Pennsylvania metal fabricator keeps automation in mind
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Pennsylvania metal fabricator keeps automation in mind

Dec 17, 2023

Glen Zimmerman checks the schedule for the company's EBe panel bending machine. Images: Prima Power

Metal fabricating companies looking for the right fit in their organizations has been a consistent challenge over the years. Of course, it's been exacerbated recently with hourly pay rising in other economic sectors, such as restaurants and hospitality, making competition for entry-level talent even more heated.

To combat this ongoing trend, metal fabricators have tried to invest as much as possible into automating manufacturing activities on their shop floors, freeing up employees to tackle more complex work. For some, however, this hasn't been a new strategy. Raytec Fabricating, for example, has seen the writing on the wall for several years and has not only purchased more productive fabricating technology over the years, it also has planned for an automated future with each purchase.

Readers of The FABRICATOR might find the Raytec name familiar. The New Holland, Pa.-based shop was was featured in December 2020 because it had just taken possession of a 20-kW fiber laser cutting machine to go with the 15-kW machine it already owned. The investment in the new laser cutting technology tied into the company's growth plans. The fabricating company had seen its job shop work grow, but it also was busy with its own product lines—building products, such as gutter systems, and agricultural fabrications, such as specialized carts to weigh pigs. (The New Holland plant handles sheet metal parts for these end product segments, and manufacturing capacity elsewhere takes care of the stamping and roll forming required for the building products.)

Since that story was published, Raytec has added a 30-kW Eagle fiber laser from Fairmont Machinery, the supplier of its previous two laser cutting machines. Glen Zimmerman, one of the company's owners and son of the founder Raymond (the "Ray" in Raytec), said he knows more efficiently laser-cut metal blanks give his company a competitive advantage. The timing also enabled him to sell the 15-kW laser at a time when it was going to be in high demand in the market, with many job shops preferring to sit out the arms race that has become high-kilowattage laser cutting capabilities.

But all of this laser cutting power put additional strain on the bending operation. Simply adding press brakes was not the answer because finding experienced brake operators, or even someone that might be interested in learning to do that, is not that easy. That's why the company added bending technology such as a CNC folding machine, where many of the larger, more awkward parts now are formed, and a TRUMPF robotic bending cell, which now is the first choice for bending challenging small parts.

"We soon saw that we had to continue this journey [when it came to automation] to be successful," Zimmerman said. "That's when we looked to add a stacking robot [to the punching/shearing machine]. At the time, we hadn't really thought about automated panel bending—at least until we had the opportunity for some work to come along that would be a good fit for that type of a machine."

Adding a panel bending machine to its Prima Power Shear Genius SGe8 punch/shear combination machine, originally purchased in 2015, was a logical extension of the company's original plan toward a more automated future. A stacking robot at the combination machine would remove material handling responsibilities and allow the machine operator to perhaps run one or even two other machines. The robot and a connected panel bending machine translated into a system where parts would be blanked, punched, and formed without any human interference. The first time a person would touch the part would be handling the finished piece as it exited the panel bender (or the punch/shear machine if no forming was required).

In 2020, Raytec decided to pursue full automation. It installed a 14-station tower to feed the punch/shear cell, which replaced a single pallet loading and unloading system; a Prima Power servo-electric EBe Express Bender; a picking and stacking robot to help with parts coming off the SGe; and a buffering station between the two cells to ensure that workpieces flowed smoothly from one station to another.

Despite its age, the punch/shear combination machine remained a viable candidate to anchor the new automated fabrication line. After all, it was one of the first cells set up at Raytec to work in a lights-out manner with no operators around.

In particular, Zimmerman said the machine's part-sorting function was something that streamlined production. The SGe has two 30- by 60-in. drop zones for medium-sized parts separated from the skeleton and a cross conveyor that captures smaller parts and delivers them to one of five bins underneath the table.

Adding the raw material storage tower, which connected to the punch/shear combination machine, was something that could be done fairly easily because room existed to place it near the equipment. The entire line, however, was going to have to be precisely planned.

Large and awkward parts now can be sent to the company's new panel bending machine, where the forms are made automatically without the need for manual material handling.

"The challenge was to stay inside a length of the factory determined by a dock door," said Fred Cooke, a Prima Power sales manager. "So we provided standard components in a custom configuration."

The SGe8 was a 14-ft. format. Fittingly, the FLS1540 single-sheet delivery system connected to the machine and the picking/stacking robot system both could accommodate that part size. The Picking Center Device that feeds the bender allowed for 14-ft. parts as well, opening the door for laser-cut blanks to be processed by the bending system.

