Jul 12, 2023

What does it take for a fabricator to run a robotic press brake cell?

(From left) Adam Hickey, vice president; Sean Gaither, the bending automation lead; Nick Peters, vice president; and Dave Andre, supervisor, Hickey Metal Fabrication, stand in front of the company’s new TruBend Cell 5000.

TV infomercial superstar and gadget inventor Ron Popeil once used the phrase “Set it and forget it!” to sell thousands of Ronco Showtime rotisserie/barbecue devices. That might work for countertop appliances, but that’s a bit too simplistic for robotic bending cells. Metal fabricators have to put in some time to make bending automation work efficiently for them.

Since installing a TRUMPF TruBend 5230 press brake with a BendMaster 150 robot in 2021, Hickey Metal Fabrication has learned quite a bit about automated bending. It likes the results enough that it is installing a TruBend 5170 press brake with a BendMaster 60 robot as well. The second brake will go on the other end of Building 7, a new facility on the company’s Salem, Ohio, campus. The 5230 press brake sits on the other end of the building.

But this has not been an overnight success. The company has spent more than a year trying to figure out what parts make the most sense for the cell, what employees might be the best candidates to work with the cell, and how to ensure the cell works fluidly with the rest of the company’s downstream fabricating processes.

“From a people standpoint, this can be a challenge,” said Adam Hickey, a company vice president. “It is almost a six-month process to get someone ready to run this cell.” In comparison, he suggested that training new people to run a modern fiber laser cutting machine takes only a couple of weeks. That gives you an idea of just how daunting running a large robotic press brake cell can be.

Hickey Metal turned to the automated bending cell because it identified 10 to 15 heavy parts that would be the perfect fit for a robotic press brake. These parts typically took two people to handle but weren’t heavy enough to require a crane all day long. (If a crane was needed, it just ended up slowing down production.)

“The more we looked at those parts, we really narrowed it down to at least 10 parts that when we ran the numbers, they made the most sense for the robotic press brake. We could fill it up with just that,” Hickey said.

The robot can pick up parts weighing up to about 240 lbs. Hickey Metal has employed the cell to put a 45-degree bend in a 220-lb. workpiece, which is about as close as the shop has come to getting close to that maximum lifting capacity.

But even somewhat larger parts could be just as challenging for human brake operators. Hickey explained how one 115-lb., 102-in.-long steel part required five bends and had to be flipped over and spun twice during the forming process. Hickey Metal Fab formed 130 of these parts a week; now the robot handles it.

“Safety is by far the No. 1 reason why we installed this,” Hickey said, “but it’s helped us with productivity too. For instance, we went from having two of our best people make 40 or 50 of that [115-lb. part] in a shift, and now we have the robot producing 130 in a shift.”

Hickey Metal is a big proponent of redundant processes, and after seeing the impact of the robotic press brake, it decided to plan for another one on the other side of Building 7. (To learn more about Hickey Metal Fabrication’s overall approach to metal fabricating, check out “The power of a family company.”) This cell, however, would be dedicated to lighter parts than the original bending cell.

The TRUMPF TruBend 5230 press brake with a BendMaster 150 robot has been in operation at Hickey Metal Fabrication in Salem, Ohio, for almost two years. Training operators to run the cell safely and efficiently takes about six months, according to company officials.

The newest bending cell also has grippers for smaller parts, such as brackets. This way the brake can be used to produce small, but much-needed, parts over skeleton shifts.

“What we’ve been able to do is take a lot of our high-volume and heavier parts away from manual bending and let press brake operators work with parts that are 5, 15, and 20 lbs., instead of bending 40-, 50-, and 60-lb. parts all day,” Hickey said. “At the end of the day, I think our press brake operators across the board are probably a lot more satisfied because they don’t have to bend as many heavy and redundant parts.”

The learning curve, however, hasn’t been short. For instance, Hickey Metal figured out it needed a magnetic sheet fanner to ensure that the robot in the original bending cell didn’t pick up multiple sheets at one time.

Here are some other important lessons that the sheet metal fabricator has learned about running an automated bending cell.

