Stainless steel is one of the most popular materials in the manufacturing industry. This makes bending stainless steel tubing is a standard forming process for manufacturing metal parts for various applications. Engineers and designers consider it a principal operation as part of a system tubing and piping. However, a proper understanding of how to bend steel tubing is needed. Some high-end stainless steel materials are now mainstream, compounding their machining challenges. Therefore, it is essential to know how to go about the bending process. In this article, we will discuss the most effective methods of bending steel tubing. We would also guide you through getting the best out of the process.
Basics and Challenges of Bending Stainless Steel Tubing
Using steel for custom prototyping can be tricky. It is a hard material. However, it is a ductile and malleable material. It is easily formed with various machining processes into several shapes. Stainless steel tube bending is a process that helps to shape the tubing into several valuable configurations. Although it is possible to bend stainless steel into different shapes, the process may require considerable direct pressure for specialized tools. When we talk about bending high-end stainless steel materials, attention turns to increased bending difficulties. The difficulty often depends on the thickness of the tubing. Thick-walled tubing usually needs increased force to bend. Furthermore, specific sizes and shapes of tubes may require their set of bending equipment. The possibility of spring back occurring also poses a significant challenge to bending stainless steel tubing.
How to Bend Stainless Steel Tubing
It is pretty tough to deal with stainless steel tubing. However, some techniques can help simplify the process. This section will discuss how to bend stainless steel tubing using the most effective methods.
Mandrel Tube Bending
Mandrel bending of metal tubing is often done on a rotary draw tube bending machine. A mandrel is a tool put inside a tube to ensure its shape remains intact while bending. Mandrels may come with additional ball-shaped steel to ensure they stay inside the curved sections of bends during the bending process. The setup for mandrel tube bending include:
- A pressure die – this die hold the tangent (or the straight section) of the tub.
- A clamp die – rotates the steel tubing around the bend die.
- A mandrel – supports the tubing interior around the bend and may come with some articulating balls.
- A wiper die – contacts the tubing right before the inside radius’s tangent point, wiping against the workpiece to prevent wrinkles on the inside radius.
Mandrel tube bending dominates the stainless steel tubing bending landscape, especially applications with tight radii. When you think of how to bend stainless steel tubing to a radius, you should choose mandrel bending. This is because the method provides maximum control over ovality and wall thinning. Using a mandrel in the inner diameter (ID) helps to support the flow of materials during bending. Likewise, the pressure die supports the outer diameter (OD). The elements combine to control the tube OD and ID throughout the bending process. Mandrel tube bending helps prevent the most common bending issues, most importantly, spring back. It also prevents wrinkles, flattening, and kinks.
Roll bending or angle bending is an effective process for larger workpieces. It generally involves three rolls put in a pyramid-like position with either vertical or horizontal milling orientation, depending on the size of the section. The rolls move such that they can produce large, usually specific radii. The machine determines which rolls move to which side. The middle roll’s location determines the radius of the tube or pipe. The top roll may move up and down on some machines to give the desired angle. On other machines, two bottom rolls move while the top roll stays stationary. Manufacturers use roll bending for producing spirals. The operator can produce continuous coils by lifting the tube after a revolution. In this case, the workpiece should have a large radius and a one-diameter pitch. However, if it has a larger coil pitch, there will be the need for an additional roll. This roll helps to guide the tube outward during the forming of the coil.
This method is similar to the mandrel tube bending process, just without the mandrel. It increases the tubing part’s precision to achieve complex blends with no deformities. In this method, the machine is supported using clamps. The clamps allow the pulling of the tube towards a shape that has a similar radius as the pipe. With this principle, draw bending helps to get sharp bends on the tube while retaining high-level accuracy and consistency. Manufacturers often use the rotary draw bending method on tubing parts used on structural frameworks and machines. Typical examples are roll cages, bicycle handlebars, railings, etc.
Another efficient method of bending stainless steel tubing is compression bending. This method bends the material around a stationary bend die using a compression die. The system involves the initial clamping of the tube behind the rear tangent point. After this, the compression die helps to “compress” the workpiece against the bend die. Compression tube bending works best for symmetrical workpieces. These are tubes with identical bends on either side. The bending of these tubes occurs in one setup on machines with two bending heads. So, you might want to choose this method when the roundness of a bend is not the most critical consideration. Compression bending is ideal for speed and economy when aiming to get higher output at lower costs. However, we do not recommend this method for tubes with a centerline radius (CLR) less than two times the bend diameter. That is, you will need at least a 2-inches centerline for a 1-inch tube bend to get the desired bend quality. Concerned about other bending techniques on other sheet metal? Read: How to Bend Sheet Metal. Do you have the need to produce bent stainless steel tubes, RapidDirect is yours. Just upload your design file.
