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Three roll formers discuss changes in a demanding market

by Kip Hanson

Quick Change is the Name of the Game
Mechanically, roll forming hasn’t changed much over the years.

What were once hand-cranked machines making simple architectural shapes have since evolved into high-speed monsters capable of ripping out over five miles per hour of complex and precision products. Despite this, the basic process remains the same: it’s still just a bunch of rollers bending metal. What’s different, says George Dobrev, is all the stuff you can do while that bending takes place. “Roll forming has seen considerable advancement in the past two decades.” 

He should know. Twenty-two years ago, Dobrev left his hometown of Sophia, Bulgaria, with a degree in industrial engineering. He moved to Canada and has been in the roll forming business ever since. His company, Roll Forming Services, Markham, ON, is the Toys R Us of roll forming, offering new equipment, tooling and software, coilers and consulting. “You name it. We do practically everything.”

Dobrev says while the roll forming industry is sophisticated, it remains a practical business at heart. “It’s basically about adding value.” This means shops today do a lot more than transforming metal into new shapes. In fact, the whole system of modern roll forming is focused on combining as many operations as possible into one continuous process. 

This requires incorporating what were once secondary operations into the roll forming process itself. Roll Forming Services supports this endeavour through system integration, connecting auxiliary equipment to standard roll forming lines to create custom solutions. Inline piercing, punching, and even welding operations are now routine. “That’s the real advancement,” Dobrev says. “It’s increasingly feasible to go from coil to finished product in one step.”

Another advancement is drive technology. Conventional DC motors are in many cases being replaced by AC servomotors, providing far greater control and precision. As Dobrev explains, this closes the loop on positioning, eliminating errors. “With conventional motors, you have to assume that when you tell the machine to move an axis, it does it. You don’t really know. But with servo technology, the motors always know exactly where they are. This means that, where you once held cutoff lengths to +/- 1/8 in., now you can hold +/- .010 in. It’s a big change in the overall process.”

Quick-change tooling is also making a big impact. The pressure for lower volumes and quicker turnaround forces manufacturers to reduce setup time. “Everybody is cutting inventory, which means quick change is the name of the game.” Dobrev says many quick-change equipped shops are seeing changeover times as low as a few minutes, allowing job shops especially to be flexible to customer demands. “If you’re an automotive manufacturer making car bumpers, for example, you might setup once every couple of years. You’re running millions of feet in a production order. But job shops run a wide range of products for a variety of customers. Many of them changeover four, five times a day. In this situation, you’ve got to have quick change.”

It’s this variety of low and high volume, as well as product mix, that makes the roll forming industry relatively recession proof. Look around you—roll formed parts are everywhere, from microwave ovens and refrigerators to aluminum siding and solar energy components. “Practically any industry that uses metals is our client,” says Dobrev. “It’s never the case when all the industries are down. When one goes soft, the others take up the slack. Roll forming meets in the middle. We’re always standing at the gate, ready to roll.”

Roll Forming Services


Tried and True Technology is Key
This Mississauga job shop makes the most out of tried and true roll forming technology

“We’re not flashy,” says Kevin Brewer, sales manager at Nu-Tech Roll Forming Inc., referring to the equipment his company uses. While Nu-Tech doesn’t shy away from anything their customers ask for, neither do they find the need to be cutting edge. “We’re using technology that’s 15-20 years old, nothing super high-tech in the scheme of things. But if you need a part, custom or otherwise, we’re your guys.”

That’s not to say these guys are the Flintstones. Brewer says they updated much of their equipment through the nineties, and have made improvements where necessary since then, adding programmable pre-pierce presses, notching and better cutoff capabilities. And if they can’t drop a part complete off the roll form, they’ll take it over to one of the spot welders or stamping presses for a secondary operation. “We’re not about sex appeal. We focus instead on using our equipment efficiently to produce quality parts in a fast and cost effective manner, then package that with superior customer service. It’s a formula that has allowed us to be very successful.”

