General
Technology brings honours to metalwork company

HIGH-TECH sheet metal engineering company Metalform recently won an award for its EziRiser, a height adjustable electronic wheelchair.

RSVP Productions, who launched the Attitude Awards last year, voted design engineer Campbell Easton and Havelock North project contract manager Samuel Gibson a gold medal in the Enterprise category at a black tie function held on World Disability Day, December 3rd.

Gibson and the Metalform team had worked together to create the wheelchair, and Metalform invested in a state-of-the-art Lincoln RC3L automated welding centre for the express purpose of manufacturing it.

The Attitude Awards honour the achievements of New Zealanders living with disabilities. It grew from RSVP’s television programme with the same name.

The EziRiser gives its driver considerable more freedom of movement than a standard wheelchair. Gibson designed it for personal use in close cooperation with Easton. Metalform built the first unit in 2006 and is now preparing to manufacture up to 500 EziRisers per year – primarily for the export market.

In 2007 Metalform was also a runner up in The Designers Institute of New Zealand’s annual Best Design Awards competition for the same product. Easton says although the EziRiser is the highest profile product the business has in its stable, Metalform has half a century’s track record in design excellence and innovation.

The Easton family established Metalform in 1961. Easton credits part of Metalform’s success and growth over the years with the company’s continual reinvestment in design and development and a willingness to take up new technology. Based in Dannevirke, in southern Hawke’s Bay, the company employs a team of 45 staff who offers design, development, production engineering, general sheet metal fabrication, and on-site installation capabilities.

The five-strong design and development team uses state-of-the-art 3D modelling software that enables it to focus on design and build projects. Other cutting-edge plant includes two robot welders. However, says Easton, the best plant is only as good as the people who use it. “Engineering tailor-made turn-key solutions for customers is our company’s trademark.

“Our niche, the competitive advantage that sets us apart from similar companies, is we offer our customers continuity – everything they need from design through to final assembly and despatch.

“We’ve undertaken many successful projects for numerous domestic and offshore businesses. Custom projects include designing and making fire pumps, helicopter spray gear, line haul trailers and satellite navigation equipment – highly complex work that requires expertise and innovative and lateral thinking,” he says.

Stand tall

Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, Samuel Gibson stands only 800 centimetres tall and has had to adjust his lifestyle around his small posture and brittle bones.

“I have to be very careful in the way I live, and I realised I had needs that my wheelchair didn’t meet,” he recalls.

Gibson shared his concept of a perfect set of wheels with Campbell Easton, his friend since childhood. Gibson listed what he required and Easton translated the ideas into a drawing. In this way, the two of them came up with a wheelchair that could lift and lower Gibson – to enable him to do the things people with standard adult legs take for granted.

He can now open doors, reach elevated objects, and get close to the ground. He lives in an unmodified house, does not require caregiver assistance, and works full time in a regular office for RCR Energy in Hastings – all feats he credits to the EziRiser.

“It gives me independence,” he says.

The rear wheel drive wheelchair can tilt its seat 45 degrees, has a turning radius of 1.1 metres, and can climb obstacles as high as 50 millimetres. It is very steady and can negotiate sloping or irregular terrain with ease due to its patented suspension system.

The EziRiser uses the latest European technology in electronics and motors, and easily shifts into a standard driving seat position to allow the user to drive a modified vehicle.

Easton explains how the team took EziRiser from the drawing board to the floor and the technology that made it possible.

New welder, new opportunities

Metalform bought the RC3L automated welding centre specifically to make the wheelchair. At the time of the EziRiser’s conception, the 6-axis Motoman UP6 the company had employed for the past seven years was working at capacity. The grunty Motoman, supplied to Metalform by Carbines Engineering of Auckland, is a computer numeric controlled (CNC) industrial robot set up with a MIG welding package. It uses a 350amp welder that welds up to four metres per minute, resulting in 100 percent repeatability and a consistent weld bead.

In addition, making the EziRiser also required specialised technology. The Kjellberg high definition plasma cutting head mounted on the RC3L’s Fanuc robot arm fitted the bill perfectly. It can cut tube and box sections and trim deep drawn pressings, giving it unique capability in New Zealand.

