Madison College helps Robbins Manufacturing address training need

December 10, 2013

From thefabricator.com: “Press brake training helps build a foundation for success” — Robbins Manufacturing of Fall River, Wis., has invested in an extensive training program, including machine-specific training, especially on the press brake. The company also has invested heavily in new technology, including a brake with automatic tool change. Both investments are paying off.

Press brake training helps build a foundation for success - TheFabricator.com
Figure 1  Most employees in Robbins Manufacturing’s press brake department recently underwent in-depth training that covered not only how to operate a machine, but also the reasoning behind those procedures.

During a given day, the 17 press brake technicians in Robbins Manufacturing’s bending department form an impressive range of materials, on a range of machines—from 20-gauge to 1.25-inch-thick mild steel, bent on equipment from a 55-ton electric brake to a 320-ton hydraulic system (see Figures 1 and 2).

By the end of the year, the company expects to install a new press brake with automatic tool change capability. The controller downloads programs, and the system’s mechanization automatically sets up the punches and dies for a job. And thanks to sensors that detect the bend angle in real time, the first part should be a good part. An operator should be able to perform a job consisting of, say, five pieces, then another job of a dozen workpieces, and so on, with mere seconds of changeover time in between. Managers expect the new technology to really help their efforts to reduce batch sizes, to ensure workpieces reach the weld cells at the right time. No one wants a welder waiting around for a missing component.

Here’s the rub: The Fall River, Wis., contract fabricator plans to put one of its most talented, experienced operators on the new press brake. At the same time, the shop has invested in cross-training. The company has worked with Madison Area Technical College and the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International® (FMA) to provide classroom training on various topics. This includes a comprehensive certificate program on the intricacies of press brake operation.

Some may purchase a new machine tool to deal with the lack of skilled labor available. It’s not an ideal situation; managers are just adapting to a business reality. The people at Robbins, though, are tackling the skilled-labor crisis a little differently.

A Skilled, Adaptable Technician

The art of improvement in manufacturing often involves identifying a constraint, discovering why it’s a constraint, then devising ways to eliminate it. Robbins enjoyed a busy time earlier this year, but as capacity levels increased, inefficiencies became glaringly apparent, especially in bending. The press brake department needed to increase its throughput.

The problem, sources said, was that certain operators learned on specific machines and became specialists on that equipment. The company has different brands of press brakes, and each has its own control-interface idiosyncrasies—nothing dramatic, but just enough to throw off throughput goals on a busy day (seeFigure 3).

“We were struggling with the everyday logistics of running the shop,” said Eric Parks, plant manager. “When people were sick or on vacation during a busy time, we ran into constraints that seemed to be avoidable if we had training.”

Up until this point, Robbins’ training regimen had been mostly hands-on. A new employee would shadow an experienced operator and be trained to run a range of products on one machine. But that hands-on training didn’t necessarily cover why a certain forming program worked the way it did. Knowing the reasoning behind forming would give an operator a good foundation for learning how to operate every brake on the floor.

Robbins employs press brake operators in their 20s, 60s, and every age and experience level in between. The company tends to hire brake operators based in part on their blueprint reading capability. Operators may have experience in other trades, be it construction or carpentry, but if they can read a blueprint, managers figure these employees have a good foundation for learning the sheet metal bending craft.

“We generally taught our operators how to bend a family of products,” said Travis DeBussey, fabrication manager. “They understand how to make a group of parts at a specific machine. And in the past, unfortunately, that’s where we’ve stopped. With experience, they evolve to the next step and start to visualize a new setup, so they can bend a part that they’ve never seen before.” But he added that, until now, the company hadn’t offered formal classroom training.

A Common Language

Technical aptitude—knowing what has to be done—hasn’t been a problem. Instead, it was about the why, and about communicating that reasoning in a common language, be it bend radius, bend angle, bend allowance, bend deduction, tangent point, outside setback, or any other term in sheet metal bending. No matter the operator, press brake make and model, or company, everyone should speak the same bending language.

Many aspects of brake setup have become automated. Software can calculate the bend allowance and deduction and, ultimately, determine the correct die opening and punch for specific bends. But why is that die opening the way it is for a particular job? Why is the minimum flange length this measurement for this workpiece? Why is the radius pitch (the distance between hits made when bump-bending a large radius) specified this way? Why exactly does a bend become “sharp” at 63 percent of the material thickness, and why can’t you put a sharper radius in the bend without digging a ditch into the bend line?

“We’ve always had press brake operators, turret press operators, and laser operators,” said Parks. “We’re starting to migrate toward having fabricators.”

The ultimate goal is to have a flexible workforce capable of operating any machine in the fabrication area. So managers reached out to Madison Area Technical College. MATC’s outreach program, through grants, partially funded Robbins’ training initiative, which included a press brake operator certificate program from FMA. As part of this program, Steve Benson, president of Salem, Ore.-based ASMA LLC (and frequent contributor to this magazine), conducted a training program over two weekends in August. Several days focused on laser and punch press operation, but most instruction focused on the press brake.

The 20-person class had many of the company’s brake operators, but also other machine operators, including several turret operators who had never operated a press brake before. Most attendees passed the certificate course’s press brake exam with flying colors.

This isn’t to say the exam, or the training course, is a cakewalk. As Parks explained, even the shop’s most experienced operators learned something new. “Some of the more experienced people were reluctant because they’ve been [operating a brake] for a long time, and they understand how to do it. But they picked up on quite a few things, including some of the basic foundations, including some of the math that showed why they do what they do.”

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