Making tools smart

An industry expert from Wila answers questions about press brake tooling, technology and whether it’s time for a new machine

wila press brake
Wila’s V-Lock technology improves die positioning using a groove that automatically aligns bottom tools in X and Y directions and firmly clamps them in place.

David Bishop is the business development manager for Hanover, Md.-based Wila USA’s Western Region. FAB Shop Magazine Direct recently had the opportunity to chat with Bishop about the company’s Smart Tool Locator (STL) system, along with a range of other press brake topics, including the benefits that modern equipment brings to the table, and every shop owner’s least favorite subject these days, the shortage of skilled labor. Here’s what he had to say.

FAB Shop Magazine Direct: Wila first introduced its STL system nearly a decade ago, and yet, it seems there’s been a product reintroduction over the past couple of years. What’s changed?

David Bishop: To be completely frank, we had some integration challenges very early on, and also had a few instances where long parts could strike the front of the clamping system, damaging the sensor. Each of those issues has since been addressed. We’ve also made the system more rigid than our early versions. Given that, my advice to anyone who’s evaluated the STL system in the past is to take another look. We’re having a great deal of success with it now and an ever-increasing number of customers are purchasing it with new press brakes.

FSM: Wila also launched its Tooling Identification and Position System (TIPS) over the past few years. What’s the difference between that and the STL, and do I need both?

Bishop: As its name suggests, the Smart Tool Locator is designed to show the operator where to place the individual segments of the tools as they load the press brake. There’s no guessing and no need for tape measures or detailed setup sheets. And once the segments are placed, the STL system walks the operator through the bend sequence by showing them where to place the blank. Not only does it save a significant amount of setup time, but it really helps the operator to avoid costly mistakes. On the other hand, TIPS can be thought of as a dedicated tooling inventory control system that also provides very accurate technical information regarding the tooling. width=

FSM: What do you tell shop owners who question the need for these and other Industry 4.0 technology solutions?

Bishop: Several things. The first is that setup time is everything on a press brake, and this is one of the best ways to reduce it. If you’re organized, your program is ready, and the tooling is clean and in place, it shouldn’t take more than 8 to 10 min. to change over a 12-ft. bed, and 15 min. for a 20-ft. machine.

Secondly, I point to the fact that of all the different processes in a sheet metal shop, bending is performed when parts are at or near their greatest value. It’s critical, therefore, to make this particular manufacturing step as easy and foolproof as possible so as to avoid scrap, especially given the shortage of skilled workers. Because of that, we find that the more we work to educate our target audience on the STL system’s capabilities, the higher the interest level.

FSM: Does the STL system work with anyone’s press brake?

willa pressbrake
The Smart Tool Locator from Wila can be thought of as an intelligent slide rule, one with built-in LEDs that show exactly where tools must be placed in the tool holder.

Bishop: I wouldn’t say anyone’s, but the overwhelming majority of press brakes out there are compatible, especially if it’s a new piece of equipment. For retrofits in the field, we have to go onsite and make sure that first, the extra drive port is there, and second understand whether the distributor can do the install, or not. It’s not terribly difficult, but it does require a qualified technician that is knowledgeable of the control.

FSM: Do you find that most people are putting these systems on new press brakes rather than older ones?

Bishop: Given the high level of software and control integration, they’re definitely easier to install on a new piece of equipment, but there’s more to it than that. People buy new machines because they need greater productivity. In many cases, they’ve installed more advanced, high-speed lasers only to see the shop’s bottleneck shift to the press brakes, so they need a way to offset that.

But they’re also seeing significant benefits from newer press brakes, especially when they’ve been optimized with a system like this. Some shops are able to replace two or three of their old press brakes with a single, STL-equipped machine with new and more flexible tooling.

FSM: Okay, the STL offers faster setups and easier operation, but what else is there to a new press brake that makes it two to three times more productive than a legacy machine?

Bishop: There’s a lot to that question. Certainly, you’ll find that, as with any machine tool, newer ones have faster ram speeds, are generally more accurate and have far more advanced controls. But there’s been a bit of a renaissance going on in the press brake industry over the past decade or so. For example, machine builders have begun to increase their open height – where heights of 16 in. to 18 in. were once common, many machines now boast 26 in. to 28 in. or more.

press brake
The Smart Tool Locator also guides the operator through bending steps, eliminating mistakes while greatly increasing throughput.

That makes them more versatile, especially for anyone making deep boxes and bending parts with longer down flanges. But we’re also seeing that 8-axis back gauges are becoming quite common and we’re seeing more servo-powered machines. The entire landscape is definitely changing.

FSM: What advice would you give to someone considering a new press brake?

Bishop: Well, I won’t play favorites on one brand of press brake over another. There are more highly productive and highly accurate press brakes to choose from from a wider variety of suppliers than we’ve ever seen before. Aside from installing an STL, I would also suggest they look hard at a crowning system, even if the builder says it’s not needed. I’d also tell them to buy taller tooling to take advantage of the larger open height and the tremendous flexibility that it provides. A lot of shops don’t want to spend the money, but then they’re losing out on the greater flexibility, never mind the opportunities to attract new customers as well as the opportunity to court entirely new industries.

To this last point, I’d also say they should look at the parts and the type of work they would like to be doing in two, five even 10 years down the line. It’s not always easy to do that, but it’s essential to have a big picture view of the industry and try to find new opportunities. I’ve seen far too many shops paint themselves into a corner with three or four customers or a single market sector and then go under when the bottom falls out.

Sheet metal fabrication is a very competitive field. You have to diversify your customer base, stay current on technology, maximize your flexibility in manufacturing and do everything you can to eliminate waste in your production process. That’s the surest path to success.

Wila USA

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