Versatile bed mill

New machine is used as a test bed for machining strategies and developing fixtures — plus production

Posted on 06 Aug 2016 and read 2292 times

Not many businesses can trace their history back over 240 years, but Thomas Keating began life in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, making flea powders. The business eventually passed into the hands of the Wylde family, where it has been for the past four generations.

With a general improvement in living conditions, the company turned its attention from flea bites to engineering; it is now an ISO 9001: 2015-accredited provider of precision engineering and tool-making services, with capabilities covering jig boring and grinding, EDM and electro-forming — plus CNC and manual machining.

Under the guidance of managing director Richard Wylde, it is also helping to push the boundaries of satellite-based weather prediction.

While the manufacture of flea powders continued into the 1970s, precision engineering at Thomas Keating had been taking over as the main focus of the business since the 1940s, when it helped the war effort by producing tailplanes for Hurricane aircraft.

Now — some 70 years later — the company is truly reaching for the stars, having been successful in winning contracts worth 8.5 million euros from the European Space Agency and Airbus to design, manufacture and test a range of sub-systems for the microwave instruments in the ESA MetOp-SG weather satellite programme.

The instruments, which feature proprietary technology from Thomas Keating, will take soundings of atmospheric temperature and humidity — the backbone data required for global weather predictions.

This contract has placed additional load on an already busy machine shop, prompting Thomas Keating’s technical manager, Simon Duke, to review existing capacity.

“We initially wanted to replace some older manual machines and had no intention of looking at CNC, but when we came across the XYZ SMX 4000 bed mill fitted with the ProtoTrak control, we realised we could have the best of both worlds. That said, we are rarely using the machine in manual mode, as programming it is so straightforward.”

XYZ 2The XYZ SMX 4000 from Burlescombe-based XYZ Machine Tools ( is now playing an important role, being used for roughing operations and pre-op work as well as on development projects.

This is allowing more costly machines to concentrate on tight-tolerance finishing operations — to sub-5µm levels.

Mr Duke chose the SMX 4000 for its spindle power (5.75kW) and table size (1,470 x 356mm); the spindle allows roughing operations on materials such as titanium and Vanadis 10 tool steel, while the table accommodates multiple set-ups.

The ProtoTrak control with its ease of use was also a major factor in the machine’s purchase. “With only one day’s training, we were confident in the operation of the machine, and we have now entrusted its operation to Thierry Chapman, who has just completed his apprenticeship. In a way, we threw him in at the deep end when the machine arrived, but he has taken to it like a duck to water.”

Mr Chapman said: “After the one-day training and about one week of operating the machine, I was very confident in operating and programming it. Now it is a case of constantly improving how I make it work; my next project is to develop the machine’s 3-D machining capability.”

The overall capability and versatility of the machine allow much more to be done on it than originally intended; it is also being used as a test bed for machining strategies and developing fixturing.

Mr Duke says: “These are things that we simply did not have capacity to do on our machining centres. For example, we do a lot of electro-forming, which requires mandrels to be machined, onto which we deposit copper and gold. We can experiment with the development of these on the SMX without interfering with intricate set-ups on our machining centres.

“Of course, there is more to buying a machine than checking if its specification meets your requirements. Working with XYZ Machine Tools was much easier than the experiences we have had with other machine tool companies. The service we received was fantastic, and when you combine that with the value for money and ease of use, it has proved to be one of the best machine purchases we have made.”

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