Automated Tube Bender Expands Business Opprtunities for Californian Fabricator

Reducing process steps is the driving factor behind tube bending specialist SF Tube's latest investment in CNC machinery. The San Francisco Bay area fabricator has purchased an all-electric, software-controlled tube bender from Unison.

The new CNC automation is providing much more flexibility for the fabricator compared with its existing hydraulically-actuated machines. The machine allows it to produce more complex tubular shapes including rotary draw bent and roll formed curves in a single machining operation - parts that in some cases used to require successive operations on up to three different machines.

"Simplifying production processes is particularly important just now when most client budgets are static or declining," says Rafael Nunez, SF Tube's Director of Business Development. "Being based in an area with very expensive labour costs, machinery investments must also help our skilled labour be more productive. The Unison machine's software-driven set-up, software-controlled repeatability of configuration, and bending versatility gives us this - reducing our overheads to help us continue offering the benefits of local metalwork subcontracting services to Californian businesses at extremely competitive rates."

The new machine is additionally helping SF Tube to develop its business. The company works in numerous industrial sectors including transportation, aerospace, medical devices and military equipment, and the requirements for higher levels of precision and the complexity of shape designs are continually escalating. Handrails for buses and trains are typical of this trend. One current project is a highly styled handrail calling for two different bend radiuses and a roll formed curve. This part used to be made in three stages on three different machines. Now, it can now be fabricated in one operation on the Unison bender - reducing the labour costs on the job alone by some 70%, as well as reducing other costs including energy consumption, scrap and floor space.

The energy reduction compared with hydraulic machines is viewed as significant, as the all-electric machines only consume any significant power when actually making a bend - unlike the hydraulic machines with their almost constant demand. SF Tube is currently engaged on an energy reduction program. Following the first two initiatives: the introduction of the all-electric bender - which replaces a hydraulic machine - and the changeover of factory lighting to low energy types, the 52-strong company has already reduced its monthly electricity bill by over $1000.

The ability to make more complex bent shapes is beginning to help SF Tube to win new business. One customer has asked the company to look at concept shapes and explain what is technically achievable using the all-electric tube bender, to help its industrial designers produce more visually attractive and distinctive designs. Tubular components based on difficult-to-bend materials such as titanium are another new business target.

The new machine is a member of Unison's Breeze family, and is capable of bending tubing with outside diameters of up to two inches, using rotary draw bending and/or roll form tooling. The machine was sold to SF Tube by Unison's North American partner, Horn Machine Tools.

"The tube fabrication supply base is not as commoditised as the sheet metal industry, and some workshops have changed very little, relying on their traditional skills and tools" says Kent Horn of Horn Machine Tools. "SF Tube is very forward looking and has grasped the potential of all-electric bending as a platform that enables it to add value for clients, in terms of improving product quality and precision, and simplifying manufacture."

SF Tube began in 1987 by producing parts for buses, and has grown to become one of California's premier tube subcontractors, producing over 100,000 miles of tube and pipe parts a year. The company now has over 20 CNC and semi-automatic bending machines.


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