Focus on machine reliability

Performance of assembly machine manufacturer’s first milling machine sets the scene for later machine purchases

Posted on 19 Nov 2015 and read 3035 times
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Brendan Walsh started Allied Automation in 1998 to design, develop and manufacture bespoke, automated assembly machines used by many of the world’s leading medical, pharmaceutical and life-sciences companies. Today, it employs a team of 28 in the Finglas area of Dublin, near to the M50 motorway and airport.

Allied Automation (www.allied-auto.com) is an established supplier to well-known companies such as Hollister, Stryker, Abbott Pharmaceuticals and West Pharma in Ireland, as well as their parent companies in the USA. Moreover, it has recently started to work for customers in the UK, mainland Europe and the Middle East. Recent projects carried out include the development of a spin welding machine for plastic parts. Also, the manufacture of a multi-stage packaging line that coils and inserts catheters into pouches after injecting water into a compartment; the system then seals the pouches, prints them and tests for leaks.

The automation business has long since surpassed Mr Walsh’s tool and mould-making operation, BW Design Workshop, which was formed in 1986. Its early growth was curtailed by the loss to low-wage countries in the mid-1990s of much of Ireland’s electronics manufacture. However, the company continues to operate within the same premises in Finglas, with eight skilled tool-makers producing high-precision metrology fixtures and end-of-arm tools — mainly for the medical and pharmaceutical sectors. Also manufactured in this facility are high-precision parts for incorporating into the plant supplied by Allied Automation.

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Mainstay of prismatic machining on site is a cell of three Hurco machining centres from High Wycombe-based Hurco Europe Ltd (www.hurco.co.uk), plus a Hurco CNC knee-type milling machine that dates back to 1990 and is still in regular use for roughing work and staff training.

Mr Walsh said: “The old Hurco mill is a good advertisement for the manufacturer. In the 25 years that we have owned it, scarcely anything has gone wrong. Only once did the machine need simple maintenance to the Z-axis drive. Indeed, its mechanical reliability has been remarkable; and the early cathode-ray-tube version of the manufacturer’s Ultimax twin-screen control is still operational and relevant today.”

Fast-forward to 2003 and the first Hurco machining centre was installed on the shopfloor. A VM1, it was purchased because it offered a 660 x 356 x 457mm working volume within a 2 x 2.3m footprint. A positive factor in its purchase was the long-term performance of the original knee mill. Following good feedback from other Hurco users in the area concerning the robustness and ease of use of the manufacturer’s products, the VM1 order was placed through Hurco’s local sales representative in Ireland, Michael Gannon.

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The user-friendliness of the Ultimax control, by then of flat screen design, was another point in the machine’s favour. Extensive early shopfloor use was made of the menu-driven programming capability, which allowed parts to be in production quickly, shortening lead-times. Now, a seat of AlphaCam four-axis CAM software with a DNC link to
the machines is generally used, although the conversational programming option is always available.

As components gradually increased in size and larger machine base plates were needed, so a larger capacity Hurco VM20 with 1m X axis and modern Windows-based WinMax software was installed. This was followed shortly afterwards by a VM10i, an upgraded version of the earlier VM1 that offers shorter machining cycles with less jerk, thanks to the use of Ultimotion software within the control. The VM10i is also significantly more energy efficient than its predecessor. A fourth CNC axis and tailstock were purchased to reduce the number of set-ups for more-complex prototyping work and internal development projects.

With the accent on medical work, the materials machined encompass stainless steels (including the tool steel variety Stovax), and many types of plastic (these include PEEK and the high grade acetal Ertalite). Aluminium is regularly machined to form structural parts of the automation plant.

A tolerance of ±5µm has to be held on medical component fixtures used in metrology equipment. Similar accuracy is required for end-of-arm tools on robots for the moulding industry and cam-driven assemblies for automated production. This level of precision is well within the scope of the Hurcos.

Mr Walsh says the reliability of the machines has endured over the years, adding: “I cannot remember anyone having to come over from Hurco Europe’s UK head office to repair any of the machines. Something like an interlock switch may have broken in the past, but we would replace it ourselves here; and even though both Michael Gannon and Hurco in the UK provide good back-up and an effective telephone helpline, we rarely have need to use these services.”

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