By Mike Albrecht
The hydraulic ironworker was originally in- vented in 1949, but it never really entered the scene until 50 years ago when the patent was acquired and manufacturing of these metal fabricating machines in the U.S. began. Many of
the earliest models are still operational on shop
floors and in maintenance departments today (see
For example, the first model produced by Scotchman was the 314 (see Figure 2), and we continue
to get calls for replacement parts for that model.
The original design was a hydraulic system, but it
was powered only in one direction. It had a spring
return. When the punch was engaged, the ram went
down, and the spring pulled it back up. That coil
spring was similar to one found in a ’ 57 Chevy at the
Fi;y years later, we continue to sell dozens of
those springs per month. So we buy the spring,
compress it, and weld a frame around it for delivery to the customer. When the fabricator gets it, he
drops it into the ironworker and cuts the frame to
expose the compressed spring. That old hydraulic
ironworker is ready for more work.
That’s no surprise. It’s a testament to how those
ironworkers were made.
Mechanical ironworkers also were made to be
long-lived. Unfortunately, they were very large,
and while they still were somewhat functional,
they ultimately found their way to the scrap heap to
make way for more modern equipment.
Older hydraulic equipment didn’t stand out as
much because it was smaller than the mechanical
counterparts in many instances, yet it was able to
deliver similar, if not more, force. As a result, these
tools remained in use and avoided a second life as
a boat anchor.
Hydraulic ironworkers may still look similar to
those early models made a half-century ago, but
they have evolved in several ways. It’s one of the
reasons that companies keep placing orders for
them and finding new ways to put them to use in
manufacturing and maintenance settings.
Safety First and Always
In the late 1960s, when hydraulic ironworkers appeared on the scene, much larger mechanical models dominated the shop floor. Those mechanical
ironworkers had huge flywheels that, when triggered, brought down the ram in a powerful and dramatic way. However, once it was triggered, nothing
was going to stop it. It was going to come down and
then go back up.
Those early hydraulic ironworkers could deliver
similar force, but didn’t require all of the weight that
the mechanical ironworkers did. However, you still
had to respect the tonnage and power of the machine, even if it were smaller.
Modern hydraulic ironworkers have complete
control of the entire stroke—both up and down. An
emergency stop results in a halting of the fabricating or shearing action—unlike those older mechanical ironworkers, for which it was all about tripping
the flywheel and staying out of the way.
A lot of this has to do with electric controls that
govern the stroke. These controls have quicker cycle times and greater authority over the stroke than
mechanical linkage stroke controls. Electric stroke
controls use switches that send signals to the control valve almost instantly.
Also, the guarding standards for today’s ironworkers make it very di;icult for an operator to expose
his or her extremities at a pinch point of a properly
designed ironworker. ANSI B11.5 standards provide
the guidelines for guarding on an ironworker: It
should be designed to allow material access to the
machine, but prevent any part of the body from getting between the material being punched, sheared,
or notched and the stripping mechanism.
Many More Options
Those first hydraulic ironworkers are just like the
ironworkers of today: multifunctional machines
(see Figure 3). In fact, the first models had a 35-ton
punch, 3-in. angle shear, and a 7-in. flat bar shear.
Those same punching and shearing functions, albeit
in greater tonnages now, are still pretty much available on any ironworker made in the world today.
Those higher tonnages do make a big di;erence.
It’s not unusual to see a 150-ton ironworker punching a hole in 1.25-in. steel plate. High-powered ironworkers also can shear 1-in. plate like it was butter.
Early on, these multifunctional devices demonstrated increased flexibility with the introduction
of component systems that could be added to the
original equipment. For instance, a basic ironworker
could have had a simple channel shear station, but
that later could have been switched out for another
function such as press brake bending, tube shearing,
or pipe notching. These types of components are designed to be quickly changed over to keep up with
the high-mix work load o;en found in job shops and
This 50-year-old hydraulic ironworker doesn’t look all
that much di;erent from the models being sold today.
Like current models, the original hydraulic ironworkers were multifunctional devices.
Ironworkers are useful tools for those manufacturers
that need to undertake tasks right at the point of fabrication. For instance, Carroll Shelby’s shop uses several
ironworkers to build its custom cars.
The evolution of the
The debut of this technology changed the dynamics of the
fab shop and still holds the potential to do the same today