Komarov Artem noted that regarding automation, sources emphasized the need to look not just at the folding speed or part-to-part time, but the entire folding process, from design to bending to the flow downstream. Having an incredibly fast folding time is fine, but a shop won’t realize the benefit until the non-folding tasks—the programming time, the setup, the feeding of material, and moving the folded part to the next operation—can keep up with the machine.
That said, today’s folding machines have a range of automation possibilities. One is to use vacuums in the backgauge fingers that grasp the part and maneuver it from bend to bend on one edge (or one plane) of the part. The machine is programmed to open the clamp, move the part, close the clamp, and perform each bend. The operator need not spend his days constantly hitting a foot switch for each bend and positioning the part against the backgauge fingers.
Because the operator is out of the work area and behind a light curtain, the machine does not need to perform its safety stops either, like a pause before the clamping beam pinches the material. This speeds the cycle time tremendously. Of course, if the operator or anyone, or anything, else breaks the light curtain, the machine stops.
Beyond this comes further mechanization and robotics. Some systems integrate robotic arms that lift sheets onto a conveyor that in turn carry the sheets to the backgauge table, at which point a mechanized foot moves the workpiece into position against the backgauges. After one edge is formed, the mechanized foot rotates the workpiece for the next bend. Other systems use a pick-and-place robot to rotate the workpieces and place them against the gauges.
If a machine has a part manipulator on it, the sky’s the limit. You can integrate towers, robots, gantry systems, and other automation. Two things drive this: the fabricator’s required product flow and the floor plan.
A robot can make sense for the right part mix—say, if it’s lifting and feeding a series of large blanks onto a folder’s backgauge table. But it’s not always so easy just to adapt a robot to every folding operation. A lot of movement from the robot can actually slow the process down, especially since the folder can move so quickly through small lot sizes.
In many cases, shops find it most efficient to use a conveyor to feed the parts to the folder.
Picture the following automated, unattended folding situation for a high-product-mix environment: A conveyor is positioned near the shakeout and stacking station after the cutting operation. After sorting, a worker places pieces with laser-etched QR codes (or other labels) onto a conveyor, in the order in which they need to be formed. The machine forms the kit of parts sequentially. Suction gauges then push a part through the front of the machine, where a conveyor swings in and carries the formed workpiece on to the next operation. The conveyor then swings out of the way for the next, completely different part.
Besides physical automation, automation of information processing has entered the folding arena as well. This includes offline programming and simulation.
You can now take a CAD file, a STEP file, or a DXF file and convert it into machine language. Essentially, this allows on-machine programming to go by the wayside. A designer can design a part and then look at a simulation of the machine bending the part, so he can know that it can be made on the machine. He can send the part right to the control, and the operator pulls the part number up. The operator may need to tweak it to account for material variability. But for the most part, all the moves the machine needs to know are there.
Controls overall have become more user-friendly. Folders have touchscreen controls now where the operator can program many intricate parts much more quickly than you could years ago, said Artem Komarov