by Michael Shade, IQS Editor
Roll formed shelving image courtesy of Samson Roll Formed Products Company.
Roll forming is an industrial process that can seem a little cartoony. If you were to look at a long roll forming production line, what you’d see before you might seem like an overly-elaborate, Wiley Coyote sort of contraption. Since I learned what roll forming is, I’ve found myself thinking about it now and then and wondering if there isn’t a better way to accomplish what happens during the roll forming process. That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s amazing and fascinating to learn about. I think it’s probably the most logical, intuitive response to the challenge of forming long metal channels into usable products. But maybe it’s the seeming complicatedness of it that gives me pause.
Roll former machine image courtesy of Roller Die and Forming Company.
The trouble with industrial products is that they don’t just make themselves. Industry has responded to the needs of markets with all kinds of creative innovations, like roll forming for example, in order to make the products we all need. It seems like a simple product like a metal book shelf could be made through a simple manufacturing process. How hard could it be, after all? All a metal shelf is is a combination of slotted metal struts and some sheet metal cut to size and bent at the edges. It is possible that a human could build such a product with simple tools. But think about your local library. Think how many shelves that facility needs access to. Would a purchaser of metal shelving in very large quantities want to pay for people to individually craft their shelving? I suppose if the shelves were made of marble, then it would make sense to craft them individually. But it’s more realistic and more common for institutions and places of business to need access to more economical products.
Roll formed channel image courtesy of Johnson Brothers Metal Forming Co.
It turns out that, despite how elaborate it might seem to an outsider like me, roll forming is very economical. This becomes increasingly true if the process is integrated with other automated processes like robotic welding and assembly. Think back to that slotted metal shelving. Suppose a single shelving unit consists of eight shelves stacked on top of each other, all of which are suspended by struts on both ends. Suppose also that they have to be adjustable-height shelves, and suppose that they have to be fitted with movable metal dividers as well. This means that the shelves as well as the struts would have to be cut at consistent intervals with holes in which the supports and dividers could be placed. The accuracy of these cuts is particularly important, because if the shelves aren’t level, they could cause slipping of the objects placed on the shelves, which is certainly not an attractive risk to clients. Roll forming equipment is capable of producing virtually identical bent and cut metal products in virtually limitless quantities. Once a roll former is designed, aligned and put to work, it can continue working until it requires maintenance or until its assigned task is complete.
Probably the most time and resource-intensive aspect of the roll forming process is tooling and setup. In order to create finished products, a roll former’s individual rollers have to be designed and manufactured, and once they’re ready to be installed, they have to be carefully positioned in sequence in order to ensure that the finished products they produce will be dimensionally correct. When designed and installed correctly, dimensional correctness and repeatability are precisely what make the roll forming process attractive to their users and their beneficiaries. Once installed, their operation can often be almost completely automated, allowing for continuous operation with minimal worker oversight. This ends up reducing necessary investments in compensation, adding value to the process as a whole.
There’s no doubt that roll forming, like a lot of other kinds of industrial processes, can seem too complicated to people who aren’t familiar with how they work. But you don’t have to understand how a roll former works to appreciate why they’re useful and how they contribute to our industrial infrastructure. They’re efficient, economical and responsible for the creation of many of the metal products that we, the beneficiaries of our industrial infrastructure, have come to assume will always be accessible to us.