Incremental Sheet Forming for Low-Volume Sheet Metal Fabrication

Here is a survey paper on the history and technology of incremental sheet forming, “The technology of Incremental Sheet Forming – A brief review of the history” [PDF]. This is the abstract.

This paper describes the history of Incremental Sheet Forming (ISF) focussing on technological developments. These developments are in general protected by patents, so the paper can also be regarded as an overview of ISF patents in addition to a description of the early history. That history starts with the early work by Mason in 1978 and continues up to the present day. An extensive list of patents including Japanese patents is provided.

The overall conclusion is that ISF has received the attention of the world, in particular of the automotive industry, and that most proposed or suspected applications focus on the flexibility offered by the process. Only one patent has been found that is explicitly related to the enhancement of formability. Furthermore, most patents refer to TPIF (Two-Point Incremental Forming) as a process.

Besides simply presenting a historical overview the paper can act as an inspiration for the researcher, and present a rough idea of the patentability of new developments.

Here is the Web site of Machina Labs in Chatsworth, California, whose equipment and technology are shown in the video. “Roboforming™” is Machina’s trademark for this manufacturing process.

Here is an hour and a half deeper dive into Machina Labs’ technology.


As I see, on Scanalyst, samples of the sheer number of highly-specialized knowledge areas, I find myself trying to understand the context of arcane specialization in society large. In particular, I wonder whether we have the number of individuals first, intellectually capable and second, interested in innovating like this.

My instant thought is that China has a distinct advantage going forward in population size and is educating some multiple of the engineers here in the US. Next, I suspect their educational system is intolerant of the disruptive behavior so dominant US schools. I further think results there are measured and standards enforced. In short, I don’t see that the US can compete when it comes to innovating or producing people capable of making quality things which are useful and valuable to consumers and/or business.


According to the survey paper linked in the original post, much of the early work (based upon patents) was done in Japan, with Europe (principally Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK) getting into the game after 2000. They summarise:

  • Period 1: —1996; this period can be regarded as the early history; although patents have been issued in that period that can be regarded as ISF (see next section), these did not lead to the present developments; these early developments used only SPIF (see next section for a definition);
  • Period 2: 1993—-2000: this period showed many developments towards ‘modern’ ISF including other variants like TPIF (see next section), but exclusively in the Far East, and patents have been issued only in Japan;
  • Period 3: 2000—present: this patents showed increased activities in the Western World, and also the issue of patents there.

While this can be thought of as mainly a prototyping technology, like additive manufacturing (3D printing), it can make sense for short run production, as in some aerospace manufacturing, where the cost of individually forming each product is lower over the production run than the set-up cost of making dies and other tooling for high volume production.


Then add in the other factor that people in China may, on average, be brighter than in the US. Average IQ in the US is supposedly 97, while it is 104 in China (with all the usual caveats about “averages” and “IQ”). More people, smarter people, better educated people – it would not be surprising if China becomes the next global hot spot in applied innovation.

On the other hand, there are all those tales of young Chinese “laying flat”, basically opting out of productive society. And related tales that China’s output of highly-educated graduates exceeds China’s demand for those skills. Even so, a betting man would still put his money on the country with an excess of graduates in engineering & electronics rather than on a country with an excess of graduates in Lesbian Dance.

In my technical discipline, it is fairly unusual these days to see a worthwhile paper that does not include at least one Chinese name in the list of authors. But we will have to wait and see what the long-term impact will be.


Maybe it’s just my ornery contrarian streak, but I’m sceptical about the scenario where China rushes past everybody to be the locus of innovation and productivity in the world. Part of this is having lived through (and been largely suckered into) the “Japan as Number One” bubble/mania in the 1980s, where all of the usual suspects argued that the fractious West and its chaotic, messy markets and furious competition could not compete with Japan’s top-down “industrial policy”, with the responsibilities of each of its mega-corporations laid down by the mighty MITI based upon its grand plan for world domination.

And how did that work out for Japan? Well, they spent a huge amount of money on all of the buzz words the academics pitched to them (remember the Fifth Generation Computer Systems project?) and ended up having their lunch eaten by those chaotic Western companies.

Second, China, unlike Japan, is full of communists. What’s more, since the coronation of President for Life Xi-the-Pooh, they have been becoming more communist and less the scrappy competitors they were in the 2010s. Top-down one party rule is the most effective poison for innovation known to mankind, and comes with incentives for all kinds of corruption, nepotism, shoddy quality, fraud from top to bottom of the supply chain, and a cynical and unproductive workforce. Communism was supposed to out-compete the messy market and push it aside (see Red Plenty). Where has that ever happened?

