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the tube provides a uniform load on the blade resulting in less noise, less scrap and blade life for 2.5 m³ of material. Laser has the advantage of being able to cut additional


features such as holes and slots either before or after bend- ing the tube. Searles said that while it’s more cumbersome to make cuts after bending the part, there are applications in which you can’t cut the material before bending it with- out the likelihood that the material would tear or deform in the process of bending it. “We look at each application and determine the best approach to accomplishing the goal, and we have equipment that can process tubes in whatever sequence of operations makes sense.”


Laser is also better at cutting the stainless steel used in some exhaust applications. In one such case, a European Tier 2 auto supplier achieved roughly 30% higher productivity using the BLM Group LT5 laser cutting machine versus the fastest sawing machine they had considered.


Handling the ‘Spaghetti’ Like a lot of high-volume production tasks, just handling the raw material in the tubing business is a major challenge. Searles said that, “Quarter-inch tube tends to become like spaghetti when you drop it into an automated system, so we need to take special steps to handle such material properly.” Product specialist Tom Worley added, “The biggest prob-


lem isn’t machining or cutting the tube, it’s getting one tube at a time to feed in properly at production rates. You’re talk- ing about tubes that can be smaller in diameter than my little finger and 20 to 40' (6–12-m) long, so it doesn’t take much of an error to create a mess. It takes a very good loader to make a high-production sawing machine perform at its best.” For straight tubes, BLM Group uses bundle loaders. A crane or forklift operator delivers a load of tube to the hopper and the loader automatically separates the tubes and feeds them individually into the machine. Smaller-diameter material like air conditioning tubing may come from the supplier in a coil, requiring a different approach. Worley said, “It’s typically ductile material, so you wouldn’t want to straighten it into long segments and then process it. Our machine unwraps and straightens the coil as it processes it.”


End Machining in a Flash


Some applications also call for machining the ends of tubes (e.g. for use as bushings) and BLM Group delivers with


machines like the BC80, a highly productive and completely automated CNC end-machining center. The BC80 can cut bushings up to 3.15" (80 mm) in diameter, in lengths from 0.4 to 13.75" (10–349 mm) and then chamfer, ID, OD, and face both ends, flush the chips, and measure the length relative to center—all automatically. The machine rejects any part outside spec, and can adjust the next cut based on any deviation from the normal. Because the machine has a rotating head with four stations (each of which simultaneously machines both ends of the part), what might have been, say, a 40-second total cycle time is effectively only about 12 seconds.


Making the Job Easier Searles said, “The automotive world wants a complete,


turnkey solution. And that’s what we do. We take the process from the bundle of raw tubing to the finished product, with a complete product line of automated tube loading systems, cutting systems, and bending and machining systems. “Our biggest challenge is getting customers to design for manufacturing. We can provide a solution to deal with whatever they want, but it often becomes a question of how cost effectively you can do this. For example, if someone designs a piece of tubing with five different radii, that’s potentially five different sets of tools. It’s more com- plicated to create a machine with all this tooling. If they can compromise on two or three radii they can lower their manufacturing costs.”


The malleability of the material is also still a critical


factor, so the end user should take care to specify the right material at the outset, and establish quality control procedures for the supply. “And you don’t use the same machine to make exhaust systems that you’d use to make air conditioning compo- nents,” Searles said. “If you’re in contract manufacturing and you service the off-road and passenger market, you’d need to handle a broader range of applications so the equipment needs to be more flexible. “These are the kinds of conversations we have with our customers. That’s why we like to get involved in the projects early on, rather than at the end, when the customer already has the contract and flexibility is limited. Customers in all in- dustries are leaner and leaner and look to suppliers to do this type of evaluation for them. Our job is to make the manufac- turing engineer’s job easier and help them make money.”


51 — Motorized Vehicle Manufacturing 2017


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