Tube & Pipe
Thursday | 11 February, 2016 | 1:43 pm

Building momentum

Written by By Lynn Stanley

Above: Steffen Feder of Westcon Yard shows the type of heavy-wall pipes that can be bent on the company’s new Unison machine.

Manufacturers take on thicker-walled pipe with all electric, servomotor-driven tube bending technology

February 2016 - Customer centricity ranked No. 1 on the Top Ten Manufacturing Predictions for 2016. The idea of building a customer-driven business over one that is product-oriented is well established but the forecast suggests that interest in the topic is heating up among manufacturers looking to grow. Customer-based business practices are an intrinsic part of Unison Ltd.’s culture. A tube and pipe bending machine builder headquartered in the United Kingdom, Unison also provides integrated software packages for optimal manufacturing productivity. Growth has been a natural by-product. A quick rewind of the company’s activities, production milestones and awards over the last two years alone explains why.

In 2014 and 2015, Unison engineered and produced two of the largest all-electric pipe bending machines in the world and earned the Queen’s Award for International Trade. The company experienced 70 percent of its turnover through sales to Angola, France, Germany, Ghana, Mexico, Norway, Russia and the United States. Export volumes have doubled year over year. Purchase orders in America alone grew more than 100 percent in 2015, prompting Unison to open a service and sales office in Asheville, North Carolina. 

The key to Unison’s forward momentum   is “the ability to work with customers to understand what they wish to achieve and then engineer and manufacture a bespoke machine to help them accomplish that,” says Head of Sales Stuart Singleton.

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Unison’s all-electric servomotor- driven tube bending machines feature software-controlled setup, among other perks.

Taming giants

Research and development also play a critical role. In the early 1990s Unison invented a series of machines using electrical servomotors to control bending motion. Singleton claims these products were “the world’s first all-electric machines for tube bending.” Fast, repeatable software-controlled setup, low power consumption and clean operation led to widespread adoption. In 2014 Unison developed a servomotor-driven machine capable of bending thick-walled pipe with diameters above 8 inches.

“It is how we’ve built a reputation as the go-to company for complex and difficult tube bending applications and it underpins our export growth,” he says. “Our development of features like laser springback correction and a swing-away wiper die position us at the top of the market in terms of waste reduction. This is a massive advantage for manufacturers working with exotic materials such as Inconel, titanium and super duplex steels, which are extremely expensive.”

The trend favoring exotic metals requires solutions that make sense. “With exotics there is the need to bend these metals on ever tighter center line radii,” Singleton adds. “This allows designers to reduce total space requirements for applications like aircraft heat exchanger coils and fluid transmission systems. A smaller footprint means greater cost efficiencies.”

Interest in bending thicker-walled pipe is also expanding. Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia, commissioned Unison to build what—at the time— was the largest all-electric tube bending machine ever produced, Singleton says. This customer is the sole designer, manufacturer and refueler of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and one of two suppliers of U.S. Navy submarines. 

Its custom tube bender can generate 360,000 Nm of torque and bend pipe up to 8 inches NPS with an outside diameter of 8.625 inches and with a Schedule 80 wall thickness of 0.5 inches.

The ability to bend pipe of this size with an all-electric, servomotor-controlled machine versus hydraulically powered equipment gives manufacturers like Newport News a substantial production advantage, Singleton says. “Servo control also supports smart software-controlled set-up and right-first-time precision bending for enhanced accuracy and repeatability.”

Precise bending is aided by a laser-based automatic measuring system that adjusts bend angles to correct for springback.

But then Unison topped its own record of largest/most powerful bender when it engineered a machine last November capable of precision-bending 10-inch O.D. thick-walled carbon steel pipe for Westcon Yard AS, a Norwegian offshore and maritime services company. Westcon got its feet wet earlier in the year by purchasing a 3.5-inch single-stack Unison tube bender.

The customer previously fabricated pipe up to 2.4 inches in sections using multiple cut-to-length straight pieces and outsourced pre-formed bend parts. Individual sections, bends and end connection flanges were welded together to create the final assembly. Each weld required cleaning, inspection and non-destructive X-ray testing—a labor intensive process that relied on the speed of outside suppliers to meet tight delivery schedules. 

With the smaller Unison tube bender, Westcon can produce its 2.4-inch pipe in house from straight piping stock. It eliminated the need to outsource pre-formed bend parts and reduced the number of cutting, welding and testing operations.

Tommy Nilsen, Westcon’s head of prefabrication, notes the company is achieving superior bend accuracy and repeatability with good throughput. “Now that we have the larger tube bending machine in place we expect to significantly reduce production times for all pipe sizes. It’s like going from 1930 to 2016 in one stride.”

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Newport News Shipbuilding unloads a new Unison machine able to bend pipe up to 8 inches.


Unison’s sales, service and support have also reached across the pond with dedicated field staff spending up to 75 percent of their time installing new machines and maintaining those already in place. “It made sense to locate here permanently,” says Dale Coates, vice president for the newly minted Unison Tube LLC.

Less than five weeks after its launch, Unison Tube received an order from Byers Precision Fabricators in Hendersonville.

Byers produces parts and assemblies from sheet and tubular aluminum and 3/8-inch to 1-inch ANSI Schedule 40 and 80 stainless steels. Outsourcing tube and pipe bending requirements was becoming increasingly expensive and often created production bottlenecks.  

“Bringing our tube bending operations in house greatly enhances our flexibility to meet complex shape requirements, tight delivery schedules and last-minute design changes,” Byers Precision Fabricators President Roger Byers says.

“We chose a Unison machine primarily on the strength of its performance and the company’s reputation. Their support is also proving exemplary. The company has handled some specialist pipe part production for us until we take delivery of the new machine.”

With plans to eventually manufacture tube benders in Asheville, Unison CEO Alan Pickering also wants to transplant a program to promote career opportunities and improve recruitment. Pickering and Non-Executive Director Peter Wilkinson partnered with Scarborough Ambassadors Forum and Scarborough Council to establish Scarborough Engineering Week, which is now in its sixth year and attracts more than 3,600 young people from British primary, secondary schools and colleges. “The events and activities bring engineering to life for youngsters,” says Wilkinson. 

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” says Coates. “North Carolina’s Community College System is forward thinking and adaptable. We hope to partner with our local campus, Asheville-Buncombe Technical College, which already offers curricula that support local industries, including the area’s breweries. We want to connect with these resources to help expose young people to this type of work.”

“We need to get back to being a society that values learning a trade,” she adds. “It would be fantastic to have some home-grown people interested in tube bending.” MM


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