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Ironworkers: An Evolving Mainstay

Adding functionality to a tried-and-true technology.

The ironworker is, much like its name applies, strong, sturdy, utilitarian. It has been described as the Swiss army knife of metalworking tools, which makes sense based on its range of applications. A Leatherman maybe more apropos, however. While there are individual tools that can replace and better serve as the pliers, screwdrivers, knives, saws, wire cutters and strippers, and other myriad tools stored in the handle of a Leatherman, none can do all of the kaleidoscope of jobs in such as a small package.

The same can be said of the ironworker. It has a relatively small footprint, but in that compact space a boatload of jobs can be accomplished. “Ironworkers are the one tool that a guy can pick it up and he can make a part very quickly,” said Bryan Jorgenson, sales manager and co-owner of JMT USA. “All the different tools you’d have in a fab shop are all in one machine.”

These workhorse machines can perform a lot of tricks, with CNC or custom tooling adding to their range. Photo: Trilogy

In that respect, ironworkers might be closer to a manufacturing cell. With multiple stations allowing the operator to make a circuit and do myriad jobs, and do them well. While they may have some limitations, like the Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife, they can do a ton of different jobs in a handy package. And this holds true of most of the ironworkers on the market. While differences exist, “an iron worker is an iron worker is an iron worker,” said Doug Friend, chief operating officer, Edwards Manufacturing Co. “All ironworkers have the capacity to punch, to notch, to shear and those are the prime stations. Often there is an angle shearing station or a rod shearing station and then generally there is an open cavity for custom tooling.”

Most companies offer ways to customize their products with a range of options. Scotchman’s multi-use ironworkers, which can switch functions quickly, going from shearing to bending in 30 seconds, features a tool table area that is customizable to the job. Kaast has a series of options including a motorized back gauge for automatic operation, stations for cutting of the U, T and I-profiles, various punches and dies, station for punching of channel.

Ease of use

Ironworkers, said Ben Flamholz, national Sunrise product manager for Trilogy Machinery Inc., are becoming more and more user friendly as there are more and more options that are available to the user. “The standard ironworker with its five stations will always be the bread and butter, but there are features and attachments that can make them even more efficient and productive for people,” he said. “Those individual attachments can notch pipe, add press break capability, some type of custom punching tool, or custom shearing tool. And then, of course, there are the CNC options that have really taken off for us.”

Trilogy offers custom options for both standard and CNC ironworkers. For its Sunrise standard ironworker, the non- CNC variety, press break and notcher attachments are possible. For the CNC machines, options are available for shearing operations such as blades.” Companies such as Trilogy are selling CNC-controlled equipment, as a matter of fact, Flamholz said that sales of Sunrise CNC ironworkers are just about doubling. “I think users are realizing that the biggest bottleneck of time on ironworkers is the manual layout,” he added. “They have products to run that need to be sheared and punched and other operations, and the bottleneck is the layout time for each piece. If they look at the cost of that labor, even over a week, a month, a year, they can pretty quickly pay back that labor time by justifying that in the purchase of a CNC ironworker.”

Flamholz adds that one of the reasons that customers are apprehensive to jump into purchasing an ironworker is the belief that training operators to run them is extensive, “We’ve really disproven that myth,” he said. “We typically can train someone that has little or no experience programming within a day.”

Files can be uploaded to the ironworker via WiFi or by Ethernet, or by USB or memory card. They can use these programs to run the project. “Once they’re over a short learning curve, we’ve heard really good success stories from our customers about the production time, labor time they’re saving because of the fact that these programs are already written and the layout time is basically reduced dramatically.”

 Shearing stations on the JMT dual cylinder ironworker can cut angle iron, bars, tubes or flat stock.

Keep them custom

For its part, Edwards doesn’t offer CNC-controlled ironworkers, but offers myriad customization options. “CNC way over shoots our market in terms of need,” said Friend. “Our guys don’t need that at all. Our market is more custom product.”

Edwards ironworkers are made in house, designed by Friend, who is a trained architect. Most of the units work on the same principal with the center pulling straight down on the work. The tooling moves vertically, with no arc of a pivot arm. Most models come standard with a punching station, flat bar shear, angle iron shear, and often a coper-notcher. They operate so the operator can move from punch to plate shear to angle shear to notcher without always changing equipment. Many different sizes and styles of punch and die sets are available such as round, oblong slot, square, rectangle, and keyhole. Many kinds of optional tooling are available such as coper-notcher, press brake, pipe notcher, angle notcher, rod shear, gaging table, back gauge, multi-hole punching and even radius notching.

