Is a CNC Ironworker Right for Your Shop?

This 120-in. CNC table for a Sunrise ironworker makes manually laying out 10-ft. angle a thing of the past.


Accuracy can sometimes be a frustrating issue when producing parts on an ironworker. But what if you could produce the perfect part every time?

In our February 2014 issue, we featured an article on some of the different ironworker offerings on the market. Each featured a number of different customizable options, and many included the ability add CNC positioning. That being said, if you were intrigued by the previous question, then you might want to consider adding CNC positioning to your ironworker.

Ben Flamholz, vice president and national sales manager for Sunrise Ironworkers at Trilogy Machinery, the U.S. distributor for Sunrise Ironworkers, explains the difference.

“On a standard ironworker, there’s a manual gauge table. It has a bar to allow the operator to adjust the X and Y axis manually to a certain position for doing base plates, clip angles and other parts,” he says. “The operator has to manually move it to advance to the next hole and then reposition it. That’s common on the majority of ironworkers around the world that are being sold.”

This isn’t the case with a CNC ironworker, however. Flamholz elaborates, “There are two different styles of CNC ironworkers, fully-automatic and semi-automatic. A fully-automatic CNC ironworker is a machine that grabs the plate on the table and holds it down as it punches the holes in that material.
“For example, if you’re doing a 20-in. by 20-in. base plate, the machine itself would grab the material, normally hydraulically, and then would move and manipulate the plate underneath the punch, and actually do the punching operation. There would be no operator intervention whatsoever.”

He mentions that only a small percentage of CNC ironworkers sold are fully-automatic in this manner, and that it’s more prevalent in Europe and other countries than in the U.S. Instead, the most popular type of CNC ironworker in the U.S. is semi-automatic. The table sizes range from 16 in. by 40 in. to 25 in. by 120 in. of gauging.

“Imagine never having to manually lay out a 10-ft. stick of angle again!” Flamholz says.

According to Trilogy, CNC positioning tables are available on any Sunrise dual-cylinder ironworker or punching machine with a 20-in. or larger throat depth.

He goes on to explain how the semi-automatic CNC ironworker functions. “With the semi-automatic unit, the backstop positions itself automatically based on the program and the operator’s input. The operator needs to hold the material against the back stop, complete the punching operation and then the backstop advances to the next position. The backstop has an X and a Y position, both of which have a plus or minus 0.004-in. positioning accuracy.

“For example, that operator might have programmed a 4-in. clip angle, and they want to punch holes in the center of that spaced out every 4 in. They input that into the controller using a preset template, and when they start that pattern, the machine would move to the first position automatically.

“The operator would hold the material against the backstop, step on the pedal and the machine would punch the hole. The backstop would then automatically advance to the next programmed position. The operator would hold the material against the backstop again, step on the pedal, and then the process would continue.”

Flamholz points out that this makes the process of positioning virtually error free on the part of the operator – as long as they’re doing their due diligence and holding the plate properly against the backstop – meaning that accuracy issues are all but eliminated.
That’s not the only benefit of a CNC ironworker, either. The fact that you can create CNC programs and store them for repeated use also leads to time savings and productivity increases.

“With Sunrise ironworkers, you can create programs three different ways,” says Flamholz. “You can program them directly on the touchscreen controller that all of our machines feature, you can program them on a PC by importing an AutoCAD or CAD file and you can also program on an iPad.

“We’re the only manufacturer that has the ability to program your patterns right from the iPad, and that’s through using a program we developed called iPunch ©.”

Once a program is created and loaded onto a CNC ironworker, it will automatically position or move the backgauge, depending upon whether it’s fully or semi-automatic.

“Normally, if a fabricator is processing multiple pieces of plate or angle, they’re probably laying all of those out manually, marking out where the holes need to be with their tape measure,” he says. “If they’re long pieces of angle or long pieces of plate, they can’t use the standard gauge table, so now they need to mark it themselves, and a 10-ft. piece of angle to mark with holes every 4-in. takes a decent amount of time.

“Whereas, on a CNC ironworker, they run that program once, which takes as little as 30 seconds, and then they run it however many times they want to run it, whether that’s one time or a thousand times, whatever it may be. The layout only needs to be entered once.”

As a result, more time is actually spent processing the materials than doing layout, thus increasing productivity and saving time.

“If a shop has a thousand pieces of angle to do, and each one takes 60 seconds to lay out, that’s over 16 hours that they’re saving,” points out Flamholz. “With these cost savings, really, the company could, in effect, pay for one of these machines in less than a year.”

Along the same lines, these CNC programs ensure quality consistency, as well. If a job shop were to get an order for another batch of parts from a repeat customer, having the programs available would mean that they wouldn’t have to “pull the drawings, reprocess and re-layout out all parts.

Sunrise CNC ironworkers from Trilogy are also available with an extended X axis up to 120 in., a hydraulic punch stripper, a triple punch attachment and a CNC plate shear in-feed system.

Sunrise CNC ironworkers from Trilogy are also available with an extended X axis up to 120 in., a hydraulic punch stripper, a triple punch attachment and a CNC plate shear in-feed system.

“That’s huge for them because if a customer liked the quality two years ago, they’re going to expect the same level now,” says Flamholz.

In the same way, if a job shop were to have an operator retire and a new one take over, they can still provide the same level of quality through using the CNC programs. Without that advantage, the difference “could be night or day for the customer. They could reject those parts.”

All this added convenience does come with a higher price tag. “The price range is different based upon what options are chosen, but our standard semi-automatic CNC with a 16-in. by 40-in. table is $26,500, and that’s in addition to the base price of the machine,” he says. “And if you’re looking at a 110-ton dual-cylinder ironworker – a two-operator machine – that’s $28,950 for just the machine. So, you’re adding almost 100 percent on top of that price to get it to be semi-automatic.”

With that said, however, Flamholz does point out that he’s never had a customer say that they regret buying the CNC ironworker.

“I have not heard that from anyone,” he says. “As far as usability and profitability, while the initial investment is higher, the payoff is going to be greater and faster than the standard machine.”

Sunrise CNC ironworkers from Trilogy are also available with an extended X axis up to 120 in., a hydraulic punch stripper, a triple punch attachment and a CNC plate shear in-feed system.

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