Seco offers machining knowledge — and more

UK tooling company is helping to improve industry’s understanding of the machining process

Posted on 05 Oct 2017 and read 384 times
Seco offers machining knowledge — and moreMike Fleming — strategic marketing, products and services manager at Alcester-based Seco Tools (UK) Ltd — says changes have been taking place in the UK’s metal-cutting industries in recent years (www.secotools.com).

In particular, he highlights the fact that many companies no longer have the breadth and depth of machining knowledge that was common just a generation ago — and that it is increasingly difficult to attract new young talent into manufacturing.

Mr Fleming says: “There is a shortage of skills in manufacturing — and this doesn’t just apply to the number of skilled people entering the sector, but also to the knowledge and experience that companies need to optimise productivity, as well as deliver quality and process reliability.

“As long as four years ago, a report published by the consulting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers said 65% of UK CEOs believed that a lack of skills was hampering the growth prospects of their organisations; and while there has been a Government push on developing STEM skills, this was not going to address the skills shortages in the industries we work with. The report prompted us to take matters into our own hands.”

Seco is committed to training customers’ staff, as well as its own staff and apprentices. The company introduced STEP (Seco Technical Education Programme) a few years ago, and it continues to expand and refine the programme in line with developments in manufacturing technology.

Patrick De Vos, Seco’s corporate STEP consultancy and educational services manager (and main architect of the programme), says many manufacturers find themselves in what he refers to as a ‘technology gap.’

“Being in this gap means that manufacturing companies are using cutting tools and machining techniques that have been superseded by new products, new technologies and new thinking; and while many of these companies may well have reliable and secure machining processes, they find it difficult — without using the latest technologies — to fully optimise them. Process security does not necessarily equate to process optimisation.

Seco“STEP provides a comprehensive overview of the different elements of a metal-cutting process, describing and explaining the interrelationship and interconnectedness between them.

The machining process is complex, so knowledge and understanding of the interaction between the cutting tool and the workpiece material — as well as other process parameters — are key to controlling and optimising it.

“In metal cutting, the balance between loads and forces from cutting that act on the cutting edge has to be harmonised with the load-bearing capacity of the cutting edge and tool.”

Mr De Vos says that STEP is structured so that delegates — whether a relative novice in machining techniques or a more-skilled professional — can gain practical skills and improve their competencies.

“Moreover, whereas suppliers of equipment such as machine tools, CAD/CAM systems and work-holding equipment generally offer training that emphasises its capabilities and functionality, such training has its limitations without a comprehensive understanding of the machining process.

“We maintain that by helping to provide a better understanding of the machining process, STEP can be a useful precursor to equipment training.”

STEP levels


There are essentially three levels to Seco’s programme. STEP Core comprises a series of practical education and training modules that explain the basics of the metal-cutting process and the role of tooling within it.

The course is structured so that when delegates are back in their workplaces, they can make basic tooling choices, as well as determine the cutting conditions for different applications.

They will also be able to identify, intervene and rectify issues and problems as — or even before — they arise. This course is essentially aimed at machine tool operators, tool setters, programmers and supervisors.

STEP Advanced provides more-specialist training and focuses on the physics of the metal-cutting process (turning, milling, hole-making and threading), the aim being to enable delegates to optimise planning and design-to-manufacture processes.

This is aimed at managers in production, planning, quality, design and lean manufacturing. These two courses combine classroom-based learning activities with practical machining demonstrations.

Recognising that metal-cutting processes do not exist in isolation but take place in a commercial environment, Next STEP is concerned with improving manufacturing companies’ profitability and competitiveness by encouraging ‘manufacturing professionals to take a more holistic view of their entire manufacturing and production processes’.

It is a bespoke technical-consultancy-based service provided by Seco, and it is aimed at managers and directors of manufacturing companies.

Seco recently introduced STEP Entry. Mr Fleming said: “Knowing that STEP Core was a little too challenging for first-year apprentices, we introduced STEP Entry to ensure that they could also benefit.

“We also hope that this new module will enthuse the educators guiding the next generation of engineers.”