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Considerations for Bending Stainless Steel Tubing
When pondering how to bend steel tubing, you must consider some structural considerations and factors. The most important ones include:
Bending steel tubing often requires you to achieve a tight radius. In most cases, the thinning of the bend’s outer wall often results in a distorted bend. Employing a mandrel for support can help to prevent this. This means that mandrel tube bending is the most reliable method in this case. Sometimes, achieving a tight radius might cause the steel to go beyond its elastic limits. This often leads to deformations like wrinkles and humps. Three-roll bending or rotary draw bending is the advisable method in such situations. Moreover, tighter bend radii often require you to apply force more carefully. A 180-degree bend may be feasible depending on the tube’s inner diameter and thickness. However, a broader “U” shape may be needed to preserve the structural integrity and the interior shape.
Another essential consideration for stainless steel tubing bending is yield strength. It is one of the characteristics of steel materials that may give the likelihood of springback formation. Materials with higher yield strength will have a greater elastic to plastic strain ratio. Such materials will also show more spring back than those with lower yield strength. Therefore, it is vital to determine the yield strength of your steel material before bending. Every bend gives a reasonable amount of strain. Therefore, the yield strength should be considered with respect to the specific amount of strain expected.
Material thickness variations are a great challenge when it comes to bending stainless steel tubes. It particularly plays a significant impact when fabricators try to achieve specific bending tolerances. The gauge of various stainless steel is often talked about with respect to averages. However, the actual material thickness falls within a specific range in reality. Therefore, a slight variation in thickness can significantly affect the bend angle by some degrees. This often affects results, especially when you need tight tolerances. It is essential to know that some materials may need more bending power than others during custom tube fabrications. Thicker stainless steel grades will require greater force than thinner ones. The strain involved in bending thicker materials around given radii is higher than that of thinner materials around the same radii. The thicker the walls, the higher the pressure the tube can withstand. Likewise, tubes with thinner walls are more susceptible to collapse during bending. Thus, it is advisable to set the bending power right to prevent inconsistencies and material deformation. You must choose the proper process and set the machine appropriately.
Welded Tubing vs. Seamless Tubing
Both seamless and welded tubing can be bent. However, seamless tubing often bends better if the desired radius is tight. On the other hand, the thinner walls of welded tubing make them useful for larger diameter applications. The seam of welded pipes may interfere with the consistency of bends. This is due to the stress concentration point that forms on the tube. Stress concentration gives welded tubing 20% less working pressure than seamless tubing. We cannot also overlook the possibility of improper weld forming, leading to the tube not being perfectly round. This prevents proper bending of welded tubing.
Stainless Steel Tubing Bend Radius Chart
The bend radius of a tube is the radius measured to the tube’s centerline. Bend radius tooling often differs, depending on the tube bender. However, the most common ones are usually in line with specific rules of thumb.
Standard Draw Bend Radius is 2 x D
This means that a tube with an OD of 20mm will require a bend radius of 40mm. Tighter bend radii like ½ x D are possible. However, it is often costlier to get anything below 2 x D.
Minimum Roll Bending Radius is 7 x D
Material properties and wall thickness affect the minimum roll bending radius. Therefore, sticking with the 7 x D guideline is technically safe. It is also advisable to allow a wide tolerance in bend radii.
Applications of Stainless Steel Tubing
Stainless steel tubing is a versatile material used in several industries due to its ease of assembly. It can also withstand extreme conditions such as high temperatures and pressure. This is one of stainless steel’s properties that makes them useful in specific industries. For example, CNC machining for the automotive industry uses stainless steel tubing for manufacturing high-quality mufflers. This is because they can withstand the extreme pressure that goes through them. It also finds use in medical devices, solar panel frames, industrial equipment, and electrical wiring. The ability to form steel tubing into various shapes and thicknesses makes them even more useful. You will find stainless steel tubing products for several household applications, including appliances, heating, water, and plumbing systems. There is hardly an industry that does not use this versatile material, ranging from aerospace, automotive, technology, electrical, construction, and food & beverage industries. Innovators continue to find new uses for stainless steel tubes each day while incorporating them into every aspect of life.
