Without the ability to forge steel and other metals over the past century and a half, industry would have lacked the parts needed to manufacture cars, build aircraft, drill for oil, mine for minerals or lay down rail tracks. Now, however, automation is changing the game. Despite lagging many other industries, the forging industry increasingly requires significant automation upgrades for both new equipment and remanufactured/rebuilt models of everything from horizontal forging machines and vertical presses to hammers and solid-ball die forgers.
In doing so, tasks that were once performed manually – such as moving heavy steel rods, pipe and other stock in and out of equipment – are now automated to improve worker safety and shop-floor efficiency. Gone are the days when three men would lift a heavy steel rod with a glowing end into, and out of, a horizontal upset forging press.
Increased Safety and Productivity
Today, many of these manual tasks are instead being replaced with the mechanical “hand” of a robot or by integrating servos that can lift, insert and deposit materials. Even tasks such as automated tooling changes can be completed with the push of a button.
Not only does this create a safer environment for forging operators, but productivity is increased. By automating forging operations to perform some of the tasks of a human operator, productivity can increase from several hundred pieces per hour to up to 3,000, depending on the type of products being forged.
Ajax-CECO (A-C), one of the oldest manufacturers of forging equipment, has taken a leading position in integrating automation with its equipment. Founded in 1875, the company then known as Ajax introduced the first general-purpose forging machines. In 2004, the company purchased the intellectual property of the Chambersburg Engineering Company (CECO) and now manufactures and supports both brands of equipment.
Today, A-C’s mission is to serve the global forging industry as the preferred supplier of quality, custom forging machinery with a wide range of capabilities. They are a source of forging innovation, from concept to implementation. The company’s line of equipment now includes forging machines, tube upsetters, presses, roll forgers, die forgers, impacters, wire drawers, ball forgers and more.
According to A-C’s president, Ken Copeland, most of the automation requests are for control consoles or some type of material-handling and conveying equipment. This equipment brings the steel into the machine, moves it around as needed for heating and forging, and then finally deposits the finished item into a bin.
“The forging industry has evolved, and many of today’s customers require a customized approach to their machinery, blending multiple functions into a single machine,” Copeland said. “Our goal is to continue to be innovative, to improve our equipment, to automate processes and to increase operational efficiencies. About 90% of the time we talk to customers today, they want equipment that has an automation component.”
In the most advanced examples, entire forging-line “cells” can be created that include sophisticated communications that report production rates and machine performance back to company networks.
Value-added features like quick die changes should also be considered an aspect of automation, allowing the customer to minimize nonproductive time and produce quality parts economically.
Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing demands smaller production quantities to meet customer schedules, which means more setups are required per day or week than were necessary even a few years ago. More setups usually mean more nonproductive time. There are also ever-greater pressures to produce quality parts at a competitive cost per piece.
A die change in the forging environment can be defined as all of the work necessary to change from the production of one part to another. The time for this change is measured starting from the moment the last good forging from the first run is completed until the first acceptable forging of the second run is produced. This can include a variety of process steps, such as changing out forging dies, trim tooling, etc.
“Depending on the level of downtime that the customer is willing to accept, we can design equipment with a very simple tool-change system or a more sophisticated one where they basically push a button and it automatically changes the tooling for them,” Copeland said.
A-C considers rebuilding forging equipment an integral part of its basic operation. The company’s technicians disassemble the relevant machine, analyze its condition and then, based on the customer’s budget and time constraints, either make basic repairs or refurbish the unit to new machine tolerances after every part has been thoroughly inspected.
Engineers can update the original equipment to comply with the latest OSHA standards, and all electrical controls can be custom designed to suit the specific needs of each customer’s plant. A warranty is provided for the standard of workmanship performed in repairing or refurbishing the machine and for all the parts replaced and included in the rebuild. Additionally, the company repairs, rebuilds and refurbishes other brands of forging equipment, not exclusive to their own line.
“It is not uncommon for a customer that has, or acquires, an older model of equipment and sends it to us to be rebuilt or remanufactured while adding automation upgrades to it,” Copeland said.
Updates and Upgrades in Tennessee
Modern Forge Tennessee (MFT) of Piney Flats, Tenn., is one such company. Owned by Modern Forge Companies of Blue Island, Ill., MFT makes steel forgings for Harley Davidson and other customers. The forge uses Chambersburg (CECO) die forgers that date back to the 1980s and weigh between 20 and 50 tons. The company has more than 7,000 dies in its inventory.
To continue to leverage their investment in their existing equipment, MFT decided to update and upgrade the consoles on its drop hammers to improve performance, given they run their equipment hard and at very tight tolerances.
“We had some very good hammer units with some very outdated controls,” said Wade Ferguson, maintenance manager at MFT. “We knew that if any of the parts in the consoles went down, we would be offline for a while.”
Aware that the intellectual property of Chambersburg Engineering had been purchased by Ajax, Ferguson decided to reach out to them for the automation upgrade.
“A-C was able to build the new panels, create the necessary software to run it and calibrate it all to our specific needs,” said Ferguson, who indicated that MFT will also possibly be installing a robot on its trim press later this year to handle production delays that were affecting the quality of the trim removal.
After observing operators to determine how long it took to trim each part, they were able to determine that the work would slow considerably when they got tired, and they would get behind. When too much time passed between parts, the platens would cool off enough to make trimming difficult. Now, after the hammer operator completes the forging, the robot will pick up the item and trim it consistently each time.
“Forging companies like us are increasingly considering how we can automate our presses to help our operators,” Ferguson said. “There is only so much an operator can do. With automation, robots and other motorized devices can move the part through the various stages of the process with more speed, safety and accuracy.”
Engine Valves and Gears in Nebraska
At Eaton Corporation’s forging operation in Kearney, Neb., the company operates 26 A-C 100- to 1,300-ton forging presses. Eaton remains one of the top producers of engine valves and precision gears for the North American automotive industry.
As part of a two-stage process for creating its engine valves, a round steel slug is formed into an “onion-head” shape using a forging die press. The item is then transferred to a re-strike die, where it is formed into the final product. For many years the transfer from the first to the second stage of the process was performed manually by an operator at the machine.
Approximately four years ago, Eaton undertook a project to automate the operation so that the operator only needs to push a button. Then a robotic arm completes the transfer. The upgrade was applied to 15 of the A-C presses that were used specifically to produce the engine valves.
The primary driver for automating was worker safety, according to Randy Kreutzer, lead maintenance manager at Eaton.
“You have a person sitting in front of a press who theoretically could be injured if something went wrong,” explained Kreutzer. “Now we have them out of that scenario. They’re still there, but they are behind protective shields and only there in case adjustments are needed.”
Kreutzer adds that there was a benefit in increased productivity as well, because it allowed Eaton to run two presses instead of just one.
“We are constantly updating our equipment,” Kreutzer said. “The industry is moving past the mentality of having a man or a woman do all the manual labor and instead letting technology take over. That’s the drive in the industry right now.”
Aging forging equipment can be refurbished, updated and upgraded to integrate technologies that, in some cases, were not available when the original equipment was manufactured. Updating and upgrading improves worker and plant safety and promotes process efficiency.