Feeding Flexibility

Getting straighteners, decoilers, flatteners and other elements of coil handling lines to seamlessly communicate is crucial to stamping operations

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Stamping press owners and production management teams alike are well-aware that they can’t afford to make a mistake when choosing a feed line, a massive investment that will probably (and hopefully) be with them for decades. At the same time, few of us can predict the kind of work we’ll be doing next year, let alone over the next 20.

We also can’t imagine the operator skill levels that will exist in the future. Shops must, therefore, find a system that will provide ease of use and long-term flexibility while adhering to capital expenditure budget constraints.

Coe Press Equipment has developed a series of space-saving coil line machines featuring straightening technology that effectively addresses coil set as well as crossbow in many situations.

Ready to make parts

It’s this last part – limited availability of skilled workers – that’s perhaps most concerning to the manufacturing industry. Sylvain Touboul is the sales director at Dimeco, a global provider of coil handling lines and other sheet metal processing equipment. When asked about the challenges of staffing a stamping line today, he recollects an open house at its headquarters in Pirey, France, several months ago, during which they demonstrated a highly automated processing line.

“That particular line was for copper, a very soft material, and the line had 17 servo-controlled functions such as the feeder height, coil keepers, straightener guides and straightener roll settings that would otherwise require manual adjustment,” Touboul says. “In my experience, this could easily take a skilled operator anywhere from half an hour to several hours, whereas with an automated system, these adjustments require nothing more than to call up the program and press a couple of buttons. Within 30 sec., you’re ready to make parts.”

The ServoMaster series of servo roll feeds from Coe Press Equipment are available in a range of duty ratings to handle various gages and material conditions.

Yet, automation does more than reduce downtime, he notes. It also eliminates the risk and training costs associated with frequent operator turnover, a common occurrence even before the post-pandemic era. With that comes the need for greater operator safety.

Though not entirely automated, Touboul points to another product offering on display at Dimeco’s open house, a mobile tilter-loader that is said to simplify coil handling greatly.

“It lifts the coil and tilts it perpendicular to the decoiler, making it easy to load,” he says. “There’s no longer a need to use chains and a crane to flip the coil, so it’s much less dangerous. Last, but not least, with copper or other expensive materials, traditional manual loading methods can damage the coil edges, resulting in waste – in the worst case, you could scrap the entire coil. This system avoids problems like these.”

As with the other providers interviewed, Dimeco offers a full range of coil handling equipment and integration services. The challenge, explains Touboul, is that customers are often unsure what solution will best address their long-term needs. In these situations, he relies on his sales team to ask the right questions.

Dimeco’s Coil Pick and Tilt unit makes coil handling faster, safer and easier on materials.

“I tell them to avoid offering a customer what they want,” he says. “Instead, find out what they need. Ask them what issues they regularly deal with, whether it’s long setup times, safety concerns, material loss or operator turnover – there’s no shortage of high-quality solutions out there for each of these. What’s important is to identify which ones will bring the greatest benefit for the available budget.”

Before the press

Adam Allansson is responsible for sales at Machine Concepts Inc., a custom machinery designer and builder based in Minster, Ohio. He says the company has several functional areas, among them its coil processing, specialty machines and press room groups, all of which work with various press manufacturers to provide solutions “that take a coil and turn it into a final product, processing it as efficiently as possible.”

These solutions include decoilers, straighteners, flatteners, levelers and more. Yet, Allansson notes that many of its customers are exploring robotic and linear automation, whether for in-press transfer, packaging, inspection or assembly – or all of the above – as a total line solution. Regardless, he agrees with Touboul on the need to thoroughly vet a customer’s needs list before proposing any kind of solution.

“Customers need to think about end-to-end integration of the line and how it will operate,” he says. “This means even the basics, like how do you stop and start the line and how to recover if there’s a problem. Everything has to be simple yet bulletproof. It’s not like 20 years ago when there were expert die setters who could come over and fix a misfeed or reset the tensioner. Today’s generation is used to operating everything from their cell phones, so you need an HMI [human-machine interface] that reflects the current skill level.”

Here again, safety is a primary concern when designing a system. “It’s only through total integration and establishment of the proper guarding and safety zones that worker protection can be ensured,” Allansson says.

Software is another focus area, not only to drive the machine control but to gather data from the various system elements. Everyone is building good hardware these days, he adds, but more and more customers are looking for advanced functions like preventive maintenance, which requires the builder to install sensors in strategic locations and write algorithms within the control software able to process the resultant signals and alert the operator to take action.

Machine Concepts offers decoilers able to handle coil loads up to 55,000 lbs. per mandrel and coil widths up to 50 in.

“It used to be that a seasoned operator could put a hand on the machine and know there’s a bearing going out or pump about to fail,” Allansson says. “But every year, more and more of these veteran employees are retiring, so some in the industry have begun looking at artificial intelligence and other advanced technology as a way to optimize processes and predict when machines need service.”

Price rules

Industry 4.0 technologies such as these might be coming, but Reid Coe, president at Coe Press Equipment, Sterling Heights, Mich., suggests that most customers are more concerned with two things – simplicity and investment cost.

“Companies right now are hesitant to invest in automation and advanced technology because of inflation,” he says. “They see machines that, 10 years ago, were selling for half of a new machine, so now the value propositions are all out of whack. As a result, they’re shopping based on price more than anything else.”

One way to address this is to find very cost-effective communications and positioning devices, he explains, and by utilizing predetermined IP addressing, canned programs, standardized wiring connections and plug-and-play harnesses. This simplifies integration between coil line equipment that often comes from multiple manufacturers.

“It’s best to avoid one-off customizations and try to use what I call ‘intelligent standards’ wherever possible when connecting equipment,” Coe says. “This leads to more predictable outcomes for the customer.”

As its name suggest, the S-Loop material guidance system from Machine Concepts controls the shape of the material through an S loop to reduce bouncing or swaying of the material during press operation.

Coe seconds what Allansson says about the need for simplistic controls. Though not at liberty to say when, he hints at upcoming product developments that will make the user interfaces on stamping lines easier to set up and operate.

“Take an Android user and give them an iPhone,” he says. “You’ll find that they pick it up in about half the time it would take if the tables were turned. That’s the simplicity we’re shooting for – HMI screens that make what you’re looking at obvious, with built-in prompts and onboard user training videos that answer any questions about the machine or process.”

Again, though, cost is paramount. Despite the tremendous potential raised by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Coe says it’s still too expensive for all but the OEMs. Even in the largest stamping houses, few standardized offerings on the marketplace, coupled with a reluctance to embrace any technology without a tangible benefit, remain a bridge too far for most.

“We can put sensors on any piece of equipment and start gathering data, but unless the customer has a distinct pain point they’re trying to solve, it’s difficult to get anyone to pay for it,” he concludes. “Even the top companies don’t want to invest any more than is necessary to get the job done, and when they do present us with a specification that includes these advanced capabilities, they almost always back down to the standard product when they see the price tag. It’s a very cost-conscious market right now, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

COE Press Equipment

Dimeco

Machine Concepts Inc.

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