Tube & Pipe
Thursday | 08 August, 2019 | 11:34 am

Embracing change

Written by By Gretchen Salois

Above: Advance Tube Engineering processes a 0.75-inch OD, 0.065-inch-thick wall carbon steel tube on a 2.75-inch centerline radius.

Technology helps one tube processor widen the pool of available talent

August 2019 - When the economy turned around post recession, Advance Tube Engineering saw a rebound in its order books. “Our shop got busy really fast,” President Alex Alvarez says. “We had two guys working for us at the time and realized that, with the equipment we had, it would take five years to qualify new operators as tube runners.”

Alvarez was also fighting employee turnover. “With our older machines, it just took too long to try and bring our new guys up to speed. One of our new hires left to work elsewhere, where they had newer equipment,” he recalls. “We knew it wasn’t just a matter of upgrading machines. It was about attracting and retaining talent from a pool of people without the experience you’d need to be able to tweak the older machines just right. That takes years, and our applicants weren’t bringing those years of experience with them.”

For more than 50 years, Huntington Beach, California-based Advance Tube Engineering has navigated ebbs and flows in the industry. “Our father started the business and my brother and I run it. We’re in it for the long haul, so it was time to step up our technology,” says Alvarez.

MM 0819 tube image1

It is vital to obtain the correct starting length of the tube and the proper location/orientation of holes before beginning to bend.

Advance Tube bends aluminum, stainless and carbon steels and provides square tube bending services, beading, flaring and swaging, among other services.

The Alvarez brothers reviewed various makes and models from numerous tube bending machine manufacturers, including BLM Group. “The design of the BLM Elect-52 is what grabbed my attention. The tube remains stationary throughout the bending process,” Alvarez says. “The head moves. If you have a stack of two dies, it goes up and down so your centerline remains true.”

BLM offers all-in-one technology, an Industry 4.0 platform that bridges the gap between multiple processes in a production run, such as laser cutting and bending. “In precision tube bending, it is critical to understand the effect that the bending process will have on the specific material,” explains Misgana Mulat, Western regional sales manager at BLM Group USA, Novi, Michigan.

“Elongation, springback and radial growth have a direct impact on the part length, holes, part shape/geometry and part accuracy. Thus, it is important to obtain the correct starting length of the tube, along with proper location/orientation of holes before the bending process begins.”

Learning curve

During his visit, Alvarez observed a BLM client conducting operator training on the Elect-52 machine.

“They were on the third day of training and already programming jobs into the computer, so I asked our BLM salesperson how long those guys had been bending. He said, ‘Those guys have no idea about anything tube bending.’

“I was floored. Here were these guys during their third day in training without any tube bending experience working the basics, including tooling and bending data to come up with a sample part. That’s what we needed,” Alvarez says.

BLM came to understand that Advanced Tube Engineering required multiple production changeovers, part repeatability and accuracy, while reducing production cost, says Mulat. Advance Tube sought easy programming (offline or at the machine), simplicity and swiftness of changeovers, alongside “the ability to get the first part right the first time using our bender.”

BLM’s B-Tools module ensures that when a new tool is set up on the machine, three different angles are bent and the theoretical values versus the measured values for all three angles are saved in the B-Tools table. This is different from a trial-and-error approach.

“It is a single test to record the angle deviation and elongation during the setup of a new tool,” Mulat says. “Then the B-Tools table for that specific material can be applied to the program before bending any parts and the software provides the correct starting bar length. It calculates, algorithmically, the correct compensation based on the springback, elongation and radial growth, using the B-Tools table that was created when setting up a new tool.”

Optimizing bending tool design, especially when it involves multi-stack tools and variable radius bends, can be cumbersome, adds Mulat. Precision tool design is complex and involves manual calculations—which can lead to errors—to determine tool parameters for bending, identifying tool dimensions, tool positions, spacers, tooling surface finishes, and the correct manufacturing tolerances.

“BLM’s all-electric machines work conjointly with our software, known as VGP-3D,” Mulat continues. “VGP-3D offers a full 3D graphics environment (as opposed to a G-Code-driven platform, for example), which allows users to visualize and manage machine parameters or configurations graphically, alter tooling design and setup, manage sequence and cycle options, as well as load and unload parts within the 3D environment.”

MM 0819 tube image2

Since installing the BLM Elect-52, an operator with any skill level can set up jobs at Advance Tube.

Eliminating backlogs

With three operators, Alvarez says the BLM machine has helped with backlog issues. “A new operator can set up jobs and, if it’s a more complicated task, the night foreman can set the program up before his shift is done and the young kid comes in and runs it,” he says. “I can hire any new person and, while they may not know how to set up the more complicated jobs, they can put the tube in and press the button for the job I’ve programmed.”

Setup time is recorded into the tube bender and ready for the operator to perform. “Other than adjusting for different material, the programs are preset,” Alvarez says. “[The ease of] reorders is amazing. It used to take an hour and a half on our older machines whereas here, we’re ready to go in minutes.”

Since installing the BLM, Alvarez says Advance Tube can take on larger orders. “We rarely say no to a job, but now we’re able to be more competitive when it comes to pricing,” Alvarez says. “Running the BLM has allowed me to match or beat other pricing. I don’t have to worry about scheduling: I can take a 300- to 400-piece order and instead of a two-week lead time, I’m able to turn it around in two to three hours.”

Order size has also changed because Advance Tube can handle one-off smaller jobs for prototypes without interfering with long-run production schedules. “We can go beyond large-volume orders to study 50 or 200 pieces for a job,” he says.

BLM’s technology also allows Advance Tube to resolve layout issues. “We were using three separate machines and now BLM lets us run it all on one machine,” says Alvarez.

Whether for aerospace, automotive or parts used in the film sector, Advance Tube Engineering can handle more complicated orders. “We just ran a job where the customer is using [tubing for] lighting backup on a movie set. We bent 3⁄8-inch-diameter stainless tubes into a rectangular shape and our newest guy ran the job,” says Alvarez. “He’d only been working two months and was able to complete this job without problems.” n


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