The Bad Break of Buying a Bad Brake
While there’s a lot to be said for buying press brakes and other fabrication machines brand-new and direct from the factory, a quality used brake can usually perform nearly as well as a new one and for a much lower price. Even with pricey retrofitting and complex upgrades, the purchaser of a good used brake can usually still come out money ahead.
Buying a used press brake is somewhat different than buying a used car. For one thing, you likely won’t have the seller trying to downplay the wear and tear on the machine with a line like, “The brake was only used by a little old lady every other Thursday to fold a couple of metal planters.” Still, the fabrication equipment owner who is trying to unload a surplus machine might be motivated to attempt some sketchy tactics not unlike those of a shady used car salesman, so as with any transaction, your motto should be: “buyer beware.”
It doesn’t matter if the used brake is a noted brand and the seller is an old friend of yours, without due caution being exercised you could wind up with a real clunker. Many is the shop that has found themselves with a giant blocky metal sculpture where they had planned to position a productivity tool to help advance their business prospects.
If you are purchasing a press brake for your shop but are not an operator yourself, make sure to bring your current operators with you to help you properly evaluate potential machines. If this will be the first brake for your shop, see if a knowledgeable friend from the industry can help look them over with you.
As you are examining used press brakes for potential acquisition, two key considerations are:
- Age. Regardless of how well-preserved an old machine is, keep in mind that as the years pass it becomes increasingly difficult to locate replacement parts for it, not to mention finding technicians specifically trained in servicing the brand. A good used machine can be a real treasure but could potentially cost a small fortune if it goes down.
- Condition. A used brake that has been carefully cared for can hold its own with a new brake as far as precision and speed for most applications in most shops. A brake that hasn’t been properly maintained should be approached very cautiously, regardless of how low the sticker price might be. The costs in capital, labor, and downtime could wind up making it the most expensive machine on your shop floor.
It’s important to bear in mind both the how and the what as you begin to examine the condition of a used press brake, as the following sections detail.
Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Touch
When it comes to press brake inspection, you need to utilize all your senses—except taste, of course, because that would just be weird—and a bit of common sense to get the full measure of the machine.
- See. Look over every brake component, both while stationary and with the brake running. Look at the environment in which the brake was operated. Look at the condition of their other machines. Look through the maintenance logs for the machine to see if anything stands out, such as a recurring issue. Be sure to take photos and videos of the machine from every angle for reference following your inspection.
- Listen. Listen to the machine while it runs—does it have any unusual rattles or noises? Is there any deviation from its regular rhythmic sound as it goes through its cycle? Any odd electrical hum? Talk to the operators of the machine and get their feedback about any quirks they’ve noticed. Ask questions of those who have serviced or repaired the brake. Ask the seller point-blank why they are selling it.
- Smell. Notice any burning smells while the brake is running (or even idle)? It could be a sign of overheating due to inadequate lubrication, problems with the hydraulic oil, or electrical issues. (It never hurts to investigate any other foul odors you might detect, too—you never know what might be building a nest in the electrical cabinet.)
- Feel. Your sense of touch may tell you things about a machine’s operation that your sight or hearing could miss. While the machine is running, just the vibrations you feel through your feet might indicate an abnormality if you are familiar with the operation of other brakes. The touch of your hand to safe surfaces can detect excessive vibrations or strange variations in temperature.
Through the whole inspection process, pay attention to what your gut tells you. The unconscious part of our minds can subtly process information and give us an instinct for things that our conscious mind misses. Double and triple-check anything that just doesn’t feel right to you and be sure to ask follow-up questions about those issues to current owners and operators.
A Checklist of Checkpoints
A rule of thumb with inspecting any machine is to check all components that move, as they will have wear issues that can lead to failure. In addition, there are specific systems on a press brake that should be carefully examined to look for any flaws. The major ones include:
- Backgauge. A press brake backgauge provides an essential function in measuring a formed flange, so any wear or other damage could throw off the precision of bent parts.
- Control. Check to see if the buttons and switches work and if the screen is bright and clear. Contact the manufacturer of the control and/or the press brake to see what updates or replacements might be available if needed. Research what other types of controls will work on the specific model of brake. Be wary of manufacturers who try to hold you hostage by requiring the purchase of proprietary controllers and parts.
- Electrical Systems and Power. Not only should you make sure all electrical systems are working properly but also verify that the brake will perform suitably in your shop environment with the power that exists there. Will you need to add a transformer, upgrade power, or run new lines? All these costs should be factored into a purchase decision.
- Hydraulics. A press brake’s hydraulic system is its key component—it’s what allows the ram to move while maintaining the accuracy of that movement. Check the cylinders for leaks and any damage. Find out why any leaking is occurring—the remedy could be a simple fix or an expensive overhaul.
- Lubrication System. Regardless of the time it takes or how dirty you will get, check out the lubrication system thoroughly. Are all moving parts well-lubricated? If not, note any damage that has been caused because of the neglect.
- Ram and Bed. Check the ram and bed for any damage, such as dents or gouges. Run the brake to make certain that the positioning of the ram is accurate and repeatable to within 0.001″ at the minimum (the ideal is +/- 0.0004″).
- Safety Systems. If the brake under consideration includes a light curtain or other safety measures, check to ensure that they are functioning correctly. If not, remember to figure into your budget an adequate amount to bring the equipment up to OSHA regulations and the standards of your shop.
- Tooling and Tool Holders. Is tooling included with the purchase? If so, that can either be a good or a bad thing—inspect it carefully for wear, dents, and especially cracks. Remember that a part is only as good as the tool that makes it. While checking tool holders on the ram and the bed for damage, also be sure to note the type of tooling they are designed to hold. If the brake is equipped for European tooling but you’ve got racks full of New Standard tooling from your last machine, you will need to invest in a change of either tooling or holders.
It’s also a good idea to carefully go over all the optional components that have been added to the brake, as well as any accessories included with it, even if you are considering selling or scrapping some of them. Inspect and catalogue each, including all manufacturer information.
Even if you are certain that you’ve found your dream machine, one last step in the inspection process remains—getting an accurate measurement of the press brake’s dimensions and weight. Not only do you need to know the correct size and working envelope to determine if your shop layout can be adapted to it, but unless the seller is generous enough to drop it off himself at your location, you will have to arrange the transportation and rigging of your new acquisition.
Once you’re the proud owner of a quality used press brake be sure to keep it well-maintained and conscientiously record all appropriate information about its use and upkeep. After all, one day you may be reselling it and have potential purchasers doing their own thorough inspections of the machine.