Bending into bigger business

Scarborough-based electric tube bending machine manufacturer Unison has opened a new facility to speed up production and help it exploit global markets. Ed Hill finds out more about its high-end tube bending solutions.

Arriving by light aircraft at an airstrip in the middle of the North Yorkshire countryside is not my usual way of making a company visit but Unison had thoughtfully hired a small plane so journalists from the south could make it for its press day. This novel approach epitomises a company that prides itself on doing things differently. The company was the first to introduce an all-electric tube bending machine back in 1994 at a time when many in the industry doubted they would have any advantages over the more traditional hydraulically operated machines.

All-electric machines use a system of motors, gearboxes and servos to produce the power to bend tube, offering more control, accuracy and reliability for the operator. Unison's customers range from some of the biggest names in the aerospace, defence, oil and gas and automotive sectors to furniture makers, window fabricators and wheelbarrow producers – in fact anyone who needs to bend metal tube or extrusions into complex shapes.

To keep pace with demand for its products the company has unveiled a new £2 million factory opened by Lord Green Minister for Trade and Investment, which will more than double production.

“The new facility has allowed us to expand every major department,” says Alan Pickering, managing director. “We now have more software and hardware development engineers, and more manufacturing and sales staff. Our investment positions us well to cope with the growth in demand that we have been experiencing, as well as our projected expansion into new markets that we are targeting in BRIC countries.”

The new building gives Unison over 2,200m² of manufacturing space along with two acres of surrounding land and its interior has been remodelled to increase manufacturing efficiency and capacity.

Going with the flow

One of the most important new features is a dedicated flow line for building machines fitted with a gantry crane to simplify handling and installation of large components. Tube bending machines now progress through six sequential assembly cells with application-specific tooling for each stage of the build cycle, from the basic preparation of the mechanical chassis and equipment cabinets, through the installation of electrical and mechanical components, to cabling, system commissioning and test, and finally customer acceptance. At the end of the line, machines can be rolled into containers for shipping.

Another new feature is an expanded metalworking machine shop, including a £300,000 investment in another 5-axis CNC machining centre, to speed the fabrication of the metalwork components and tooling required for the bending machines. This brings in-house some components previously made by subcontractors.

Unison tends to focus on the most advanced sectors using tube bending machines. Its recent success is down to its all-electric machines with their computer-controlled bending accuracy plus the company's willingness to invest in designs which have extended the scope of its bending technology into larger tube and pipe sizes.

The new factory coincides with advances to Unison's range of machines. The latest models feature mechanical architecture and control software improvements that substantially reduce tubular part fabrication times. The redesign reduces the time required for all the intermediate handling and movement of the tooling configuration tasks the machine performs before and after a bend by as much as 40%. As there can be four or five such auxiliary movements for each bending move, as well as changes of tooling dies, these savings add up to significant productivity gains.

The new machine architecture will now be fitted as standard on all of Unison's bending machines, which are available for tube/pipe diameters from 16mm to 220mm.

“We aim to make our new Scarborough facility the world centre for advancing this technology,” adds Mr Pickering. “We recently manufactured the world's largest ever all-electric tube bender with the ability to bend pipes up to eight inches in diameter – a size that some said could not be achieved. We are now starting to design a machine with more than double the power. With the accuracy, repeatability and speed of set-up advantages of all-electric technology, we expect to start taking market share from more hydraulic machine competitors in the near future.”

Part of the process

In addition to larger size machines, a key element of Unison's approach is to assist clients in re-engineering their manufacturing processes alongside the acquisition of a new machine to multiply productivity. This is achieved by the company's vision of its machines as elements of the wider manufacturing process, and the availability of Unison software and hardware engineers to allow new bending machine investments to form part of a more integrated design to manufacturing solution.

“If we just sell a tube bending machine, we can invariably promise the user a payback in terms of a defined percentage improvement in manufacturing efficiency as well as definable cost savings in operator times and reductions in scrap,” Mr Pickering explains. “However, if the client works with us to analyse and research the process thoroughly, it's often possible to deliver automation that has a much bigger impact with the potential to make a step change in the efficiency of the company's operations. It means extra work for us, but it's an approach that is opening doors.”
Unison has just enabled one client almost double the manufacturing productivity of a key volume part, by helping the user to optimise the movements of the machine's tooling and handling axes.

The company has also built strong ties with the local community being a major sponsor of Engineering Week which encourages youngsters from local schools to look at engineering as a career.

Today around half of Unison's projects include the development of special features and software for purposes such as integration with CAD systems and to simplify application specific programming, and/or the provision of machines with integrated peripherals in the form of handling automation, washing machines and cutting machines. Unison strongly views its future in this 'integrated manufacturing solution' segment of the tube bending machine market.

"Higher productivity is important for virtually every tube bending machine user,” Mr Pickering concludes. “But wherever production is in high volume – such as in the automotive or furniture manufacturing sectors for example – the gains can be very significant. Unison's new machines can reduce fabrication cycle times significantly and we look forward to opportunities to benchmark its performance in real world applications." Unison
www.unisonltd.com

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