Does Your Stamping Department Need a Checkup? Try a Die-Protection Risk Assessment

If you have ever walked through a stamping department at a metal forming facility, you have heard the rhythmic sound of the press stamping out parts, thump, thump. The stamping department is the heart manufacturing facility, and the noise you hear is the heartbeat of the plant. If it stops, the whole plant comes to a halt. With increasing demands for higher production rates, less downtime, and reduction in bad parts, stamping departments are under ever-increasing pressure to optimize the press department through die protection and error-proofing programs.

The die-protection risk assessment team

The first step in implementing or optimizing a die protection program is to perform a die-protection risk assessment. This is much like risk assessments conducted for safety applications, except they are done for each die set. To do this, build a team of people from various positions in the press department like tool makers, operators, and set-up teams.

Once this team is formed, they can help identify any incidents that could occur during the stamping operations for each die set and determine the likelihood and the severity of possible harm. With this information, they can identify which events have a higher risk/severity and determine what additional measures they should implement to prevent these incidents. An audit is possible even if there are already some die protection sensors in place to determine if there are more that should be added and verify the ones in place are appropriate and effective.

The top 4 die processes to check

The majority of quality and die protection problems occur in one of these three areas: material feed, material progression, and part- and slug-out detections. It’s important to monitor these areas carefully with various sensor technologies.

Material feed

Material feed is perhaps the most critical area to monitor. You need to ensure the material is in the press, in the correct location, and feeding properly before cycling the press. The material could be feeding as a steel blank, or it could come off a roll of steel. Several errors can prevent the material from advancing to the next stage or out of the press: the feed can slip, the stock material feeding in can buckle, or scrap can fail to drop and block the strip from advancing, to name a few. Inductive proximity sensors, which detect iron-based metals at short distances, are commonly used to check material feeds.

Material progression

Material progression is the next area to monitor. When using a progressive die, you will want to monitor the stripper to make sure it is functioning and the material is moving through the die properly. With a transfer die, you want to make sure the sheet of material is nesting correctly before cycling the press. Inductive proximity sensors are the most common sensor used in these applications, as well.

Here is an example of using two inductive proximity sensors to determine if the part is feeding properly or if there is a short or long feed. In this application, both proximity sensors must detect the edge of the metal. If the alignment is off by just a few millimeters, one sensor won’t detect the metal. You can use this information to prevent the press from cycling to the next step.

Short feed, long feed, perfect alignment

Part-out detection

The third critical area that stamping departments typically monitor is part-out detection, which makes sure the finished part has come out of the stamping

area after the cycle is complete. Cycling the press and closing the tooling on a formed part that failed to eject can result in a number of undesirable events, like blowing out an entire die section or sending metal shards flying into the room. Optical sensors are typically used to check for part-out, though the type of photoelectric needed depends on the situation. If the part consistently comes out of the press at the same position every time, a through-beam photo-eye would be a good choice. If the part is falling at different angles and locations, you might choose a non-safety rated light grid.

Slug-ejection detection

The last event to monitor is slug ejection. A slug is a piece of scrap metal punched out of the material. For example, if you needed to punch some holes in metal, the slug would be the center part that is knocked out. You need to verify that the scrap has exited the press before the next cycle. Sometimes the scrap will stick together and fail to exit the die with each stroke. Failure to make sure the scrap material leaves the die could affect product quality or cause significant damage to the press, die, or both. Various sensor types can ensure proper scrap ejection and prevent crashes. The picture below shows a die with inductive ring sensors mounted in it to detect slugs as they fall out of the die.

Just like it is important to get regular checkups at the doctor, performing regular die-protection assessments can help you make continuous improvements that can increase production rates and reduce downtime. Material feed, material progression, part-out and slug-out detection are the first steps to optimize, but you can expand your assessments to include areas like auxiliary equipment. You can also consider smart factory solutions like intelligent sensors, condition monitoring, and diagnostics over networks to give you more data for preventative maintenance or more advanced error-proofing. The key to a successful program is to assemble the right team, start with the critical areas listed above, and learn about new technologies and concepts that are becoming available to help you plan ways to improve your stamping processes.

How Industrial RFID Can Reduce Downtime in Your Stamping Department

The appliance industry is growing at record rates. The increase in consumer demand for new appliances is at an all-time high and is outpacing current supply. Appliance manufacturers are increasing production to catch up with this demand. This makes the costs associated with downtime even higher than normal. But using industrial RFID can allow you to reduce downtime in your stamping departments and keep production moving.

Most major household appliance manufacturers have large stamping departments as part of their manufacturing process. I like to think of the stamping department as the heart of the manufacturing plant. If you have ever been in a stamping department while they are stamping out metal parts, then you understand. The thumping and vibration of the press at work is what feeds the rest of the plant.  I was in a plant a few weeks ago meeting with an engineer in the final assembly area. It was oddly quiet in that area, so I asked what was going on. He said they’d sent everyone home early because one of their major press lines went down unexpectedly. Every department got sent home because they did not have the pieces and parts needed to make the final product. That is how critical the stamping departments are at these facilities.