This doesn’t mean the West is going to win and become a beacon of innovation. We may be in a global race to the bottom. But if we’re headed to the bottom, my bet would be on China getting there first.


What if innovation suddenly stopped dead around the world? What would the impacts be?

Life would go on – there is no doubt about that. Arguably, the impacts of zero-innovation would not be felt for centuries. After all, what has innovation done for us recently?

The cell phone was a very useful innovation, albeit one whose roots went back to the 1960s. The smart phone? – that innovation might be a net negative for society. Industrial innovations like automation and 3-D printing are having an impact – but it would be reasonable to argue that future progress in those and many other areas lies in improved execution rather than breakthrough innovations. And if we are talking about execution, then clearly China with its huge Real Economy is much better placed than the West with its oversized Financial Economy.

Let’s also not forget that for billions of human beings on Planet Earth, the next step up is a flushing toilet – no innovation required. What country is best placed to manufacture & sell those toilets to a waiting world?

We may indeed be in a global race to the bottom. Sadly, our Political Class seems to be making heroic efforts to win that race – even though misgovernance is globally endemic and there are many competitors.


Iphone type inventions are huge step changes that happen fast and become ubiquitous, but I would argue that most innovations that have an impact on wealth go unnoticed. The robot videos from Boston Dynamics are flashy, but the amount of automation that happens without robots eclipses automation with robots.

Granted that robots have come a long way. A friend of mine told me he had his esophagus wrapped a couple weeks ago and the surgery was completed without a human touch.

This is just one innovation of so many that they cannot be comprehensively listed.

New tools such as the nail gun, the laser level, spray painters, masking tools, dry wall taping tools and cordless hand tools make construction easier and faster. These tools are now ubiquitous. It is amazing how fast a home can be built. If you have a shingled roof, you likely have shingles that prevent algae growth and the shingles will last much longer. There are siding materials that are better than tin or vinyl at the same or lower cost. The windows are better insulated, floors made of engineered laminates, lights that are brighter and use less energy and you can open and close your garage door from anywhere in the world.

How about the improvement in vehicles from paints, anti-corrosion, fuel mileage, engine performance, transmission performance etc. My pickup is 10 years old has 150,000 miles and still looks and runs good. I have a battery pack that can jump start my truck in the unlikely event that I run the battery empty. Just drive a 95 to see how much the ride has improved.

If you hunt, your shotgun weights less and doesn’t jam. Your ammo is better. The lead pellets are near perfect. You are probably wearing a base layer that is comfortable and keeps you warm and dry. Well all your clothes are wind proof, water proof, keep you warm and dry or cool if happens to be hot. You might have a roto-formed cooler that can keep your beer cold for a few days. You can film your hunt with a drone and at night look through the pictures of the deer from the trail cam. You could decide to go online and make a 3d drawing of your improved deer stand. This year I am looking forward to sitting in the air conditioned combine with my high school buddy as it drives itself and displays in real time the 200 bushel corn (up from 50 bushels when we were kids) he is harvesting. Maybe he will let me drive the grain cart. Word is all I have to do is get close and hit a button. Sit back and watch for game.

Recently I had to purchase a new wallet because my dog got my old one. It has an easy access slot for the one credit card I use, a piece of fabric you pull to access the remainder of the cards and a money clip. No more fiddling around trying to find a card and fumbling around trying to get the cash into the thing. This is a significantly better wallet and I am reminded of this every time I pay for something. This innovation doesn’t have the impact of the transistor, but I think 80 percent of advancement comes from incremental improvement. Something GM and Steve Jobs didn’t realize when they tried to fully automate factories. You get 80% of the benefit from 20% of the automation and the last 5% is extraordinarily hard to achieve.


You make a very good case for the incremental improvement rather than the breakthrough innovation, Mettelus. No argument from me.

Note that most of those incremental improvements come from the guys at the front lines – the people who are actually making real goods, and getting feedback from their customers about the kinds of improvements they would be willing to pay for. Not many meaningful improvements coming from people in the financialized economy or in the overhead bureaucracy – there are only so many zero-sum games that can be played.

Still, to get back to the main point: What if all innovation (and even incremental improvements) ceased? Would life carry on?