So, Is Steel Tube Bending Right for Your Application?
As mentioned, steel tubes are useful in various industries for different applications. Also, the availability of sophisticated machines and modern methods makes tube bending more precise. Therefore, selecting the suitable material, process, and tooling will give you a great shot at achieving the perfect bend for your application. If you’re willing to learn more cost-effective means and get proper steel tube bending guidance, RapidDirect’s CNC machining service is for you! We also provide custom tube fabrications and manufacturing services that you will never get elsewhere. Our team of experts offers rapid prototyping services at competitive pricing. That’s not all. Our expert team provides professional advice on your design. Then we help you manufacture high-quality and desirable steel tubes. We offer quality assurance that you can always count on. Upload your CAD file today and get an instant quote.
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How hard is it to bend stainless steel tubes?
Steel tube bending can be very difficult due to the hardness of the material. However, choosing the right fabricator with proper knowledge of processes and tooling can help make the process more seamless.
Is mandrel tube bending better than roll bending?
The method you choose depends on your bending requirements. Mandrel bending is preferred for bending operations with tighter radii to prevent flattening, wrinkles, and kinks. On the other hand, roll bending is ideal for thinner tubes with a large bend radius.
What are the applications of stainless steel tubing?
Many industries use stainless steel tubes for various applications. They are used in home appliances, automotive and aerospace parts, electronic devices, plumbing systems, medical devices, and many more. Editor’ Note: This article is based on the Tube Bending 101 FabCast, facilitated by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International (FMA) and presented by Danie Jacobs, president of i-Fab LLC. Many call tube bending a black art, a mysterious process with unavoidable trial and error. But in reality, the basic principles have remained the same for decades. The technology used to bend tubular workpieces has evolved significantly, but all the mechanical magic can’t alter physics. Regardless of whether you’re working with tube or pipe, and regardless of the bending process, making the perfect bend boils down to just four factors: the material, machine, tooling, and lubrication.
Bending starts with knowing the properties of the tube or pipe you’re working with. Pipe, usually used to transport fluid or air, is specified by its nominal pipe size (see Figure 1). But when you’re specifying a bending machine, the centerline radius, the outside diameter, and wall thickness are critical variables. Also, every pipe schedule has a nominal wall thickness. There’s a tolerance, and the wall thickness can vary slightly. This variation should be accounted for, especially for bending processes using precise, tight-fitting tooling on small bend radii. Other bending variables include the inside bend radius (sometimes called the intrados); the outside bend radius (or extrados); and the centerline radius or the neutral line, where neither compression nor stretching occurs. The bend angle refers to the complementary angle of bend. So if a tube is bent to “45 degrees,” that’s 45 degrees complementary, or a 135-degree included bend angle (see Figure 2). The distance between bends (DBB) is just what it says. More specifically, it’s the distance between two tangent points, where a straight section begins to curve and the bend starts or finishes. Like in press brake forming, tubes experience springback after bending, producing a bend that undergoes radial growth. Generally speaking, the harder the tube and the smaller the bend’s centerline radius, the greater the springback and resulting radial growth. Copper undergoes less radial growth than steel, which has less springback than stainless steel. Although some are seamless, most tubes are produced with a longitudinal weld. In tube bending, the quality, size, and consistency of that weld seam matter. If the two edges of the joint don’t align perfectly, or if the weld bead is too large or inconsistent, these discontinuities will affect the tube’s roundness. That creates problems if you want to create the perfect bend. Elongation occurs during bending, and the outside radius stretches (causing wall thinning), which the material resists. This causes the outside surface of the bend to cave in, causing ovality, or a distortion of the cross section from its original round shape. Some ovality is acceptable for certain applications, but unacceptable for precision work. That’s because as the outside stretches, the inside radius compresses and at a certain point starts to wrinkle. Like any other manufacturing technology, the application requirements drive the fabrication method of choice. Specialty tube bending processes abound, some old and some new. Most tubes, though, are bent one of four ways: ram-type bending, roll bending, compression bending, or rotary draw bending. Figure 1
Pipe is specified by its nominal pipe size, while tube is specified
by its outside diameter.
