New Press Brake Designs Tackle Ergonomic Concerns

August 25, 2019

Ergonomics in the workplace remains a highly discussed topic, and a quick Google search reveals hundreds of studies and recommendations for desk chairs, tables and monitors. But often overlooked, these same conditions apply to manufacturing environments as well. In fact, the ergonomics of a production operator is more critical to a business than you may think.

Smaller-sized press brakes now are being designed with ergonomics in mind. These new breeds enable operators to stand or sit, and tool storage at the machine enables quicker, easier and safer changeovers.

Ergonomics is defined by Merriam Webster as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.” More simply, ergonomics involves designing or modifying work to fit the worker in order to eliminate discomfort and injury. Though some might see this as a luxury, the implementation of workplace ergonomics repeatedly has been linked to higher efficiency and profitability.

A Demanding Task

Press brake operation represents one manufacturing task with a very high safety risk. A press brake’s main goal: Perfectly repeat a series of movements to ensure high-quality production. During an ordinary shift, a press brake operator may repeat the same cycle of movements hundreds of times. This type of repetition places operators at high risk for multiple types of short- and long-term injuries. Many businesses understand that the biggest risk to productivity comes from employee absence, but not enough understand that most injuries result from a repetitive strain, Furthermore, studies show that sprains and strains comprise more than 40 percent of workplace injuries.

Ergonomic improvement tends to focus on large- or heavy-part production, which seems to be the most obvious way to increase productivity or reduce injury during press brake operation. But an equal focus should be placed on small-part production, defined here as parts weighing less than 25 lb. and with forms less than 50 in. long. Experience has shown that large press brakes do not form small parts effectively, with operator ergonomics representing the most critical disadvantage. Though larger press brakes provide the flexibility to form any part in a production environment, design criteria for these machines have never considered operator comfort. On the other hand, press brake manufacturers have considered operator comfort in designs of smaller press brakes—usually electric and incorporating less than 60 tons of pressing force.

These machines are the first of their kind to not only focus on machine speed and efficiency, but factor in operator ergonomics and functions that aid in daily production routine. Design elements in these smaller press brakes mimic those traditionally considered for people working in office environments and in front of computers. Considerations such as posture, lighting and temperature greatly impact the daily productivity of employees. Now, fabricators are integrating these design requirements on their press brakes. A common sight: a couple of large hydraulic press brakes paired with a small ergonomic press brake, with the small brake usually the most sought-after machine on the floor.

Design Improvements Target Physical, Mental Fatigue

Running a press brake for hours is exhausting work, especially when standing, which makes posture a critical design consideration. Seated operation represents the most innovative change in press brakes, with newer machines designed to split between seated and standing operation.

This arrangement has greatly alleviated back pain—a constant struggle for operators—as well as fatigue across a shift. The ability to sit and stand intermittently fits well with American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) advice: “You need to move and change positions regularly throughout the day. Flex, extend and wiggle your legs. This will greatly reduce the risk of lower back pain and injury.”

Seated operation also has been coupled with adjustable tables, seats and footrests. Small adjustments allow operators to find the ‘sweet spot’ of optimal comfort. The goal of the adjustments: Obtain an ideal posture with neutral arm position, as this position has been proven to reduce fatigue and long-term injuries. As described by the Cornell University Ergonomics website, in a neutral arm position, “the elbow position is open to promote circulation to the lower arm and hand. This position also is ideal to minimize static and dynamic loads in the arms and hands.”

Lighting represents an often-overlooked ergonomic feature on press brakes. Operators are required to hit the same backgauge positions repeatedly throughout a shift. Poor lighting makes this task almost impossible. Dimly lit work areas cause eye fatigue and headaches—such mental fatigue is just as potentially harmful as muscle fatigue.

Easing the process for operators helps ensure that they stay sharp, thus reducing mistakes and scrap rates. A simple addition such as front and rear LED lighting delivers tremendous payback on press brake operation. Some press brake manufactures have taken the innovative step of introducing CNC lights that follow and track backgauge movement. This ensures optimally lit and easy-to-work-with backstops.

Tool Proximity an Ergonomic Focus

Machine manufacturers and operators alike have long struggled with tool proximity, which can provide an obvious payback on press brake operation—the quicker the tool changeover, the more productive the machine. This often becomes a focus with larger press brakes as they require more tooling, leading to incorporation of automatic tool changers. Though tool proximity seems relatively unimportant for smaller press brakes, tool changes contribute to operator fatigue. Tooling located away from a press brake not only increases fatigue, but also decreases press brake productivity. And, fatigue accelerates as tooling weight increases.

“Excessive or unnecessary motion should be reduced,” advises AIHA. “It also is critical to eliminate excessive force requirements and awkward postures.”

Tool storage built into smaller press brakes represents an important design development. Their smaller bend lengths enable easier storage of all required tooling at the machines. Again, building tool storage into these machines can reduce injury, shorten changeover times, help with organization and decrease fatigue.

More Comfortable Environment

Efforts to design ergonomic press brakes also have addressed the surrounding environment, namely, work-area temperature. Extensive studies show a direct link between temperature and employee productivity. For example, “a month-long Cornell University study found that inadequate temperatures resulted in more errors and a potential increase in a worker’s hourly labor cost by 10 percent,” reads a summary from the Society for Human Resource Management.

Manufacturing environments often require work in temperatures below 60 F or above 90 F. Of course, regulating the temperature of an office setting is much easier than that of a 100,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing space. Even so, the new generation of press brakes features innovations to help increase comfort levels. One example: the LED lighting mentioned above, which doesn’t emit heat as does traditional lighting.

Another simple but effective adjustment: adding a fan or a space heater to the operating area. Simple solutions such as these help reduce press brake scrap rates and increase productivity.

In a job requiring constant repetitive motion and near perfect execution, any comfort improvement for an operator can pay large dividends for a company. MF

Industry-Related Terms: CNC, Form, Hydraulic Press, Scrap
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: TRUMPF Inc.

Technologies: Bending


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