Why a sheet metal fabrication company added panel bending to its arsenal

FlexMet, Franklin, Tennessee, sees its Prima Power BCe Smart panel bender as an integral part of its efforts to launch its own product lines. Images: FLB Media

Resuming and starting over does not only apply to individuals. Sometimes businesses also need a reset.

Joe Bean bought a 65,000 square foot. building in Franklin, Tennessee, in early 2021. It was to be the new home of FlexMet Inc., its precision sheet metal fabrication business.

He had operated California Precision Products in San Diego since 1984, primarily serving aerospace companies in the area. The shop had CNC laser cutting, machining, punching, press brake bending, and tube bending capabilities in addition to powder coating. He handled 600 to 700 different part references per month for his various customers, which made the complex world of a workshop all the more complicated.

On top of that, the store’s location didn’t help. California is notorious for its high taxes and excessive state regulations, adding overhead costs that have tested the company’s profitability. It was also not an ideal location to serve potential customers in the Midwest, Southeast, and East Coast due to cost and logistical hurdles.

Prior to the move, Bean had developed its own line of products – cabinets designed to ensure the integrity of the ballots placed there. (A product currently in development is a smart drop box that can check voter ID to match it to the ballot.)

“I have a real interest in it, and we’ve seen success with the product. We sell them all over the country,” Bean said.

A key element of the company’s ability to produce the cabinets is its Prima Power BCe Smart panel bender. It was one of the first machines Bean put into operation when he opened the doors of his new FlexMet business in Franklin.

With FlexMet, Bean said he hopes to focus more on his own products, even as he continues to work with long-time customers. The next product launch will focus on outdoor kitchen cabinets and components. The folder will also play an important role in the production of these parts.

Back in California, Bean said his company had eight press brakes and the panel bender. In Franklin, FlexMet has only four brakes and a panel folder.

“We discovered the panel bending machine when we were looking to automate the forming cycle in our company. It really was that simple,” Bean said. “It worked out really well.”

Joe Bean, president of FlexMet, stands next to his bender.

Joe Bean, president of FlexMet, said his panel bending machine is the perfect fit for his product line and the way it can automate the forming cycle, which is especially important as the company is actively competition to recruit manufacturing talent in the competitive Nashville, Tennessee, market town.

These are the reasons why FlexMet bought the panel bending machine and why it makes sense for the company.

The right tool for the right parts

A panel bender doesn’t look like a press brake at all, and it shouldn’t because it doesn’t work like a press brake. On a press brake, the top tooling attached to the ram descends into a flat workpiece that rests on a die, and the tooling drives the workpiece into the open-faced die to create a shape. On a panel bender, a manipulator holds the workpiece in place while a pair of bending blades contact the material to perform up and down bends. The blades oscillate around a single point of curvature until the desired angle is achieved in the workpiece.

Since the part is bent in this way, only certain types of parts are suitable for such a machine. This is why panels, such as those that are part of a cabinet design, are ideal for these devices. A small internal clamp, say 0.25″, can be made quite easily on a panel bender, with the blade moving upwards to create the small bend as the part is securely clamped. Trying to replicate similar results on a press brake requires a skilled operator who knows exactly where that part should engage the backgauge.

A panel bending machine is designed to work primarily with gauge materials. The BCe Smart can handle up to approximately 12 ga. steel when bending the full length of the machine window. (For stainless steel and aluminum under the same conditions, the machine can handle up to 15 and 10 ga., respectively.) Bean said nothing more than 14 ga. is processed on his machine.

The panel bender has a maximum bending height of just over 8 inches and a maximum bending length of 88.50 inches. These provide the settings for creating various panels, frames and facades, Bean said.

One brake can’t do it all, that’s why FlexMet still has press brakes. (In fact, Bean said he plans to add a new press brake in the coming months.)

“First, all the clamps must be finished so that the part can be removed by the manipulator. It will bend both ways, but the last bend has to be up,” he said. “Also, if you have a part that’s less than about 25 inches, it just doesn’t make sense to put it on this machine.”

Does not require skilled operators

Bean said he could get an operator ready to operate the panel bending machine after just a week of training. This allows the individual to become a valuable contributor to the shop in a short time and frees up more experienced personnel for tasks which add value to the metal parts being processed which does not occur when they mentor their less experienced colleagues.

Bean said almost all work on the panel bending machine is programmed offline using Master BendCam. The software has 3D simulation capabilities to help avoid errors in bending sequences. Because of this, the operator only needs to be able to pick up the job, load the part, and unload the part when finished.

The machine’s user interface allows the operator to easily find and engage the job. Miniature replicas of the final parts accompany the works and can be easily identified and selected by the operator.

Cabinets with parts formed on a panel bender.

These cabinets include panels and doors formed on FlexMet’s panel bender.

To operate the machine, the operator places the sheet on the brush table and then starts the job, which is the signal for the manipulator to engage the sheet and automatically center it for the start of the bending cycle. Unlike a press brake operator, who must be precise in centering the part against a backgauge, the press brake manipulator does it for the operator.

The manipulator advances the sheet incrementally as bends are made on one side, then rotates the sheet and feeds it in the same manner for additional bending. For asymmetric sheet metal edges or partial ledges on one side of sheet metal, the Panel Folder has auxiliary blades that can snap into place to accommodate non-regular activity. Called the ASP option, the blades return to their resting place outside the bend zone when these atypical shapes are filled.

Panel bending machine operators do not need to know anything about tooling setup. It’s done automatically.

An automatic tool changer minimizes time between jobs. In just seconds, the tools that hold the sheet in place can be quickly removed or added to create a tooling setup that matches the workpiece to be placed on the brush table. Bean estimated that only 15-20 seconds are needed for a tooling change, which is faster than tooling change on fully automated press brake cells.

“This manufacturing process is where we can run 10 different part numbers at very low volume in the same day without the effect of long setup times,” Bean said.

Easy for operators

Bulky parts can be a challenge for any press brake operator working alone. Aligning parts against the backgauge is difficult and repeated handling of these parts can cause operator fatigue. Bean said his company has parts about 30 by 60 inches in the flat before bending, and it’s quite the chore to handle if they were formed on a press brake.

The paneling machine manages all part handling during the forming cycle. The operator simply loads the part onto the brush table and positions it where the machine operator can pick it up. The side sections of the BCe Smart worktable can be lowered so that the operator can more easily access the sheets when loading or unloading.

Welcoming new businesses

Bean said he’s excited to see FlexMet grow, build its own products, and even accept manufacturing contracts with other major manufacturing companies in the Southeast. Tools like the panel bender will help bid for this job, even as the company is looking to hire.

“The panel folder is very specific in what it does, but it’s really great at what it does. That’s really the main thing,” he said.

FlexMet is shaping a new future for itself, one panel at a time.

FlexMet Inc., 104 Southeast Parkway, #800, Franklin, TN 37064, 615-721-7888

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