Visit any muffler shop and you’ll probably see a ram-style bender (see Figure 3). One of the oldest and simplest tube bending methods, it uses a hydraulically driven ram that forces a tube against rollers or pivot blocks. You generally can achieve a centerline radius (CLR) that’s three to four times the workpiece OD. The workpiece ID isn’t supported, and a substantial amount of stretching occurs on the outside of the bend. This method is popular in square tubing applications, for which many design the ram tool so that it deliberately compresses and slightly deforms the inside bend radius (see Figure 4). This prevents wrinkling and forces the outside surface of the bend inward, producing a concave surface and preventing excessive stretching on the outside of the bend. This process is by far the least expensive way to bend tube and pipe, but it’s not as controllable as other methods. If workpiece cosmetics are important or the application has tight bending tolerances, the ram-type method may not be the best choice.
Commonly used for large workpieces in construction, roll bending generally entails three rolls positioned in a pyramid, oriented either vertically or, for larger sections, horizontally. The rolls move to produce specific, usually very large radii. Which rolls move where depends on the machine. On some, the top roll moves up and down to produce the desired angle; on others, the two bottom rolls move and the top roll remains stationary (see Figure 5). Another machine type is the two-roll, pinch-style roll bender. For this system, the tube feeds between an upper and lower roll, while on either side two adjustable guides move to produce the desired bend angle. Many use roll bending to produce spirals. If a workpiece has a one-diameter pitch and a large radius, the operator can lift the tube after one revolution to produce a continuous coil. Some applications, including those with a larger coil pitch, require an additional roll that guides the tube outward as the coil is being formed.
Compression bending uses a roller or compression die (sometimes called a follow block) to bend the workpiece around a stationary bend die (Figure 6). The system clamps the workpiece just behind the rear tangent point. The roller effectively “compresses” the tube against the central bend die. This method is most common in symmetrical workpieces—those with identical bends on either side—often bent in one setup on a machine with two bending heads. This method works well for tubes bent to a CLR that’s at least three times the tube OD. The bend’s outside surface may flatten slightly because the tube ID is not supported. It’s not recommended for workpieces with a CLR less than three times the tube diameter. This method is used mostly to produce household and commercial products. If you see a towel bar with two identical bends on each side, it was probably formed with compression bending (see Figure 7).
Rotary Draw Bending
For precision work, rotary draw bending dominates the tube bending landscape, especially for those applications involving tight radii—sometimes down to a CLR that’s just 0.7 times the tube OD (or as tube processors call it, less than 1×D). This process gives you maximum control over wall thinning and ovality. Rotary draw bending supports the flow of the material during bending using a mandrel in the tube ID and precision tooling on the outside (see Figure 8). A rotary draw setup entails a pressure die that holds the straight section (sometimes called the tangent) of the tube; a clamp die that rotates the workpiece around a round bend die; a mandrel, sometimes with a series of articulating balls on the end to support the tube interior around the bend; and a wiper die that contacts the workpiece just before the tangent point of the inside radius, wiping against the material to prevent wrinkles that can form on the bend’s inside radius. Figure 2
A bend angle in tube bending usually is calculated from the outside—the complementary bend angle. Other critical dimensions
are the wall thickness (which thickens on the inside radius and thins on the outside radius) and outside diameter. The pressure die (also called a pressure slide) supports the outside radius during bending. The pressure die can be stationary; it can follow the workpiece, sliding on rollers at the same rate the workpiece is being drawn into the bend; or it can be “boosted,” pushed with hydraulics or (more common today) electrical servomotors, further minimizing wall thinning. All these elements effectively control both the tube ID and OD throughout bending.