As for verifying the effectiveness of STEP, CAM company Delcam (a subsidiary of Autodesk) was an early user of STEP to update its engineers’ understanding of the latest developments in cutting-tool technology, thereby ensuring that the CAM software they produced gave maximum benefit to Delcam’s customers.

Speaking at the time, Delcam applications engineer Charles Jones said: “The potential problem in all CAM software development is that the tool-paths produced by the system may be mathematically correct but may not consider other practical limitations.

“We need to ensure that our developers have an understanding of real-world machining, so that they can produce software that performs on the machine tool just as well as it does on the computer.”

Engineering a career


It was about five years ago that Seco established a strategy designed to encourage young people into engineering. Richard Jelfs, Seco’s managing director, says: “We have established — and maintain — excellent relationships with our local primary and secondary schools, FE colleges and sixth-form colleges, as well as higher-education establishments.

Engineering and manufacturing aren’t always viewed positively here in the UK, so anything we can do to help change young people’s perceptions about working in the manufacturing sector is a step in the right direction.”

Seco organises School-Industry Link projects with Year 8 and 9 pupils; the company also provides work-experience placement opportunities for Year 10 and 11 students.

The most popular placements are those involving design and engineering, followed by IT, finance and HR. The last day is usually spent with Mr Fleming in marketing, where students make a blog that appears on Seco’s social media outlet.

The company also has three STEM Ambassadors who are partnered with STEMNET, and local schools and colleges are contacted when it has vacancies for apprentices.

In fact, Mr Fleming says Seco’s four-year Technician Engineering Apprenticeship Programme is one of the company’s most successful initiatives. It is SEMTA-approved and is a collaborative venture involving Seco staff (acting as either mentors or trainers) and Midland Group Training Services (MGTS).

Seco’s people development manager, Zoe Wood, says: “The apprenticeships are practical and focus on the skills that manufacturers need now and will need in the future. The emphasis is on nurturing the individual, giving each the opportunity to grow and develop while equipping them with the skills and knowledge they will need to make a success of their chosen careers.”

Recent recruits — Tom Hampton and Emma Roberts — are both in their second year. They currently work four days a week at Seco’s Technology Centre and spend one day a week at MGTS’s training facility in Redditch, where they are studying for the BTEC Level 3 qualification.

Mr Hampton applied for an apprenticeship with Seco after a week of work experience with the company. “Having spent my first year at college learning the basics, I am now working in the Custom Tool shop on a three-axis VMC with additional fourth- and fifth-axis rotary tables — setting up and machining real jobs.”

Ms Roberts is also working in the Custom Tool shop, where she recently completed an intensive and practical module in milling before moving on to learning about Seco’s various inspection processes in greater depth.

“Engineering was one of the career paths I was considering when at school. It was while considering the options of studying full-time at college or entering the world of work via an apprenticeship that I heard about Seco’s Technician Apprenticeship Programme.

When I went for an interview at Seco and saw the set-up, I thought: ‘Wow, this is great’. Within a few months of starting, I had become more independent and confident.”

Successful in-house exhibition


Seco’s ambition of disseminating machining and production knowledge to the widest possible audience saw the company hold an in-house exhibition last year. It worked with a number of technical partners covering a wide range of products.

These included machine tools, work-holding equipment and CAD/CAM systems, as well as coolants and cutting oils. The event attracted more than 500 people over two days; it also included a seminar programme, with the one on titanium machining attended by more than 80 people. Seco is holding a similar event this year (10-11 October).

Mr Fleming says: “We turn our production facility and warehousing areas into a machining zone with machine tools from the likes of Grob, Matsuura, Heller, Romi and Willemen Macodel; plus we have the latest machines from Hermle, DMG and Mazak in our Custom Tool shop.

“We are planning to have some 50 companies exhibiting this year, and the focus will be on collaboration, so that visitors can see the whole manufacturing process, not just metal being cut.

They will see how using the latest developments relating to machines, tooling, work-holding and CAD/CAM — for example — allows production to be optimised.

“We aim to create an environment that allows good relationships to develop and visitors to gain knowledge that will improve their businesses and competitiveness.”

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