In recent years, voice of the customer (VoC) programs have been gaining in popularity. Coined in 1993 in an MIT marketing science paper, the definition of VoC explains why they can be so valuable: VoC is “a complete set of customer wants and needs; expressed in the customer’s own language; organized the way the customer thinks about, uses and interacts with the product and service; and prioritized by the customer in terms of both importance and performance.”
Therefore, when the customers’ priorities are baked into a product’s development, the end result is almost guaranteed success. At BLM Group, VoC is leveraged at almost every turn – both literally and figuratively. The company’s E-Turn, Elect and Smart tube bending machines are all the direct result of its customers’ needs.
“One of the main drivers behind the development of the E-Turn machine was the furniture industry,” says Robert Bowden, North American product manager, bender systems, BLM Group USA. “The furniture industry manufactures a lot of products that have symmetry in their shapes. Think of a chair frame where the left-hand portion of the frame is a mirror image of the right-hand portion. On a right-handed machine, the left-hand portion of the frame might interfere with the machine, or it might swing down and contact the floor. That’s why our customers in the furniture industry consider a machine that can do both incredibly valuable.”
And it’s not just the furniture industry that benefits. Customers in the automotive and HVAC industries benefit, as well, as do fabricators that produce fitness equipment and trade show displays. Truly, any company that regularly produces near-mirror-image parts or parts with complex geometries is a good fit for a right- and left-handed bender. The same goes for job shops.
“They don’t know what type of parts could be coming down the pipeline, so they need complete flexibility,” Bowden says. “In a lot of cases, they’re not just utilizing the bending machine for the complex shapes they produce, but also for the ability to leave multiple sets of tooling in place at the same time. Customers that have various setups throughout the day essentially get increased capacity by minimizing the tooling changeover time. The time it takes to set up each one can really add up.”
Before BLM’s right- and left-handed benders were available, the process to produce symmetrical or complex parts was, well, complex. Fabricators would either use a traditional bending machine in multiple phases or they would produce multiple parts in smaller sections to be welded together – both of which are time consuming. And, in both cases, part integrity and consistency could be compromised.
Based on the large variety of BLM customers and their needs, the company offers three styles of machines to choose from. Its Elect can be reconfigured on an as-needed basis whereas the E-Turn and Smart models offer left- and right-handed bending in process.
“Elect machines are typically built as a right-handed or clockwise configuration,” Bowden explains. “To convert that over, there are just a few mechanical components that have to be reconfigured.”
The Elect machine is available in seven models, ranging from 40-mm-OD capabilities up to 150 mm OD. For the four models up to 80 mm, the changeover can be done by the customer in about an hour or two, depending on the machine size.
“While customers aren’t changing it out daily, it’s good to have that capability,” he says. “The Elect is for the customer that’s looking to the future, but unsure of what they may need. Demand is often driven by the need for flexibility.”
For customers that need to do right- and left-handed bending in-process, the E-Turn is BLM’s flagship tube bending machine while the Smart is a more compact, but fully capable piece of equipment. According to a BLM E-Turn brochure, “the precise control and positioning of all the electric axes guarantee the ideal working parameters can be reproduced exactly right the first time and every time, guaranteeing consistent productivity, accuracy, and repeatability while at the same time reducing reliance on highly skilled setup experts.”
“Our equipment isn’t a hydraulic model that was retrofitted into an electric model,” Bowden says. “BLM developed it from the ground up as electric, which offers so many benefits. The main advantages of an all-electric tube bending machine include repeatability, throughput, consistent quality, lower energy costs and reliability.”
The Smart model line of in-process left- and right-handed tube benders is for automotive and HVAC customers, but it’s also well-suited for anyone that needs to create complex or near-mirror-image shapes in OD up to 28 mm. In contrast, the E-Turn can process parts with ODs up to 52 mm.
Ripe for automation
Knowing that its customers rely on automation more and more every day, additional flexibility is delivered from an automatic loading and unloading standpoint. BLM software and controls also inject smart automatic functioning into programming and machine monitoring processes.
An example includes parts that are “right from the start,” as the company describes it. Compared to the complicated programming of the past, BLM’s VGP3D B-Tools software module makes it easy for even an inexperienced operator to obtain the desired bending shape. Another example of built-in automation includes BLM’s control features that will stop a machine while in operation if a condition is detected, leading to safer and more reliable processing along with maximum material utilization.
“The E-Turn and Smart models lend well to automation,” Bowden says. “The head of the E-Turn rotates, so if it’s bending on the left-hand side, the head has to rotate upside down – there are tools on the top and the bottom. The head has a lot of articulation to it, so our standard bundle loading system allows the loading of a pre-cut piece of material automatically. Because of that articulation, we can also offload it onto the floor or a conveyor.
Bowden says that often times, with a standard bender, you can automate the loading, but not always the unloading because of how those machines are designed. Additionally, the E-Turn systems can be automated at any time. Customers can choose to familiarize themselves with the equipment first and then add automation later.
Overall, the VoC is highly visible in all aspects of BLM’s tube bending equipment. When customers were struggling with complicated bending processes or outsourcing components, the company paid attention. Now those customers are investing in these systems instead of trying to manage the inconsistencies of doing it the old way.