The panel bender design, however, needed to be tweaked. The bender design was enlarged from 149.6 in. to 153.5 in. to accommodate a specific part that Raytec regularly fabricated.

To make room for everything, Zimmerman said they moved some machinery out of the way. It was a tight fit for the entire line, but they were able to keep all of the equipment on the right side of the dock door.

The line is officially called a PSBB (punching, shearing, buffering, and bending), and the buffering aspect helps to pace production so that everything flows smoothly through the line. For instance, for parts that don't require a lot of punching or forming on the SGe, the shearing can outpace the stacking robot very quickly. To avoid that, parts are buffered after they are released from the punch/shear, where they are held until the robot can stack the parts for staging to feed the panel bender or for exit if no forming is needed.

"The programming software allows you to run and maximize production without worrying about a potential bottleneck in the system," Zimmerman said.

A stack of parts before the bending machine is not of too much concern because the EBe can operate about two to three times as fast as the punch/shear, according to Zimmerman, particularly if embosses or up-forms are part of the activities on the SGe.

Unlike a traditional press brake, a panel bender doesn't require an operator to handle the workpiece. A part manipulator takes the sheet fed onto the table and positions it between blank holder tools, which then descend and clamp the workpiece in place, with material protruding on the other side.

With the sheet metal in place, the machine's bending blades from above and below move to fold the metal. For most operations, the motion of the bending blade, not the shape of the tools, determines the final bend angle and radius.

The farther the metal protrudes beyond the tooling—an area of the machine called the throat—the higher the resulting flange will be. The deeper the throat, the higher the flange. The maximum bend height on the panel bender is about 8 in.

Although it was a tight fit, Raytec placed its new punching/shearing/panel bending line neatly on one side of its facility.

Zimmerman said that although the EBe can't handle everything, such as very narrow parts, which don't provide enough room for the part manipulator to grab onto it and aren't wide enough to extend beyond the blank holder tools, it has been a very versatile tool, processing a high mix of jobs. It produces parts, ranging in size from doors to 13-ft. panels, consistently over a shift.

The entire PSBB line is manned by one person. Zimmerman added that, in addition to productivity and consistency improvements, the entire line has led to a much safer operation because no one is required to handle material until it comes off the panel bender.

"It has taken a different level of experience upfront on the programming side of things, but the results are worth it. You can dictate the outcomes in a much more predictable and controlled fashion from the office than you can with traditional fabricating methods," Zimmerman said. "You don't have to rely on the expertise or the skill of an operator."

The panel bending machine has not only opened up forming capacity for Raytec, but also doors to new business opportunities.

"On our customer side, we were looking at ways to fulfill missed opportunities. One of them that we saw was that there were very few, if any, integrated panel bending lines in the job shop market. What that allowed us to do was to open up the small- to medium-sized-volume market to have fully integrated panel bending capabilities in the job shop market, where this market wouldn't normally have access to that technology," Zimmerman said.

With its new automated line in operation, Raytec could be expected to take a moment to analyze the impact of the new investment, but that's not the case. The metal fabricator is moving ahead with an expansion of its current 46,000-sq.-ft. facility.

Zimmerman said that an 18,000-sq.-ft. addition is expected to be complete by late spring or early summer, which will then be followed by another 28,000 sq. ft. later this summer. Raytec will double its size by the fall of this year.

"We want to spread out some of our operations a little bit to make it more efficient," he said.

The two laser cutting machines will be moved into the first addition. Both machines will be connected to automated material storage and retrieval towers, allowing them to maximize cutting time and further reduce labor.

With the latter building expansion, Raytec is looking to possibly integrate a coil-fed cut-to-length system to the punching/shearing/panel bending line. Zimmerman added the shop plans to move the existing punch/shear system and replace it with a newer model. The stand-alone punch/shear combination machine would then be paired with a material tower for further unattended operation. The cell would act as a backup for blanking and forming small parts.

The automation plans don't end there. Because of Prima Power's ability to integrate and build out fully automated systems that are backward compatible, a Night Train FMS automated material storage and retrieval system is looked upon as the last step to really tying the stand-alone punching/shearing cell and the punching/shearing/panel bending line together.

"Our goal is to be able to go from coil to sheet into any of the machines, go from sheet storage into the punch on any of the machines, and then place the punched part back into the Night Train for storage," Zimmerman said.

Right now, Raytec has about 14 people running its metal fabricating operations. That number won't change dramatically with the investment in further automation.

Zimmerman can't predict the future, but he knows that Raytec needs to continue to enhance its productivity and flexibility without necessarily adding manpower in the future. That's been the plan for a while and will continue to guide the company in the near term.