Nu-Tech produces standard U’s, C’s, door tracks and slats as well as a variety of custom shapes, but one thing that helps it to be competitive is its catalogue of standard products. Brewer points to tooling that, with a few small adjustments, can go from making 0.020 in. thick 1 in. x 1 in. angle to 1/8 in. thick 5 in. x 5 in. L-shapes. “That’s the kind of stuff many roll formers can pull off, but we aim to do it more efficiently.” As a result, Nu-Tech can entertain production runs as low as 5000 feet, without the need for high-tech tooling or machinery. Brewer laughs, “But we always prefer larger orders.”

Brewer sees a lot of shops. He admits that much of the technology out there is amazing. “You pick up a magazine and some of the stuff will really wow you. There are high-tech packaging lines and cutoff systems that cost millions of dollars. But then you realize that most of the people out there are just trying to grind away and do what’s right. To me, it’s less about showmanship or super-technology and more about the nitty-gritty of making a quality part at a competitive price. This is what we do.”

Nu-Tech Roll Forming Inc.


Riding the Sweet Spot
Achieving success with a mix of high-tech, no-tech, and plain old customer service

president Robert White explains that Dahlstrom Roll Form Inc., Jamestown, NY, has machines that went into production shortly before the Korean War and have been rolling product ever since, while across the shop are high-tech production lines that do everything but load the truck. “Our parent company, Dahlstrom Metallic Door, held the original patent for the first fire-rated steel door. The company has since changed hands, but we still have some of the gear-driven equipment used to make the architectural forms that framed and decorated those early doors.”

This segment of the business is now but a small fraction of what Dahlstrom does. Its evolved into a state of the art manufacturing facility, offering dock to stock supply chain solutions for many of its customers. Where others say “good enough,” Dahlstrom embraces high-tech equipment to produce small production runs and short lead times, all while keeping a handle on the bottom line. “Some of our roll machines are equipped with hydraulic flying punch capability, and pretty sophisticated programmable tooling. We can roll form everything from simple Z’s and angles on the older equipment to high-precision pre-punch and post-punch parts on the newer lines.”

Dahlstrom doesn’t just make parts. It manages the entire supply chain, from analyzing market trends on raw materials to Kanban replenishment of finished goods. Dahlstrom goes so far as to visit the customer’s facility and help design how the parts are stored, what packaging is used, and establish metrics for consumption. “We replenish based on real-time feedback from the customer, moving parts directly to their point of use. We might have to ramp up with additional containers during the busy season, or carry extra stocks to cover spikes. And we stay close to the market, avoiding risk for us as well as the customer.”

This kind of handholding isn’t cheap. Unless you have a good ERP system with a rock-solid forecasting engine, managing a supply chain from cradle to grave takes a lot of effort. To White, it’s a cost of doing business. “We’ve built this into our cost structure. Managing the inventory for our customers is the right way to protect them. As a result, we win business others don’t.” 

This isn’t some high-volume automotive supplier. Dahlstrom is a job shop, making parts in what White calls low to medium volumes. And while it does maintain long-term agreements with much of its customer base, the shop is willing to accept orders off the street. “Send us a PO for a couple thousand pieces and we can usually turn it around in a few weeks,” says White, who points to a Lean setup time reduction approach as a large part of this flexibility. 

White says the days of huge production runs are gone. Setup time is now one of the key drivers to success. Where many shops look to expensive quick-change tooling for speedy changeovers, Dahlstrom takes a pit crew approach, sending multiple people to the machine when the light turns red. “If you’re using a single operator, you might take upwards of 8-10 hours to setup a machine. What we’ve perfected over the last five years is a series of well-organized, parallel activities.” By analyzing the different components of machine changeover, they can “blitz” the machine with a setup team, cutting machine downtime to a fraction of what it once was.

This team mobilization happens several times each week per roll forming line, and sometimes daily. Despite this, White says, it’s worth it, pointing to one huge benefit: knowledge sharing. Many shops live and die by the skill of their setup people. By collaborating on setup activities, Dahlgren brings less experienced operators up to speed more quickly, reducing the risk of brain-drain when their best setup guy decides to take another job down the street. “The man-hours we spend on this are significant, but the human approach is still far less expensive than tooling up for quick-change. It’s also the right thing to do.”SMT

Dahlstrom Roll Form Inc.

Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]

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