Tom Bailey, TruBend Product Manager, says that in terms of high precision bending equipment, ‘the press brake market in North America is stronger than it ever has been.’
Every once in a while, we at FAB Shop think it’s a good idea to take the metaphorical pulse of a particular field of the sheet metal industry. In this issue, we decided to do that for both the press brake and plasma industries, and for the press brake industry, we spoke with TRUMPF’s TruBend Product Manager, Tom Bailey.
Bailey had good news to share.
“From our point of view, it seems like the press brake market, at least in North America, has been growing for the last couple years,” he shares. “Not just in relative terms compared to the recent economic downturn, but in absolute terms, as well, I think the press brake market in North America is stronger than it ever has been.”
He clarifies, however, that he’s mostly looking at the high end market containing high precision press brake machines.
“I wouldn’t make a comparison to every mechanical or hydraulic hammer that was ever invented, of course, but in terms of the investment in high precision bending equipment, especially next-generation equipment, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a market situation like we have now in the U.S.”
This should be music to the ears of many fabricators. Equipment sales are a strong indicator of the overall health of an industry, and the sheet metal industry is no exception. When taken in context with the rumblings of a recovering manufacturing sector in general, it seems that fabricators have a bright future ahead.
But what exactly are the driving forces behind this strong press brake market? While it might be difficult to answer that question for the press brake market in general, Bailey points to a number of different factors that have emerged and are at least driving the demand for higher precision press brake machines.
“One factor is that everyone is starting to demand more precision and more accuracy in formed parts,” he says. “But probably the biggest ones that we hear about on a regular basis are the needs to ease assembly, ease welding operations and make all of those downstream operations for the finished products more efficient and less labor intensive.”
Bailey goes on to say that press brake manufacturers see the answer to these demands in higher levels of automation.
“The biggest limitation in my mind is the labor, really. The press brake operation is, along with welding, really the most labor intensive part of the fabrication process stream,” he says. “Manufacturers are really aggressively targeting those areas, trying to get better and better efficiencies – I think the big challenge that brake manufacturers have to address is the need for better, more reliable easier- to-use automation, and to remove that labor part of the equation.”
Bailey points out that automation has been driving increasingly greater efficiencies in flat-sheet processing for a long time now. But press brakes, he says, have been lagging behind that trend.
“These days it’s really typical to go out and purchase a laser with an automated load-unload system attached to it, but for years and year now, very few automated bending systems have gone into the market,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of challenges to adopting that technology that’s held it up. It’s a complex process, operating a press brake. There’s a lot more to it than just being able to load and unload flat sheets, but I think that increased automation is the direction that the press brake industry needs to go in to get to that next level of efficiency.”
However, the challenge in reaching that next level of efficiency is in making the automation actually worth the while.
“The setup times traditionally tend to be an issue with these automated press brake systems,” Bailey elaborates. “If you’re doing short-run production, you can’t justify hours worth of set p. It’s just not economical.”
Automated setup capabilities are integral to making automated short-run production economical for fabricators.
Of course, the goal is to eventually reach the point where short-run production is actually economical on a fully automated system.
“What we really need is automatic tool changing,” he says. “The system has to not just be able to operate by itself, but actually be able to set up by itself, too. That’s going to be a critical technology moving forward.”
Process reliability is another area that he mentions as a key factor. “If you’re going to have a machine constantly changing jobs and running different part numbers with – theoretically – no one there monitoring it, then you need, for example, angle measuring technology to make sure all the parts that are being created are actually good parts.”
Beyond that, press brake automation software needs to have more intelligence built into it. For a press brake to be truly automated, it needs to be able to handle errors on its own.
“To a certain extent, those technologies are coming along, but there are still a lot of situations where the only thing a system can do is stop, flag and wait for a human to come fix it,” Bailey explains. “And there lots of reasons why production might interrupted in an automated system. It runs out of blanks. Blanks were delivered to it upside or backwards. There’s a hardware fault on the system. There’s a crash.
“As an equipment developer, we’re working on these types of challenges – how do you get the system running longer without anyone having to come and touch it?”
This is where press brake technology is headed. It will take some time in order to reach that point, but the demand is there.
Bailey says that the fact that smaller contract manufacturers are investing in larger automated bending systems is a sign that automation is moving toward wider acceptance in the industry.
“Traditionally, big OEMs were the companies that would invest in large, complicated automated systems. Now we’re seeing smaller contract manufacturers and job shops investing in it,” Bailey shares. “That tells us that it’s moving toward wider acceptance in the industry.
“And the technology is constantly improving. I think over the next five years, we’ll see some pretty drastic improvements in it. I don’t know if we’ll ever reach 100 percent of the ultimate goal — the completely touch-free process — but we tackle more and more of it every year.”