In past years, this wasn’t as critical, because they had an inventory of parts and finished product. But the increase in demand over the last two years depleted that inventory. They need ways to modernize the press shop, including implementing smarter products like devices with Industry 4.0 capabilities to get real-time data on the equipment for things like analytics, OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness), preventative maintenance, downtime, and more error proofing applications.

Implementing Industrial RFID

One of the first solutions many appliance manufacturers implement in the press department is traceability using industrial RFID technology. Traceability is typically used to document and track different steps in a process chain to help reduce the costs associated with non-conformance issues. This information is critical when a company needs to provide information for proactive product recalls, regulatory compliance, and quality standards. In stamping departments, industrial RFID is often used for applications like asset tracking, machine access control, and die identification. Die ID is not only used to identify which die is present, but it can also be tied back to the main press control system to make sure the correct job is loaded.

need for RFID in appliance stamping
This shows an outdated manual method using papers that are easily lost or destroyed.
appliance stamping can be improved by RFID
This image shows an identification painted on a die, which can be easily destroyed.

Traditionally, most companies have a die number either painted on the die or they have a piece of paper with the job set up attached to the die. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen these pieces of paper on the floor. Press departments are pretty nasty environments, so these pieces of paper get messed up pretty quickly. And the dies take a beating, so painted numbers can easily get rubbed or scratched off.

Implementing RFID for die ID is a simple and affordable solution to this problem. First, you would attach an RFID tag with all of the information about the job to each die. You could also write maintenance information about the die to this tag, such as when the die was last worked on, who last worked on it, or process information like how many parts have been made on this die.
Next, you need to place an antenna. Most people mount the antenna to one of the columns of the press where the tag would pass in front of it as it is getting loaded into the die. The antenna would be tied back to a processor or IO-Link master if using IO-Link. The processor or IO-Link master would communicate with the main press control system. As the die is set in the press, the antenna reads the tag and tells the main control system which die is in place and what job to load.

In a stamping department you might find several large presses. Each press will have multiple dies that are associated with each press. Each die is set up to form a particular part. It is unique to the part it is forming and has its own job, or recipe, programmed in the main press control system. Many major stamping departments still use manual operator entry for set up and to identify which tools are in the press. But operators are human, so it is very easy to punch in the wrong number, which is why RFID is a good, automated solution.

In conclusion

When I talk with people in stamping departments, they tell me one of the main reasons a crash occurs is because information was entered incorrectly by the operator during set up. Crashes can be expensive to repair because of the damage to the tooling or press, but also because of the downtime associated. Establishing a good die setup process is critical to a stamping department’s success and implementing RFID can eliminate many of these issues.

How RFID Can Error-Proof Appliance Assembly

Today, appliance manufactures are using RFID more frequently for error proofing applications and quality control processes.

Whether the appliance assembly process is automatic or semiautomatic, error-proofing processes using RFID are as important as the overall assembly processes. Now, RFID systems can be used to tell a PLC how well things are moving, and if the products and parts are within spec. This information is provided as an integral part of each step in the manufacturing process.

RFID systems installed throughout the manufacturing process provide a way of tracking not only what has happened, but what has gone right. RFID records where something has gone wrong, and what needs to be done to correct the problem.

Appliance manufacturers often need to assemble different product versions on the same production line. The important features of each part must be identified, tracked and communicated to the control system. This is most effectively done with an RFID system that stores build data on a small RFID tag attached to a build pallet. Before assembly begins, the RFID tag is loaded with the information that will instruct all downstream processes the correct parts that need to be installed.

Each part that goes into the appliance also has a RFID tag attached to it. As the build pallet moves down the assembly conveyor to each station, the tag on the build pallet is read to determine what assembly and error proofing steps are required. Often, this is displayed on an HMI for the operator. If the assembly requires testing, the results of those tests can be loaded into the data carrier for subsequent archiving. The operator scans the tag on each part as it is being installed. That data is then written to the tag on the build pallet. For example, in the washing machine assembly process, the washing machine body sits on the build pallet, and as it moves from station to station, the operators install different components like electronic boards, wiring harnesses, and motors. As each one of these components is installed, its RFID tag is scanned to make sure it is the correct part. If they install the wrong part, the HMI will signal the error.

RFID technology can also be used to reduce errors in the rework process. RFID tags, located on either on the assembly or the pallet, store information on what has been done to the appliance and what needs to be done. When an unacceptable subassembly reaches the rework area, the RFID tag provides details for the operator on what needs to be corrected. At the same time, the tag can signal a controller to configure sensors and tools, such as torque wrenches, to perform the corrective operations.

These are just a few examples of how appliance manufactures are using RFID for error proofing.

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Non-Contact Inductive Couplers Provide Wiring Advantages, Added Flexibility and Cost Savings Over Industrial Multi-Pin Connectors

Today, engineers are adding more and more sensors to in-die sensing packages in stamping applications. They do so to gain more information and diagnostics from their dies as well as reduce downtime. However, the increased number of sensors also increases the number of electric connections required in the automation system. Previously, the most common technique to accommodate large numbers of sensor in these stamping applications was with large, multi-pin connectors. (Figure 1)

Figure 1
Figure 1: A large multi-pin connector has been traditionally used in the past to add more electronics to a die.

