
Lyons said that most of the doors have large, 1- or 2-in.-radius corners. "The folder has a folding beam that can actually follow that radius up. The folding beam and the lower clamping beam can be adjusted so that the pivot point is at the center of the radius for a consistent radius to the finished part. With a press brake, the only thing I can think of is you can drive a large round-nose into some neoprene to form a radius."
Lyons said folders are ideal for working with stainless steel. "What's really cool is that the folding beam will actually retract on the downward stroke, so it can't slide back against the stainless and scratch it."
The folding machines allow for accurate control of the polishing and welding steps, too, he said.
"With one folder, you can control the forming of the corners accurately (see Figure 2). We consistently get corners that we can weld easily."
The folding machine has built-in tooling for material from 28 ga. to 14 in. thick. It adjusts to changes in material thickness automatically. "Setups are next to nothing," Lyons said. "Every man here can set up any machine, take it apart, and master the tooling."
Lyons concedes that, despite the advantages of folding technology for his applications, there are some drawbacks. "There are things that press brakes do that folders can't."
He added that the company has made some of its own custom tooling for the folders to expedite the process. "In my kind of business, long-term is probably Monday afternoon right now--short-term is this afternoon."
Lyons said he has about as many press brakes as folding machines.
"If I could have only one machine, I'd have to have a press brake, but it probably would be impossible to make these large stainless steel panels on anything else but folders."
Not Yet Done Growing
H.L. Lyons continues to grow as customer demands grow. "It's dishwashers that are really killing me right now," Lyons said.
Lyons said that he has only one regret, and it has nothing to do with his purchasing decisions: He regrets that his father wasn't able to witness the company's monumental success.
"We lost my father four years ago, and that's about when all of our growth began. It would have been real fun for him to have been here and been part of it."
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.