RKI finds punching/shearing solution

NOSTALGIA is big these days. Teens are sporting floppy hairstyles that evoke memories of Pete Maravich and wearing athletic shoes that are straight out of the 1970s.

But at RKI Inc, they aren't into nostalgia. Retro is not cool. They don't want to go back to the seemingly prehistoric days of punching and shearing. Not when they have a single punching and shearing system that has enough functionality, speed, and flexibility that the truck body and equipment manufacturer funnels 85% of its steel through it for punching and shearing.

“We've become so accustomed, even in a short time we had it, to how easy it is to do some things on it,” says Fred Wamhoff, RKI's VP General Counsel. “When we really think about what it would be like now to live without it, we shudder.”

RKI, a Houston-based company that was founded in 1911 and blossomed by making truck bodies and winches for oil-field workers, now specializes in service bodies, truck boxes, truck-mounted cranes, and winches in its 263,000 sq ft of manufacturing facilities in Houston and Fort Worth.

Body plant manager Doug Boothe estimates that the company uses its Salvagnini S4 punching and shearing system to process over 500,000 lb of steel in the average month.

President/CEO Tom Rawson says the primary benefits of the S4 are safety, labor savings, quality parts, more efficient use of raw materials, and speed.

“And it's more fun,” he says. “It gives us the opportunity to allow people to learn many different things.”

Those workers who were performing the brake-press work that now can be done by the S4 have been reassigned to presses that bend the material the S4 is punching.

The safety environment — which is at the forefront of today's plant — has been improved because there are fewer movements in front of a machine, and therefore a decreased potential for injury.

Wamhoff says it also has made custom work easier.

“Before we had it, if you wanted a custom box, you had to do them one at a time,” he says. “With the S4, as soon as it's programmed, boom! It spits out custom work like it's standard. That has made a big difference in our flexibility. Only 10% of our work is custom, but that used to throw a wrench in the process, doing one piece here and one piece there.”

The quality standards in the industry have risen dramatically in the past few years, and companies are using more precision equipment than they used to. But few are using anything like the S4.

“It's a fantastic machine,” says Richard Koenig, VP Information Systems.

The S4 was conceived with process improvement as its guiding principle, and the design maximizes on material handling, punching and shearing, programming, diagnostics and controls to facilitate consistent quality and flexible manufacturing.

Multi-press punching

The S4's increased productivity and throughput are made possible by Salvagnini's patented, multi-press punching head. Unlike turret presses, which must be indexed before each operation, all of the S4's 48 fixed punching tool stations — along with its two rotary and two embossing stations — are live, eliminating tool change time and reducing the amount of sheet travel. The fixed punching and shearing head is fitted with a series of independently actuated components that simultaneously punch and cut parts with speed and precision. It produces a simple eight-punch or notch panel in 30 seconds. The S4 punching head can make up to 1200 strokes per minute.

Salvagnini's S4 CNC shearing/- punching cells accommodate up to 60" × 120" sheets of material. It is fully automated, from self-loading raw material to stacking finished parts on pallets, reducing setup and production times and costs. Its integrated shear eliminates the need for an initial shear operation and its associated cost and lead-time. A tower-feed system houses 12 different material types and allows the machine to run programs in succession using different material sizes without stopping for material handling, allowing unmanned production, which shortens lead times.

“It can run around the clock, and it does sometimes,” Koenig says. “You can do 500 of the same part, or 500 different parts. It doesn't care. You just give it the list and it says, ‘OK,’ and it salutes.”

Value of research

In 1994, RKI started researching machines that would give the company greater capability with less labor investment. Representatives from the company traveled all over the country, visiting other companies that had installed a variety of systems, to ascertain which system might be the best for RKI's purposes. After 18 months of research, RKI purchased an S4 direct from the machine manufacturer.

The next challenge was squeezing the 75' × 25' system into the plant. After reconfiguring the area and shifting machinery elsewhere, they built a concrete foundation 14" thick with two layers of #4 rebar.

The next challenge was to train an operator. Marketing director Darrell Audas, who formerly worked in RKI's computer design department, was sent to Salvagnini's Ohio facility to take a programming class.

“One of our concerns was that we were going to have to have a real Einstein to operate it,” Wamhoff says. “But it's not that complicated. The men on the shop floor were able to cross train. They're smart, but they didn't have to be engineers in order to understand it.”

Wamhoff says programs are generated in the engineering department and transferred over the computer network to the shop floor, where the S4's computer reads them and instructs the machine how to separate the parts.

Given the volume of fabrication the S4 performs, maintenance obviously is a critical issue. Boothe says weekly maintenance is performed based on Salvagnini's recommendations, and once a year — during the week between Christmas and New Year's — the S4 is shut down for extended maintenance.

“Our technician is pretty sharp and pretty quick on troubleshooting,” Boothe says. “So far, we've been lucky with being able to pinpoint problems. I'm not bragging, but I don't think we've ever been down more than 12 to 15 hours.”

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