Brad Kuvin Brad Kuvin
Editorial Director

Press Brake Efficiency

January 19, 2024

Once upon a time in the world of sheet metal fabrication, OEMs with captive, inhouse fabrication departments, promising to deliver shortened lead times to customers, would build up inventory of common product sizes and styles and ship from inventory. Today, ship from inventory no longer works for most OEMs. Forces at work include product customization, small order quantities and short lead times, often requiring that manufacturers seek continuous efficiency improvement from their fabrication processes.

Richards Wilcox Fabricated ShelvesSuch is the case at Richards-Wilcox, Inc., a 143-yr.-old privately owned manufacturing company headquartered in Aurora, IL. While the firm still works from its original location, its 365,000-sq.-ft. plant looks nothing like it once did. Likewise, its operating procedures have evolved dramatically over the years, as it grapples with tight delivery deadlines in the face of dwindling order volumes causing frequent changeovers.

Serving Three Masters

Richards-Wilcox—which operates three different branded businesses—has transitioned from primarily a supplier of high-volume stock products shipped from inventory into a supplier of large, custom, project-based products. The three business units under one roof: Richards-Wilcox Hardware (the original company brand, founded as a manufacturer of hardware for sliding doors); Richards-Wilcox Overhead Conveyor (which grew out of the hardware company when the firm invented and patented enclosed box-track door hardware and evolved the design for use in conveyors); and Aurora Storage Products (a portfolio of shelving and cabinet products used in variety of applications including museum-grade cabinets, mobile shelving and pallet racking). 

“We operate a fully stocked sheet metal fabrication area in the plant common to all three product lines,” explains company president Bob McMurtry. He describes for MetalForming the firm’s network of work centers providing laser cutting, press brake forming, manual and automated/robotic arc and resistance welding, and assembly, as well as the firm’s inhouse electrostatic powder-coat line.  

Richards Wilcox LVD ToolCell“The fabrication process starts with blanking, either in dedicated stamping dies from coil stock slit to width, or we laser-blank with a 4.5-kW fiber-laser cutting machine,” he says. “We also can blank in our laser-turret punch combination machine, depending on blank complexity.”

The fabrication department, representing the heart of the business transformation at Richards-Wilcox, cuts, forms and assembles parts primarily from mild steel as thin as 24 gauge, while also working with structural-steel grades to ½ in. thick. From blanking, parts move to forming—roll forming, panel bending and press brake, the subject of our discussion with McMurtry. He emphasizes the changing dynamics of the press brake department, home to 10 press brake production cells from 50- to 275-ton capacity. 

Labor-Intensive Press Brake Operations

“The press brake department,” says McMurtry, “always a labor-intensive area, has become even more-so in recent years, in the face of frequent changeovers driven by a surge in project-based custom work.  Recent continuous-improvement (CI) efforts have us focused on optimizing productivity in this department, having realized that we spend 10 percent or more of our total labor in sheet metal fabrication on setup time. So, setup-time reduction has been job one.”

LVD ToolCell Tool Stadium Richards WIlcoxA pivotal player in Richards-Wilcox’s efficiency playbook, and its latest CI project: the addition, in July 2020, of a fully equipped hydraulic press brake (135-ton capacity, 12-ft. bed) with integrated automatic tool changer—a ToolCell from LVD Group. The machine’s six-axis modular backgauge features integrated grippers that load and unload tools from an on-board “tooling stadium” that stores two complete lengths of punches and five complete lengths of dies. Quick-acting hydraulic clamping with hardened inserts also helps to minimize changeover times, all setting the stage for a transformative journey towards a more automated and efficient forming operation.

“Quicker changeovers between jobs—as much as 50 percent quicker with the ToolCell—has that machine running at more than 90-percent uptime. That’s a dramatic improvement from our conventional press brakes that operate at 55 to 60 percent overall equipment effectiveness,” McMurtry shares. “That’s a tremendous accomplishment, as the part runs the ToolCell processes are very short—five to 50 parts. Some 80 percent of our work orders on the floor are fewer than 100 parts.”

Programming Ease

In addition to automating the tool-change process, production efficiency at the new press brake comes from the use of on-screen intuitive graphical icons to assist operators with parameter control, and offline programming via LVD’s Cadman-B bending software.  

“We’ve programmed thousands of parts on the machine,” McMurtry says, “using a variety of tools, including LVD’s tall, higher-flange tools.” In addition, per LVD, the ToolCell features an extendable open height of 22.4 to 26.4 in., and extendable stroke from 11.8 to 15.7 in.

“The taller flange tools,” McMurtry says, “prove useful for bending drawers, which are 3 to 12 in. deep, for our storage units. We also recently ordered some new hemming tools for the ToolCell, as we have several products that require hemming. We’ve been performing hemming as a secondary operation on our manual press brakes, but we’ll eliminate that secondary process once we add the hemming tools to the ToolCell.”

Another useful feature of the machine, says McMurtry: the ToolCell’s Smart Setup capability, “which enables us to track and analyze tool use,” he says. “This helps us schedule tool maintenance and allows us to ensure we have the right tools loaded into the tooling stadium. We continue to work on optimizing the tool-storage setup based on the needs of the thousands of parts programmed into the ToolCell.”

Other noteworthy ToolCell features:

  • Industry 4.0 connectivity—“We’re not quite ready to use this capability yet,” McMutry says, noting the firm’s need to first upgrade its ERP-MRP systems.
  • Remote diagnostics/machine monitoring—A feature the firm uses to perform remote programming and program troubleshooting.
  • Front supports and sheet followers—“Based on part size, of course, both of these features prove very useful,” says McMurtry. They allow the firm to tend to the ToolCell with one operator; larger parts that require more material-handling muscle route to the firm’s robot-tended panel bender.
  • LVD’s Easy-Form laser-based bend-angle control—“We use that feature, as called for in the bend program, to help ensure consistent bend angles from first to last part,” McMurtry adds.

Quick ROI

“While we’ve had the ToolCell in operation for about 3 yr., we realized a full return on investment in about 18 mo.,” McMurtry shares. “The only challenge was simply getting enough parts programmed for the cell to keep it fully burdened.”

What’s next? “This very successful project to add automation to the plant represents just another step to reducing labor content,” McMurtry stresses. “We also have fully automated welding for two of our product lines, as well as automated roll forming. Now we’re focusing on adding cobots to some processes, including part handling for the ToolCell to enable us to run the machine lights-out.” MF

Industry-Related Terms: Bending, Blank, Blanking, Case, Flange, Forming, Gauge, Grippers, Hardware, Hydraulic Press, LASER, Lines, Pallet, Roll Forming, Run, Stroke
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: LVD North America

Technologies: Bending


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