To achieve the perfect bend, you need a good tooling setup, and nowhere is this more critical than in rotary draw bending. Consider the mandrel—its hardness matters. If you have a hard tube and a hard mandrel, or a soft tube and soft mandrel, the mandrel will tend to stick inside the tube and wreak havoc on the process. As a rule of thumb, make sure you have a combination of hard and soft material. If you have a hard workpiece, you need a soft mandrel; if you have a soft workpiece, you need to use a hard mandrel. Your tooling also should take radial growth into account (see Figure 9). If radial growth is excessive, the nature of the rotary draw process means that after the clamp die releases, the radius at the beginning of the bend will be noticeably different from the radius at the end of the bend. To accommodate for radial growth, particularly if it involves hard material and a 3×D CLR or greater, you may need to use a bend die with a smaller radius. Draw bending also requires a good tube with good welds. An inconsistent weld bead protruding into the tube’s inside or outside surface will wreak havoc on the mandrel, pressure die, and wiper die. Regarding the wiper die, its position is critical (see Figure 10). The die should be angled slightly (a little off parallel with the tube) so that its end contacts the tube just before the inside radius tangent point—a transition that’s the workpiece’s weakest point during bending. The condition of the wiper die’s contact point is also critical. It should be sharp to the touch. The wiper die can wear over time, so for some jobs, it is good practice to keep a spare wiper die available. As for the clamping die, its length should be three times the tube diameter. Occasionally some technicians shorten this length to two times the tube OD, but this isn’t usually recommended. The clamp die clamps the workpiece to the bend die and holds the tube as it is drawn around. The shorter the clamp is, the more pressure it puts on a short section of the workpiece, thus increasing the risk of deforming it. A clamp die that’s at least three times the workpiece diameter spreads the pressure over a larger area. This clamping die requirement can create challenges when you are forming a workpiece with short distances between bends, but special tooling can overcome this. It usually comes in multi-stacked arrangements, common on some of today’s CNC bending systems. In this arrangement, you have a stack of two or three (or even more) clamp dies. One is a traditional clamp die used for holding straight sections, and the other—called a form die—is machined to a specific shape so it can clamp to previously formed bends. (These advanced systems also can have stacks of bending dies for different tube radii, so an operator need not change out tooling between different jobs.) Certain tubes, especially those with thin walls, require a series of balls that can flex on the end of the mandrel, supporting the tube ID in the bend itself. The positioning of those balls matters during machine setup. Normally, you should place a mandrel so that the series of balls start at the bend’s beginning tangent point; you then move the mandrel slowly forward until a quality bend is achieved, but not too far—especially for ultrathin-walled tubing. If the mandrel is moved too far forward, some of the balls actually may break off inside the tube during bending (see Figure 11).
A mandrel with articulating balls fits tightly within the tube ID. The clearance between the mandrel shank and tube ID is only about 0.009 in.; the clearance between the balls and tube ID may be a little larger, but not by much. Such a tight fit would cause significant friction without the right lubrication. Nonpetroleum-based synthetic lubricants are becoming more popular. Often supplied as a paste or gel, they can be diluted to whatever consistency the application requires. Generally speaking, heavier-duty bending with thick walls and tight radii requires more concentrated lubrication. Wiper dies also need to be kept properly lubricated at the contact point to prevent premature wear. Figure 3
Ram bending is one of the oldest, simplest, and least expensive
types of tube bending. But it is not as controllable
as other processes.
For rotary draw bending, more all-electric machines are finding homes on tube shop floors. And with such machines comes more available axes of control—all important when specifying a machine. A CNC machining center may have five axes. In CNC tube bending, you sometimes must consider up to 10 axes (see Figure 12). Some of the most common axes are: Y: Distance between bends B: Plane of bend rotation C: Bend angle X: Horizontal shift of the workpiece Z: Vertical shift of the workpiece XR: Reaction slide XC: Clamping motion YB: Boost motion YM: Mandrel motion YSFO: Follower pressure die motion In machining, of course, axes can move simultaneously, but in tube bending, machines work with “stalled axes,” meaning that each axis stops momentarily before moving on to the next. In one complex application, for instance, the workpiece may be moved forward for the first bend (Y); the mandrel moved into position (YM), clamped (XC), and then bent (C, YB, YSFO). It’s then unclamped (C), and moved again into position (Y). The workpiece may be rotated, changing the plane of bend (B). Subsequent bends may require the remaining unbent tube section to shift (X, Z). Some newer machines actually have space for tooling to combine bending processes. For instance, say you have a part that has several tight-radii bends as well as one large-radius bend. Building a bend die that large for rotary draw bending wouldn’t be practical. That’s why some machines offer roll bending along with rotary draw bending in one unit. Machinery requirements hinge on various factors, including material grade, wall thickness, workpiece, and the CLR you need to achieve. As always, you should use information from your machinery and material suppliers to determine application-specific requirements.
From Art to Science
The capability of modern machines, combined with the latest software and controls, shows just how precise tube bending has become. True, material variability and certain application-specific challenges make some level of unpredictability unavoidable. Nevertheless, with the right material, tooling, lubrication, and machine, you have a much better chance of achieving the perfect bend—every time. i-Fab LLC
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