Current data shows that UK manufacturing lags behind the productivity performance of fellow members of the G7 group, as well as other major global economies, with a lack of investment and the shortage of skilled staff widely accepted as being major contributing factors to this situation.
That said, the implementation of advanced automation technologies is not only regarded as an effective means of UK manufacturers achieving productivity improvements but also helping to solve their skills shortages — as demonstrated by Qualiturn Products Ltd.
This Hertford-based company — established in 1974 and now run by second-generation managing director Nick Groom — has grown to become one of the UK’s leading suppliers of precision mill-turned components.
In 1990 Qualiturn became one of the first UK sub-contractors to operate its mill-turn machines ‘lights out’ throughout each night shift.
The use of bar-feed systems and other production aids means that since that time, the business has operated 24hr a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — with only daytime staffing.
In 2014, buoyed by the success of its 24-7 production of precision-turned components, the company established Qualimill — a sub-contract milling division that also uses highly efficient ‘lights out’ operating methods, such as using a Lang Robo-Trex automation system from Aylesbury-based Thame Workholding (www.thameworkholding.com
To help satisfy the ever-rising demand for Qualimill’s services, the company recently moved into much larger premises and installed several additional production aids, the most recent being a second Robo-Trex system (now connected to a Doosan DVF 5000 machining centre).
Qualimill’s two Robo-Trex systems each have two trollies that act as mobile storage units; these are loaded with multiple vices holding workpieces that are ready to be loaded into the machine by the systems’ robots (and are returned to the trollies when machining is completed).
When a trolley is filled with machined parts, it is replaced by one loaded with the next batch of workpieces, ready to be machined.
Working unattended and fed by the Robo-Trex systems, the company’s machining centres run throughout the day.
Before the end of each day shift, the Robo-Trex trollies are replenished with full consignments of workpieces, enabling each machining centre to run unmanned throughout the night.
Robo-Trex trollies are available in two sizes: the smaller version has a capacity of 30 vices (maximum part size 120 x 120 x 100 mm), while the larger version accommodates 42 vices (maximum part size 120 x 100 x 70mm).
The largest Robo-Trex system can accommodate four automation trolleys.
The patented ‘edgewise mounting’ of the system’s vices ensures maximum space utilisation, while accessibility to the clamping devices allows workpieces to be exchanged without removing the vice.
An intuitive touch panel allows easy control of the automated system; and because external access to the trolley is possible, production remains seamless as machining cycles do not need to be interrupted.
Activation of the zero-point clamping system can be performed either pneumatically through the machine tool or mechanically via the system’s robot.
Mr Groom said: “Increasing demand from our mill-turn customers initiated the launch of our Qualimill division; and to ensure that we could replicate the success of our Qualiturn operation, when setting-up the new division, we wanted to put automation systems into operation where possible and apply efficient working practices, similar to those used in our mill-turn operations.
“We looked at technologies that would allow the ‘lights out’ running of an existing CNC milling machine and found the ideal solution in the Lang Robo-Trex automation system from Thame Workholding; and having been suitably impressed by the performance of our first system, we recently installed a second system to help us meet increasing demand for our milling work.
“Furthermore, by allowing the full productive potential of the machine tools they serve, our two handling systems release staff for more technically demanding work; and by helping us to speed up our production throughput, they are also helping us to reduce our lead times, be more cost-effective and attract further new business.”
Thame Workholding sales manager Gareth Barnett added: “In addition to providing industry with a wide range of cost-effective, standard work-holding systems from several leading manufacturers, we also design and manufacture bespoke solutions in-house.
“Our vast experience and expertise in all aspects of work-holding allows our staff to fully understand our customers’ needs, then provide optimum cost-effective solutions.”