Automating your press brake

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Shop Metalworking Technology Magazine speaks with Shane Simpson, TruBend product manager, North America, TRUMPF, Farmington, CT, about developments in press brake automation.

Shop Metalworking Technology: What fabricating shop conditions would justify the automation of press brakes?

Shane Simpson: Customers who have high runs in their production would benefit, but that doesn’t mean that automation doesn’t lend itself to shorter runs too. Today, because of offline programming, you can have automation for shorter runs down to about 50 parts. The key is not lot sizes, but how often you make the parts and the size of the part being processed. So it can come down to 10 parts per day if the customer is making those same ten parts consistently for long periods, which then still justifies the automation.

Another example of what justifies automating your press brakes is if you’re fabricating large parts that require a two-man operation. For example, if you’re bending a 200 lb part with two operators, and you’re dealing with a bulky part that is unsafe and is difficult to handle, automation lends itself to this type of situation.

SMT: What’s involved in automating a press brake? Does it entail acquiring new technologies to replace old press brakes or can automation be added-on to existing press brakes?

Shane Simpson: You can apply third party robotics to press brakes and that’s true for most of the higher end press brakes. The question is that when you have third party industrial robots, how is programming and integration handled? The reason TRUMPF came out with its own automation – we use to use third party robotics – was that it was cumbersome to program parts with the teaching pendant.  This only lent itself to long run lot sizes.  

However, with offline programming, which is becoming an industry-wide practice, customers realize its benefits because they can see collisions in a 3D mode, identifying problems before they occur. In the past, you needed to be at the machine with a teaching pendant, which means that the machine wasn’t running production of proven parts that have already been programmed or the current part you are trying to program because you have the laborious task of programming each part. With offline programming, a fabricator can program parts while the machine is already working, therefore, it is very efficient and user friendly. 

Although TRUMPF makes our own robotic automation we can still use a third party if the requirements happen to fall outside our specifications.

Shop MT: How does the cost of automated press brakes compare to manual press brakes?

Shane Simpson: A general rule of thumb is that the cost of automated press brakes is about twice the price of a manual press brake. That’s the general cost difference for TRUMPF, but this cost really depends on the number and type of options included. Some automated press brakes run only small parts because they can’t grip or handle the weight of larger parts, while other press brakes just run very large parts. TRUMPF has the flexibility to bend both thin to thick and small to large parts.

The overall idea of automation is to run unmanned or lights out, so if you’re using two operators on a machine and you automate, that’s a significant cost savings. The savings are also there even with just one operator. I’ve sold automation for many years and a good rule of thumb is if you automate any machine and don’t run it at least on a second shift, you will have a hard time justifying the purchase. If running three shifts, the return on investment for the equipment can be seen almost as quickly as with a standalone machine that does not have automation. 

Shop MT: Press brakes are offered in hydraulic, electric and hybrid models. Does this have an impact on automation?

Shane Simpson: From a speed perspective it does have an impact, but from most customers’ perspective they typically aren’t concerned about whether the press brake is hydraulic, hybrid, or electric. At the end of the day, customers want to know how fast the machine can produce a good quality part, whether it can form easy and complex parts, its user friendliness, and their ROI.

Shop MT: Is press brake automation technology modular and flexible to allow fabricators to slowly build up automation when required?

Shane Simpson: TRUMPF defines the term modular to mean that it is possible to purchase a piece of equipment today and add automation at a later date. However, our experience is that most customers who are going to automate a press brake will do it all at one time. Typically, they are buying the system for designated parts.  In terms of flexibility, this refers more to making the system work with different types of parts or connecting to a flexible automation system with storage and retrieval. This means material can be sent to the cutting machines for parts that can be cut, sorted and delivered to the bending cell to be formed without manual handling.  Typically, the laser and punch cells are stand-alone for cutting, or they are possibly connected to a material storage tower, but now we can fabricate the complete part with bending technology, using hands-free automation. An example is our TruBend 5000 with BendMaster, using an automatic controlled bending system that automatically validates angles to complete the quality process without manual intervention. On this type of system the laser or punch cuts the parts, and then sorts them on a pallet that is transferred into a storage tower. The parts are retrieved and brought into the BendMaster Cell, which knows where the part is on the pallet through integration of software to the cutting machines. CCD cameras capture the parts orientation and adjust the gripper to the proper location. The part is bent – without anyone ever touching it.

Shop MT: What new technologies are now available with automation and press brakes that would benefit a fabricator?

Shane Simpson: There are new technologies for making bending faster. It’s not just TRUMPF; all our competitors are doing the same, and more systems are moving to full automation, like our TruBend 5000.  Many customers are not aware of the level of automation that allows them to go directly from a punch or laser, to press brakes, automatically. They think it’s not possible, but it is and we put our first such system into a facility in North America a year and a half ago. These types of systems, of course, have to be qualified and justified on a per customer basis.

 Shop MT: How will press brake automation change in the coming years – what improvements or technology gaps are still left to address?

Shane Simpson: You’ll see faster robotic bending systems for very small parts and for large parts. We’re also going to see more flexible automation for customers with lower lot runs, because lot sizes are coming down; however, some customers still need automation to be competitive. You’ll also see changes with more automation in tool changers that offer more touch-less features and seamless, easy-to-use automation.


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