Again, the idea that someone is just going to sit behind a computer, program a part to be bent in the cell, and watch a quality part be produced with little intervention is just not true. A valuable robotic press brake technician needs to know the characteristics of different metals, understand what springback is, and realize how decisions made at the bend cell affect downstream operations.

“You’re never taking a program from the computer, putting it in there, and hitting go and it just runs,” Hickey said.

As an example, Hickey pointed to a higher-strength, low-alloy steel, such as grade 100, which can be challenging for the software to replicate in a virtual setting.

That’s not the end of the world, obviously. Hickey said that the software does a really good job at getting “close” for most of the bending jobs, but it really needs to be dialed in for some of these more challenging materials. That’s why the press brake operator needs to be aware that the job might need to be tweaked to get the form specified on the job order.

Because the programming is done offline, Hickey Metal has asked a manufacturing engineer, who is charged with creating the programs, to work with the robotic cell technician to ensure that the jobs are tweaked to produce quality parts in an efficient manner. The two basically work side by side to ensure the right changes are made to the job. The engineer gets a first-hand lesson on job shop realities in bending metal, and the technician knows that the engineer is making the needed changes to develop successful bending programs.

The operator that can put the pedal down and focus on forming hundreds of the same part always has a home at Hickey Metal, but that individual might not be the best fit for bending automation.

Working with the bend cell requires someone to be very detail-oriented, according to Hickey. One small oversight can lead to a very expensive mistake.

Typical tooling setup in a press brake is pretty straightforward. A newer brake’s control tells the operator what tools to use for the job and where to place them. Because it’s a manual process, the operator can maneuver the part to avoid any potential collisions with tooling or the press brake. The operator offers the instantaneous ability to adjust.

The robotic press brake is only going to do what it’s programmed to do, so tooling setup needs to be exact. If a tool is 0.125 in. off from where it should be, the robot could end up maneuvering that part right into the tooling, possibly damaging the part, tooling, brake, and grippers. The robot can’t reposition the part to accommodate for the misplaced tool.

“You need to learn about the automation and the speed of the process,” Hickey said. “That requires the operator to be thoughtful about what is going on at all times. That’s the type of person needed for this job.”

Organizing parts on a pallet isn’t just about finding a way to stack them. It’s about presenting them in a way that makes sense for downstream processes.

Hickey said that Sean Gaither, the bending automation lead, might walk by the cell and notice that the parts coming from the robotic press brake are being placed in a not-so-advantageous way for the operator of the downstream robotic welding cell. While the formed parts are stable and easy to reach on the pallet, the operator at the welding cell has to rotate them so that they fit correctly in the welding fixture. If the press brake technician places the formed parts on the pallet in a different way, the downstream welding cell operator doesn’t have to wrestle with the heavy parts, saving time and improving ergonomics.

“We really believe that you need to go see a part all the way through the process. We’re big on that,” Hickey said. “That’s really helped us out.”

As Hickey Metal prepares for its newest robotic bend cell to get up and running, a young person has stepped up to learn the ropes. Even though he didn’t have a lot of experience in metal fabricating, he has spent some of his time with the company bending parts on a press brake. Gaither said that he’s picked up on the basics of bending metal pretty quickly and looks like a good fit.

But, again, he won’t be running that cell completely by himself until several months down the road. Staying on top of the many variables and being able to make the right decision to keep parts flowing out of the cell are best learned on the job and over time, under the watch of someone with bending automation experience.

In the meantime, Hickey Metal is making its bending automation work. It’s not as user-friendly as programming a robotic welding cell, but then again, the company has been doing that for a couple of decades now. Hickey Metal believes in automated bending enough that it plans to add a third automated bending cell, one dedicated to 4- and 5-ft. parts that weigh less than 40 lbs., in the near future.

“I see it being really beneficial for us because it’s good for repeats, the cyclical work,” said Nick Peters, vice president, Hickey Metal. “When you’re doing parts every month, you can put those parts on the robot and have the robot bend them. If you have just 25 parts as part of a single job, it’s not worth it yet.”

Automated bending is still somewhat new to the world of metal fabricating. Improvement is on the horizon. Engaged and knowledgeable technicians might help get some metal fabricators there before others.