FluidForming is precision metal forming technology
We sat down with Paul Benny, President and CEO of Fluidforming Americas, to learn more about this new precision metal forming technology. Benny explains why he calls FluidForming an enabling technology and why he thinks it’s a better, faster, and smarter way of doing business.
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Q: How is this new precision metal forming technology, FluidForming, different than conventional hydroforming, which has been around for more than a century?
A: Hydroforming has been around for so long that it’s almost impossible for companies to believe that there’s a better way of doing it. FluidForming takes hydroforming to an entirely different level.
Our machines operate at extremely high forming pressures of up to 400 mPA/60,000 psi. These pressures are significantly higher than any other hydroforming process currently available. By comparison, forming pressures for standard, bladder-based hydroforming reach maximum levels at 100 mPA/15,000 psi. These pressures ensure that FluidForming is synonymous with precision metal forming technology.
In many cases, parts that were deemed impossible to metal form — and companies were forced to turn to plastics, which are weaker and less durable than metal — can be FluidFormed. Our FluidForming machines — FormBalancers — are self-contained and bladderless. They’re easy to operate, comparatively inexpensive, and use recycled tap water as the forming force. Unlike conventional metal forming methods, FluidForming is environmentally friendly on a number of levels including installation, maintenance, and operations.
With our technology and controlled process, companies with low- to medium production runs are turning out vastly higher quality metal components at a lower overall production cost.
Q: Why is this such a game-changer for the hydroforming industry?
A: Well, it’s pretty incredible, really. Thanks to the bladder-free technology and high forming pressures, FluidForming achieves a 99.996% first-pass yield rate. That’s Six Sigma. Until now, that was unthinkable in the metal forming industry. Conventional metal forming methods like die-stamping or legacy hydroforming can’t even come close to those numbers. Let alone less well-known metal forming processes such as metal spinning or hydraulic forming.
We call it an enabling technology because the possibilities for cost and time-savings are pretty wide-ranging. FluidForming can accommodate a wider range of materials and material thicknesses than traditional hydroforming and tooling costs are dramatically reduced.
Because it’s so quick, and because the prototyping and production tool are one and the same, it’s an ideal solution for rapid prototyping. Which results in significant time-to-market and cost-to-market advantages. There’s no time lost or cost lost waiting for a production tool. The development cycle can be accelerated to less than a week from CAD design to the production of highly accurate, repeatable metal parts. Until now, that was unheard of.
Our parts are so incredibly accurate and repeatable that post-production costs are almost non-existent, products can be branded with high-definition logos during the forming process, and material waste is minimal. We can also form from pre-finished and pre-polished materials so secondary labor operations — fit, finish, and fixturing — are eliminated or dramatically reduced. And because we’re able to scale production to match demand, companies can mitigate product roll-out risks.
CEOs and CFOs love it because the overall cost advantage of FluidForming is significant. Product designers and engineers love it because it affords them the opportunity to spend more of those resources on design and research and development and optimization of product design.
Q: Can you give us an example of just how significant the cost advantages are?
A: Absolutely. We recently ran a cost review for a high-end, best-in-class appliance manufacturer known for cutting-edge design and quality. They asked us to conduct a preliminary simulation of a prototype design they had been unable to have formed using conventional methods.
Basically, legacy metal forming methods created an unacceptable ridge that couldn’t be removed. Needless to say, the client was getting pretty frustrated.
Well, not only could we form the part, but when we looked at the bigger picture and took production volumes, internal cost of capital, and tooling costs into consideration — keep in mind that the prototype tooling is the production tooling — we were able to save them $370,000. On a single component! In another instance with another best-selling appliance manufacturer, we were able to save them 1.5 million in free cash flow.
Here’s another example…We were asked to form a radar dish. Well, the company’s existing non-conforming rate was 60 percent! We formed the very same dish with zero to one-half percent non-conforming rates. They were blown away. So our process — which again, is Six Sigma — can save companies anywhere from a two to 60 percent non-conforming rate. We saved them a ton in time and scrap while improving signal transmission and reception in the process.
Q: How does your manufacturing process work?
A: It’s all about collaboration. We use finite element analysis (FEA) to predict how a product or component will react to the FluidForming process. This shows us whether a component will work as it’s been designed.
Our CTO, Jurgen Pannock, works closely with design development and engineering teams to refine the design to ensure optimal results. Then, using the design drawings that were perfected during FEA, we’ll convert the drawings into the required tooling. Then, after we’ve received client approvals, we’re pretty much good to go.
Q: Is there a scenario where FluidForming probably isn't the best metal forming option?
A: Oh, sure. We fill that low- to medium- volume production gap. Anywhere from 1 to a million per year. We're not going to even try to compete with legacy metal forming when it comes to high-volume, low-tolerance, mass-production. FluidForming is a precision metal forming technology, so if accuracy, quality, fit, and finish aren't an issue, you might be better off looking into other options.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about the FormBalancer?
A: It’s essentially a four-in-one metal forming machine. It’s a bladderless sheet metal forming and tube forming machine. If needed, it can accommodate bladder-based hydroforming and hydraulic hydroforming as well. All FormBalancer machines are compatible with 3D printed, metal sintered, steel, aluminum, and composite tools. So there’s a lot of flexibility there.
It’s also an inherently green technology — unlike traditional hydroforming which relies on oil-based hydraulic fluids and expensive and failure-prone bladders — our machine uses recycled tap water as the forming fluid and is bladder free. Plus, the machine’s footprint is much smaller and they’re much quieter than stamping or traditional presses.
Machine sizes currently range from 800 mm x 800 mm to 2000 mm x 1300 mm with a framing depth up to 650 mm. And because they don’t require any special structural reinforcements like stamping or conventional hydroforming, they’re easy to production plant.
Q: What are some of the challenges you've encountered with bringing this precision metal forming technology to the American manufacturing market?
A: It has been really tough to get the word out! We’ve been featured in The Fabricator but we’re still finding it pretty hard to get key decision-makers to take the plunge into a new precision metal forming technology. We made the first meaningful improvement in hydroforming since the 1930s and we’ve discovered that it can be tough to disrupt such a traditional industry.
Although the price-per-piece may initially look higher, when you factor in time, tooling costs, maintenance, material waste, non-conforming rates, the total overall cost to produce a component is much, much lower. Plus, the quality of components that are FluidFormed are unparalleled. I have to say, though, getting decision-makers from companies like Porsche, Jung, Miele, and Mercedes-Benz to that “ah-hah!” moment is one of the greatest challenges and greatest rewards of being in this business.
If you have a question that we haven’t answered, send us an email or give us a call at 1-800-497-3545.