The multi-pin connector approach works in these applications but can create issues, causing unplanned downtime. These problems include:

    1. Increased cost to the system, not only in the hardware itself, but in the wiring labor. Each pin of the connector must be individually wired based on the sensor configuration of each particular die. Depending on the sensor layout of the die, potentially each connector could need to be wired differently internally.
    2. A shorter life span for the multi-pin connector due to the tough stamping environment. The oil and lubrication fluids constantly spraying on the die can deteriorate the connectors plastic housings. Figure 1 shows the housing starting to come apart. When the connector is unplugged, these devices are not rated for IP67 and dirt, oil, and/or other debris can build up inside the connector.
    3. Cable damage during typical die change out. Occasionally, users forget to unplug the connectors before pulling the die out and they tear apart the device. If the connector is unplugged and left hanging off the die, it can be run over by a fork truck. Either way, new connectors are required to replace the damaged ones.
    4. Bent or damaged pins. Being mechanical in nature, the pin and contact points will wear out over time by regular plugging and unplugging of these devices.
    5. A lack of flexibility. If an additional sensor for the die is required, additional wiring is needed. The new sensor input needs to be wired to a free pin in the connector and a spare pin may not be available.
Figure 2
Figure 2: Above is a typical set up using these multi-pin connectors hard-wired to junction boxes.

Inductive couplers (non-contact) are another solution for in-die sensors connecting to an automation system. With inductive couplers, power and data are transferred across an air gap contact free. The system is made up of a base (transmitter) and remote (receiver) units. The base unit is typically mounted to the press itself and the remote unit to the die. As the die is set in place, the remote receives power from the base when aligned and exchanges data over a small air gap.

The remote and base units of an inductive coupler pair are fully encapsulated and typically rated IP67 (use like rated cabling). Because of this high ingress protection rating, the couplers are not affected by coolant, die lubricants, and/or debris in a typical stamping application. Being inherently non-contact, there is no mechanical wear and less unplanned downtime.

When selecting an inductive coupler, there are many considerations, including physical form factors (barrel or block styles) and functionality types (power only, input only, analog, configurable I/O, IO-Link, etc…). IO-Link inductive couplers offer the most flexibility as they allow 32 bytes of bi-direction data and power. With the large data size, there is a lot of room for future expansion of additional sensors.

Adding inductive couplers can be an easy way to save on unexpected downtime due to a bad connector.

fig 3
Figure 3: A typical layout of an IO-Link system using inductive couplers in a stamping application.

Error Proof Stamping Applications with Pressure Sensors

When improving product quality or production efficiency, manufacturing engineers typically turn to automation solutions to error proof and improve their application. In stamping applications, that often leads to adding sensors to help detect the presence of a material or a feature in a part being formed, for example, a hole in a part. In the stamping world, this can be referred to as “In-Die Sensing” or “Die Protection.” The term “Die Protection” is used because if the sensors do not see the material in the correct location when forming, then it could cause a die crash. The cost of a die crash can add up quickly. Not only is there lost production time, but also damage to the die that can be extremely costly to repair. Typically, several sensors are used throughout the die to look for material or features in the material at different locations, to make sure the material is present to protect the die. Manufacturing engineers tend to use photoelectric and/or inductive proximity sensors in these applications; however, pressure sensors are a cost-effective and straightforward alternative.

In today’s stamping applications, manufacturing engineers want to stamp parts faster while reducing downtime and scrap. One growing trend in press shops is the addition of nitrogen on the dies. By adding nitrogen-filled gas springs and/or nitrogen gas-filled lifters, the press can run faster and cycle parts through quicker.

Typically, the die is charged with nitrogen before the press starts running parts. Today, many stamping plants rely on an analog dial gauge (image 1) to determine if there is sufficient nitrogen pressure to operate safely. When a new die is set in the press, someone must look at the gauge and make sure it is correct before running the press. There is no type of signal or feedback from this gauge to the PLC or the press; therefore, no real error proofing method is in place to notify the operator if the pressure rating is correct or even present before starting the press. If the operator starts running the press without any nitrogen for the springs, then it will not cycle the material and can cause a crash.


Another, likely more significant problem engineers face is a hole forming in one of the hoses while they are running. A very small hole in a hose may not be noticeable to the operator and may not even show up on the analog dial gauge. Without this feedback from the gauge, the press will continue to run and increase the likelihood that the parts will be stamped and be out of specification, causing unnecessary scrap. Scrap costs can be quite large and grow larger until the leak is discovered. Additionally, if the material cannot move through the press properly because of a lack of nitrogen pressure to the springs or lifters, it could cause material to back up and cause a crash.

By using a pressure sensor, you can set high and low pressure settings that will give an output when either of those is reached. The outputs can be discrete, analog, or IO-Link, and they can be tied to your PLC to trigger an alarm for the operator, send an alert to the HMI, or even stop the press. You can also have the PLC make sure pressure is present before starting the press to verify it was adequately charged with nitrogen during set up.

Adding an electronic pressure sensor to monitor the nitrogen pressure is a simple and cost-effective way to error proof this application and avoid costly problems.