Because they can build the products inhouse, the units and required tooling can be tailored to the application, even the most difficult. “The most challenging tooling for us is typically multistaged tools where, for example, you’ve got a complex part that maybe has a hole or two, three bumps in it, and then it’s also bent in one direction or two,” said Friend, “those can all be done with progressive punches and dies and stamping. Those things are the real fun things to do and we enjoy working on those.”

For one customer, Edwards was asked if it could create a custom coper notcher blade for an aluminum extrusion part. The blade was given a low profile protrusion so it can fit under the material and make a notch on the aluminum below, as seen in this video.

 The notching station is equipped with rectangular blades for side notching unlimited widths.Optional types of blades expand the versatility of the machine.The large worktable with gauging stops helps speed up repetitive jobs.

In addition to custom options, the company has added new products to its portfolio. The JAWS line of Edwards Ironworkers has recently been expanded with the addition of the new Edwards ELITE line. Designed for simultaneous use by two people, the Edwards ELITE 110|65 Ironworker features a standard punch assembly, 24 in. wide flat bar shear, angle shear, a dedicated coper notcher, and a universal open tooling station for optional tooling accessories.

The ironworker line is further complemented by a line of hydraulic accessory tools, powered by an Edwards Ironworker or the Edwards Porta Power, a portable hydraulic power unit. “What that features is a series of controls and valving and hydraulic quick disconnect that connect to other tools that we design and manufacture,” said Friend, “we have a horizontal press, two types of shop presses (a twenty ton and a forty ton), and we have a tube bender and a radius roller. These are all separate tools that are hydraulically and umbilical attached to the ironworkers. They are activated with the flip of a switch that takes the power off the iron worker and directs it to these accessory tools.”

Here, a custom coper notcher blade has been created to fit a customer’s uniquely shaped aluminum extrusion. 

Fast change outs

JMT USA offers the Rhino Series or ironworkers that allows for fast change out of attachments from operation to operation. “In a couple minutes,” said Jorgensen, “we could change from punching to bending with the turn of a Allen wrench.” The system features a dovetail designed for quick stopping, but by loosening the punch holder, it slides off and the press brake attachment slides in. The company has customized its units in many ways. In at least one instance, Jorgensen said that a TigerStop was incorporated into the ironworker that allowed the unit to feed the material in specific increments and quick punch the material.

Jorgensen added that one of its strengths of the ironworkers is its ability to control the process. This help to make for a high quality, close tolerance end product. The ironworker, he says, utilizes urethane hold downs at various stations work.For the punching end, it keeps the material flat without bending. On the ironworkers’ shear side, the adjustable urethane hold downs position the material material to keep it at a very low angle so that when it cuts, it doesn’t twist the material. It gives a very clean cut.” In addition, in that compartment, there is a place to change out blades, and do solid round and solid square cutting. In addition, in the angle shear part of that machine, the urethane hold downs contain the material tightly while the upper, angle blade is free floating. “What that means is that the top blade can pivot a little bit to float down in to the center of that angle before it shears it off, so it leaves a very clean cut. It doesn’t leave burrs, it doesn’t bend it when it cuts. If it were a fixed blade, if the angle gets in there crooked, it’ll just cut wherever it hits and will cause it to distort or bend.”

JMT Dual Cylinder Hydraulic Ironworker has 5 work stations: a dual-function punching/bending station, 3 shearing stations for flat, bar and angle, and a notching station. 

For accuracy and ease of use, the ironworkers feature various tables and fences, Jorgensen said. “On our IW series, we have work tables at all work stations, for our punch and our steer we have gauging with inlaid tape. You do have gauging on all workstations of the IW. The R Series, on the shear, it does have a fence to keep plates straight when you’re feeding it into the shear. On the notcher, it does have adjustable fences and gauging, which have 45 degree cuts on them. You can move those if you want to get a 45 degree cut out of a piece of metal.”

These are just a few of the options that allow users of ironworkers to adapt them to the job. Of course, many users will make their own jigs and fixtures to do their own custom work whether that is to bend pipe, use it as a minipress, or add other functionality. People will make their own little aparatus to this already versatile machine.

Edwards

JMT USA

Trilogy