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The problem
Managing customer demand for small lots

The solution
High-tech press brake meets niche market needs

Quebec aluminum fabricator brings press brake work in-house for better process control over small lot part bending

by Jim Barnes

Like many smaller manufacturers in Canada, SKL Aluminium of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, QC, focuses on a niche market. The firm designs and manufactures a range of cooling products made from aluminum for the off-road equipment industry. The lots are often very small—sometimes just one piece, for a repair job—and customer timelines are usually very tight. To make matters worse, finding the right skilled tradespeople can often be difficult. 

The answer to these challenges was fabricating automation in the form of a sophisticated, CNC press brake.

SKL is located in an area of Quebec known as the Aluminum Valley. The organizations and research centres located in the region have considerable expertise to offer in working with aluminum. In fact, SKL’s founder and managing director, Ghislain Larouche, has 40 years of experience in the industry. Maintaining the firm’s strong reputation for quality and deliveries is a primary objective that Larouche meets by emphasizing innovation and hiring highly skilled professionals for his team. He currently has 24 employees working in two buildings at his site.

Cool products
Few of his competitors in the cooling equipment business have much enthusiasm for the smaller orders often made by specialized equipment manufacturers, notes Larouche. It was a gap in the market that he was convinced he could fill effectively. There was also a demand for information on cooling systems from these same firms. “They face ongoing issues in meeting environmental requirements and in equipment design,” says Larouche. The expertise in design and manufacturing that SKL is able to bring to the table is important to them.

SKL designs and builds heat exchangers of all types, sizes and capacities to cool water, oil or air. The applications include a wide range of equipment, such as transport vehicles, construction, mining, agricultural and forestry equipment, engines, generators, airport equipment, industrial machinery and a large number of other products.

The company is certified to ISO 9001-2000 and bases its production process on the principles of the
Toyota Way.

Design is a core strength. An array of CAD/CAM and CAE tools are applied at the design stage, with products finalized on a 3D parametric CAD platform. The data then goes to the shop’s CNC cutting and bending machinery. After that, products go on to surface treatment and painting. The firm offers particular expertise in BAM (brazed aluminum micro channel) technology.

The lot sizes can range all the way down to one or two. SKL supplies replacement cooling systems as well, matching the specifications of original parts, quickly and efficiently.

Smart fabricating
Flexibility is a must in this type of work. The firm works very closely with a range of clients on a variety of discrete products and must synchronize its production with client production schedules rigorously.

Previously, SKL had subcontracted out most of the cutting and the press brake work. The impact on the firm’s schedules was a concern for Larouche, though. He was uncomfortable depending on other shops to meet his own production deadlines. “It was taking more time to subcontract the work, and they were not fully in control of the quality,” notes Patrick Michaud, engineer, LVD Strippit. As well, “there were too many backwards-and-forwards issues regarding parts.”

Larouche decided to bring laser cutting and the press brake work in-house. The acquisition of the press brake and an Orion hybrid laser cutting system brought SKL into its comfort zone.

Application needs
Larouche selected LVD Strippit’s Easy-Form 320/40 servo-controlled press brake in part because of the level of automation it offered. Like many manufacturers, SKL had difficulty recruiting all the skilled trades it needed. The Easy-Form technology meant that the press brake could produce high quality parts without the presence of a veteran hand.

Part accuracies were critical. The next step after bending is usually welding, and welding aluminum can be a tricky undertaking. Larouche wanted the parts coming off the brake to be perfect, to avoid any complications later in the welding process.

Larouche says that the implementation was pretty straightforward. “It took about two months for the company to get up to speed with the equipment.” 

LVD Strippit provided training and support throughout that process.

SKL was able to keep its staff requirements under control, too. It had to bring in a draftsman to input parts designs into the control. In addition, of course, it needed an operator to work on the machine.

Larouche was pleasantly surprised by how easy the machine was to use. He says he was also impressed with the machine’s low maintenance and little support requirements. “It’s a reliable machine,” he says.

Getting all the variables in his manufacturing process under control was a relief for Larouche. “When you work for customers like ours, the job has to be on time. You can’t afford to be waiting for somebody else.”

The Equipment
The press brake SKL selected was LVD Strippit’s Easy-Form 320/40 servo-controlled press brake. This machine incorporates the firm’s most advanced multi-axis press brake technology and uses the Easy-Form laser adaptive bending system to measure angles. 

The adaptive laser system uses a laser to monitor the bend angle in real time during the bending process to maintain accuracy. Symmetrical measurement at the front and back of the die determines the exact value of the angle of the workpiece, according to LVD Strippit. Straight lines composed of multiple light points are projected onto the workpiece and the vertical part of the die, and the system performs a measurement calculation every 20 milliseconds. That data is transmitted in real time to the CNC control, which recalculates the depth adjustment to obtain the correct angle. There is no interruption to the bending process and as a result no production time is lost. The system does not require calibration after each set-up, and intervention by the operator is minimalSMT

Jim Barnes is a Toronto-based journalist with more than 30 years of experience in writing about manufacturing technology.

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