February 15, 2013
A tube bending shop with roots that go back to the Gemini and Apollo missions looks far different today than it did eight years ago.
A small Southern California tube shop has roots going back to the Gemini and Apollo days, when technicians manually bent small tubes designed for astronaut life support backpacks. The shop’s tube bending technicians in the 1950s and 1960s played a critical role. If those tubes didn’t function properly, Neil Armstrong wouldn’t have survived on the moon.
Of course, back then the job shop was part of an entirely different and larger organization that offered various facets of metal manufacturing, including sheet metal fabrication, machining, and casting. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, the shop’s previous owner began his gradual exit from the business. He sold off most divisions to other companies but kept the tube bending operation.
A little more than two decades ago the owner moved the tube business—Tube Bending Inc. (TBI)—from Santa Fe Springs, in the Los Angeles metro area, to Apple Valley, a small community north of San Bernardino. When Bryan Christoffersen expressed interest in buying the business in 2005, the shop employed just four people.
Christoffersen spent years as an engineer at another firm that made refrigeration equipment for semiconductor production, which happened to use TBI as a principal tube bending provider. The previous owner wanted to retire, and seeing an opportunity, Christoffersen bought the business.
TBI specializes in small-diameter tube bending. Using all-electric and hydraulic rotary draw machines, as well as an orbital bending machine for making coil, the shop forms tube between 0.062 and 2 inches in diameter. “Our mainstay is 0.25 to 1.5 inch,” Christoffersen said, adding that stainless and aluminum make up the bulk of TBI’s work, though the shop does bend plenty of INCONEL® alloy and other metals common in aerospace and defense.
On the surface, the business looks far different today than it did only eight years ago. The shop employs a dozen people and recently underwent a building expansion for a total of 10,000 square feet, doubling available floor space. The company broadened its in-house capabilities to include helium-leak detection, and purchased a CNC vertical machining center, complementing TBI’s conventional milling and turning capabilities.
The company now machines 70 percent of its tooling in-house, and it can create some complex tools, such as those needed for compound bending or tangent-to-tangent bends that require special inserts, because the tube lacks a straight section between bends. They regularly tackle projects that require technicians to bend tube at a radius that’s one times its diameter.
TBI also employs a 3-D tube inspection system. To operate the coordinate measuring machine, a technician places an inspection arm in certain areas above the material surface. The system takes this information and gives a mathematical comparison between the product and the computer model.
When Christoffersen walked onto the shop floor in 2005, he found an environment full of blueprints and board drawings—no computer-aided design. Some communicated with TBI via e-mail, but many still used a fax machine. Some sent engineering drawings by U.S. mail.
When Christoffersen took over, he found customer drawings that the shop had been using for decades. “For certain customers, we were making the same parts we made for them 30 years ago. We have blueprints that were drawn before I was born,” he said.
The engineer turned tube shop entrepreneur didn’t tell the typical “that was then, this is now” story. He didn’t walk into the business with a formal intention to modernize things. After all, the shop had been responsive for decades. The company had longtime, happy customers. The blueprints may have been old, but that didn’t mean they weren’t good anymore.
The new owner chose to adopt 3-D CAD “because that was the way I knew how to do it,” he said. “I can’t say there was a strategic plan to migrate to modern technology. It was a gradual transition. We wanted to grow the business, and we wanted to keep existing customers happy.”
So how does the shop compare with its pre-2005 state? Is it like night and day, considering all the new technology? When answering, Christoffersen was circumspect. Modern technology has allowed the shop to grow and thrive. Its inspection technology and quality certifications, such as AS9100, have opened doors to new customers. Still, then as now, good people really make the difference.
The old way of drawing by hand and operating manual equipment had worked for decades. It had helped bend tubular components that kept astronauts alive on the moon. Call it old-school, but that school was pretty good.
Images provided by Tube Bending Inc., 13356 Manhasset Road, Apple Valley, CA 92308, 760-948-4220, www.tubebendinginc.com.
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