Share content on LinkedIn Share content on YouTube
Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

Automatic Panel Bending Schools the Competition

September 1, 2017

This Chicago fabricator leverages technology to solidify itself as a top supplier of carts, furniture and more to K-through-12 educational customers.

“Rework and reimagine,” is how the Bretford Manufacturing website describes this 200-plus-employee Franklin Park, IL, fabricating and assembly company, which builds education-based mobile carts and furniture in its 325,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing operation, and delivers these products worldwide. The description is on point, as the company constantly develops new, technologically advanced offerings—years ago it was reportedly the first to offer mobile computer carts, the first to build a comprehensive line of audio/visual accessories and the first to launch a power-managing cart that conserves laptop battery life.

“We service mainly kindergarten through 12th grade, and when schools let out, our business increases,” says Dave Raddatz, plant manager at Bretford. “We’ll work two 10-hr. shifts during the summer to meet demand.”

Pushing the envelope not only applies to what Bretford sends out the door, but also to the equipment and processes it brings in. The third-generation, family-owned company performs forming, bending and stamping of typically hot- and cold-rolled mild steel, followed by welding, painting and assembly, all inhouse. Highly automated shop-floor production equipment—arranged in cells—includes press brakes, laser cutters for sheet and tube, punching and bending machines, and robotic welders.

Since its inception in 1948, Bretford—the company name combines the founders’ wives’ maiden names—has relied heavily on press-brake operations, but more recently embraced automated bending to augment these capabilities. In 2013, the company purchased a P4 automatic panel bender from Salvagnini.

An example of handiwork via Bretford Manufacturing’s automatic panel bender: The equipment replaces press brakes and provides a significant increase in productivity, report company officials.

“The need to improve quality and efficiency drove this purchase,” explains Raddatz, seeing the equipment as an investment in the company’s lean efforts.

The P4 produces prototypes for Bretford, and the company designs parts, including side panels, bases and tops, specifically for production in the panel bender.

“We optimize some of the dimensions and offsets for the P4, and our engineers are familiar with its capabilities,” says Paul Santaromana, who programs the panel bender at Bretford.

The company routes 20- to 14-gauge material to 48 in. wide by 98 in. long through the machine, which also features automatic blank loading and part unloading. Maintenance-management software provides alerts for updates or filter changes, and Salvagnini has a remote connection to the machine, which helps ensure continued performance and optimum uptime.

Huge Productivity Uptick

Running 20 hr./day during the busy summer season, the reliable P4 has streamlined panel-bending operations.

“We’ve found that the panel bender offers an advantage over the press brakes in certain operations,” Raddatz says. “Whereas the P4 averages 45 sec. to make a part via automated setup and tool change without ever missing the backguage, the same part would require two press brakes, and two different setups. The quantities are just off the charts as compared to using the press brakes for some of these operations. Once programmed, the P4 does the work correctly every time, so you just need someone for loading or unloading. Conversely, a press-brake operator would need to know how to flip the part, understand the bending sequence and a lot more. The payback sold us.”

Santaromana is quick to agree.

Engineers at Bretford Manufacturing, familiar with the automatic panel bender’s capabilities, design parts and products specifically for this equipment.

“The press brakes can do some things that the P4 can’t, but the P4 does not require setup and it performs automatic tool changes,” he says. “And, it can perform accurate radius bends automatically and much more quickly than on a press brake, without us having to buy and set up 5-ft.-long radius tools on the press brake.”

In a manufacturing cell, the P4 replaced two existing press brakes, which were transferred to handle sheet from a coil-fed laser-cutting machine. Raddatz stresses that productivity savings through the P4 addition have freed up employees for other operations at Bretford.

“We don’t let anyone go when we make lean improvements, such as bringing in the automatic panel bender,” he says. “We will move people to other areas and only reduce employment through attrition.”

In getting the P4 up and running, Bretford provided to Salvagnini a list of parts, many being difficult to form on the press brakes, to see which ones would be ideal for running through the new machine.

“About 70 percent of those parts could be run with no issue,” Santaromana recalls.

In any case, when programming the panel bender, computerized simulation ensures an ideal process.

“I just fine-tune within our typical tolerance of 0.015 in. and the job is good to go,” he says.

Everything Supports Lean

Bringing in this panel-bending technology fits nicely with Bretford’s lean quest—a big reason why the company can meet its target of a five-day lead time to the customer.

“We try to keep as little material on the floor as possible,” explains Raddatz. “Our materials supplier takes a daily inventory and delivers each day based on what we used the day before. And, we don’t stock products, but build to order—we have about 8000 part forms, but can’t make 8000 different parts each day. Orders are released to the shop floor on the first day, and we route what we can to cells, where productivity is very high. On higher-volume products we might route that to a cell outfitted with a turret press, press brake, spot welder and robotic welder, with one to three employees staffing it, depending on the volume. We’ll move people to the product that sells rather than just build to stock.”

That said, Bretford kanbans its inventory, with some parts premade and pulled as needed.

Primarily for educational settings, Bretford Manufacturing constantly debuts new products, including mobile charging carts for iPads (top) and furniture with built-in charging stations.

“As they are pulled, the signal goes back to replenish the bin,” Raddatz says, “so we constantly produce the parts that we need. We are driven both by kanban and by work order.”

Joining the P4 and coil-fed laser cutter on the production floor are two laser-cutter/turret-punch-press combos—six press brakes are dedicated to output from the coil-fed unit, and six to the combos. From there, parts go to electrical, assembly and the paint line.

“Throughout our plant, if you just look at production time, without waiting time, it takes 10 hr. to go from cutting the material to packing,” says Raddatz, rightly proud of Bretford’s lean practices. “There’s not a whole lot of sitting around. For example, we have leaned out our paint hooks. We looked at hang patterns to optimize those, and as soon as we hang something on the paint line, our Packsize machines (two inhouse used to make cardboard boxes) get the signal to cut cardboard.”

Bretford also produces its own electrical units…and again, ‘not sitting around’ is the theme.

“We produce schedules each day that cover today’s production and two days ahead,” Raddatz says. “With this schedule, we begin premaking the units so that they are completed eight hours ahead of packout—not much buildup here. And, we generally ship the same day that a product comes off of our packout lines.”

During MetalForming’s tour of Bretford, Raddatz and Santaromana detailed the equipment and operations with obvious pride, which is no accident, as the company has worked hard (and successfully) to rework operations and, just as it claims, reimagine its product line and processes.

“This is a family-owned company dedicated to what we do, and it costs a lot of money to do lean,” Raddatz concludes. “I am proud of our plant, I’m proud to give a tour and I’m proud of our employees. We work together, and we get good products to our customers when they need them.” MF

Industry-Related Terms: Bending, Blank, Case, Form, Forming, LASER, Lead Time, Point, Run, Tolerance, Turret Press, Turret
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: Salvagnini America, Inc.

Technologies: Bending


Must be logged in to post a comment.
There are no comments posted.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Start receiving newsletters.