Once Gibson had given the drawings the thumbs up, Easton used Autodesk Inventor, a 3D modelling software package supplied to Metalform by CADPro Systems, to make the manufacturing drawings. Easton says ensuring the centre of gravity was accurately focused was a major challenge, as the wheelchair’s elevation capabilities place huge demands on its balance.

 

 

Once the flat pattern shape was ready, the CNC laser cutting centre prepared the parts. The Trumpf unit, supplied to Metalform by Aotea Machinery, has a 3-metre by 1.5-metre bed. Its 4kW laser cuts mild steel up to 20mm, stainless steel up to 16mm, and aluminium up to 12mm thick – all with a degree of accuracy of 0.03mm.

The parts then went through the new Trumpf V1300 brake press to prepare them for welding. The Trumpf’s back gauge is a 6-axis CNC system, which ensures maximum productivity and part accuracy. The V1300 press can fold from 0.55mm sheet up to 10mm steel.

The brake press’s programming is integrated with the Autodesk Inventor software and the work is simulated on screen, which decreases setup time and folding sequence errors. The tooling library includes straight knives, offset knives, various radius bars, Z tooling, and hinge tooling. Metalform also uses a Dye 200-tonne brake press.

From there it was on to the welding centre. Easton says the RC3L not only does work that cannot be done by hand, it also cuts welding time to less than 0.25 percent of that of a human operator and is particularly suited to volume orders for repeated precision welding and plasma cutting. He says a number of new business projects that will optimise use of the plasma cutting tool are on the cards.

The welding centre has a rotary index table capable of accepting two tooling frames, each up to 2400mm x 1200mm with a maximum load capacity of 450kg per side. The programming is performed off line and simulated on screen to ensure machine continuity and efficiency. The machine automatically interchanges the head from a welding tip to a plasma cutting tool so both tools can be combined on a single weldment.

The team also had to cast a number of parts for the chair, in co-operation with Axiam Engineering, who supplies all the casting machines Metalform uses. Once all the chair components were ready for assembly, Easton called in A1 Powder Coating of Dannevirke, with whom Metalform has a longstanding relationship, to supply powdercoating on the EziRiser.

The team assembled the wheelchair, and, according to Easton, the care all members took at each step of the process paid off – the first unit off the production line was a perfect, export quality unit. Time invested in the development process, from Easton’s first drawing to the moment it reached the floor, was five years. It now takes only 11 minutes to weld a wheelchair chassis on the Lincoln RC3L robotic welder.

Says Easton: “Our portfolio is as diverse as the ideas that fuel production. EziRiser is a good example of how our designers work with the client to develop design solutions that really work. The Metalform team has the skills, knowledge and experience to develop almost any product from concept through manufacture and distribution.”

The company also works with a DYE guillotine that has a CNC-controlled backstop that can cut material up to 3.7 metres long and up to 6mm thick. Another prized possession is a Wiedemann C2500 CNC turret punch that works to a tolerance of plus or minus 0.1mm, with 100 percent repeatability.

A recent addition to the design suite is the CMM Romer Arm. The arm can measure any three dimensional shape to an accuracy of 0.03mm spanning over a distance of 2.4 metres. The equipment enables seamless modelling around an existing article and has enabled the team to skip the prototyping stage and jump straight to the final article on several projects.

Off to the rest of the world

The EziRiser is now also available in Europe and the US. At a trade fair in 2006 in Dusseldorf, Germany, Metalform came to an arrangement with the world’s second largest wheelchair manufacturer, Swedish company Permobil.

In terms of the deal, Permobil now handles sales and distribution of the EziRiser, renamed the Permobil K450, in these two markets. Gibson and Easton keep the patent on the chair, and Metalform will manufacture the required number of units per year. The first shipment left New Zealand last year.

The Permobil K450 is suitable for around one percent of wheelchair users and its biggest market is expected to be children. While safety and practicality issues were paramount, at Gibson’s express request the chair’s styling received particular attention too. It has racy mag wheels, comes in six different colour options, and has a sporty black mesh seat.

“People in wheelchairs get a lot of attention. I wanted to turn that into a positive thing, especially for children, so they can be proud of their ride,” says Gibson.

Email: tim@metalform.co.nz

 

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