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Looking To The Future Of Folding

May 2013

Special Folding Q&A
At FAB Shop Magazine Direct, we know that no one can predict the future.

But with that in my mind, we’ll give you the next best thing: predictions from OEM executives who are paid to stay on top of industry trends. We interviewed Rick Wester, vice president of RAS Systems, to get his thoughts on where folding is heading in the near future.

FAB Shop: What do you predict in the area of folding over the next five years in relation to the rest of the sheet-metal industry?

Wester: It’s going to get more automated. More and more people are investing in folding equipment, because it’s simpler to operate than a press brake, and you don’t need the skilled labor that comes along with operating a press brake. The CNC does most of the calculations.

FAB Shop: So you see an increase over the next five years due to the simplicity and ease of use?

Wester: Yes, and I think that in Europe, it’s been a much more popular machine. And we’re a little late coming around to it here in North America.

Up until now, the situation has always kind of been that a company will get a bottleneck in the press-brake area, and they think the answer is another press brake. Whereas, if they were to look at the application, it might be better suited for a folding machine. Lots of times, I’ll go into a shop and there will be two people operating a press brake folding a big panel where one person on a folding machine could handle the same part with ease.

FAB Shop: Would you say that there’s a folding deficiency in the U.S. industry right now?

Wester: When you compare the numbers, there are many folders in the field, but they do not even come close to the number of press brake installations. We just haven’t embraced folding technology like they have in Europe.

Now, it’s a little different when it comes to automation. The U.S. has become very much aware of folding technology when it comes to automatic loading, folding and unloading. I think we’re up to speed with Europe and the Far East in that area.

But when it comes to operator driven folding, it’s not as popular of a machine as it is in other parts of the world. There’s no doubt about it, a folder is a niche machine.

Folders should be used to make existing press brakes more productive. If you have two people operating a press brake folding big panels, you could put one operator on the folder and fold those big panels, and then let your press brake do something that’s more conducive to make it more productive.

FAB Shop: How does a fab shop know when they need a folder?

Wester: First of all, as I said earlier, if you are bending parts with two operators on a press brake, that’s a folding application. Secondly, if you’re running a complicated part and you have to set that part down to retool a press brake during the folding process, that’s a folding operation.

On a folder, we can set up different stations. The idea is to pick up a blank and put down a finished part. We don’t want to make two or three bends on a part and then have to set it aside to make a tooling change to finish it. One of the advantages to having a 10-ft. or a 13-ft. folding machine is that you can set up multiple stations.

The tooling is universal. If you want to make a 90-degree bend, you can make a 90-degree bend. If you want to make a 45-degree bend, you can make a 45-degree bend. If you want to put a hem on a part, you can put a hem on your part, all with the same tooling. It’s all set by the degree of angle the folding beam is programmed to fold to, whereas on a press brake, you would need press brake dies for those specific angles.

FAB Shop: How has the recent economic downturn affected folding?

Wester: We’ve actually seen our business grow over the last couple years, because a less skilled laborer can work on a folder and still perform high precision parts. You don’t have to pay a skilled press-brake operator premium wages to get the same precision part results.

On a related note, and it hurts me to say this, we’re doing a very poor job training our young people to want to work in manufacturing. Consequently, we end up with laborers who don’t have the skill or education that they truly need, so we have to make a machine tool that’s basically simpler to operate. That’s what a folder does.

FAB Shop: So you see folding increasing, but there’s also a lack of training?

Wester: There’s a lack of training, and the manufacturing industry is doing a terrible job of getting the word out that we have to build things in this nation.

FAB Shop: You said that RAS has seen its business grow. Would you say the same is true of the rest of the folding industry?

Wester: All the major folding manufacturers – when you look at the high end, basically automation, we’re all having successful, good years. We’re all selling high-end folding machines.
The lack of growth is in the job shop, where the mid-price machines should be sold. That has not progressed the way it should.

Although, it’s getting better, with the advantage now of folders being able to not only fold up like a press brake, but also up and down. The ergonomics of an operator not having to spin and flip and rotate a part is a big advantage to a folder.

FAB Shop: How will the technology change over the next several years?

Wester: We just came out with a machine that’s fairly unique. It’ll do a part as small as 2 in. by 3 in. in 11-gauge mild steel. That’s something that you would have never seen on a folding machine before. It’s always been stamping presses or very small press brakes doing these small parts, which means handling all these small parts individually.

The machine is our Mini Bend Center. It will pick up a part, load it, fold it and discharge it automatically. If needed, it could run 24 hours a day.

FAB Shop: Is that the primary way you see folding technology advancing?

Wester: It’s also going to continue on the larger parts. When it takes somebody on a press brake about 60 seconds to do a four sided part, we can do that part in about 22 seconds on our automated folding machine.

One of our customers who bought three automated machines was having trouble competing with the Chinese in his marketplace. He couldn’t compete with the cheaper labor, so he is beating them with no labor.

He’s got a factory that used to have 30 people in it, and now it has 10. And he’s putting out more product with less people using automation. So that’s what’s going to happen.

We need to find jobs for people. But the problem is that in the manufacturing era, machines are doing a lot more work than they used to do with computers and automation. We had to do that just to stay competitive.

FAB Shop: So more automation and less labor the wave of the future in your eyes?

Wester: Yes. No doubt.

FAB Shop: What other predictions do you have for the folding industry over the next five years?

Wester: I think there’s probably going to be more people getting involved in it on the OEM side. Some of the bigger companies that haven’t been in the folding business might venture in, because I think press brakes are going to take, I wouldn’t say a second seat, but they’re going to take a smaller first seat than what they have right now.

So there might be companies that have not built folders in the past that will venture into the marketplace.

The press brake world has many different competitors, and in the folding market, there’s only a few right now. It’s kind of nice, quite honestly, and I’d like to think that in my tenure, we won’t have 26 different competitors, but there will certainly be more.

RAS Systems