Kendal is a historic market town situated in the valley on the banks of the River Kent eight miles from Morecambe Bay; it also stands at the ‘entrance’ to one of the most beautiful parts of the country — the Lake District. Long before the area’s natural history began to attract the holidaying masses, the town was known for producing pipe tobacco, snuff and Kendal Mint Cake — an invention from the 1860s that isn’t cake at all, but a dense, glucose-based confectionery for outdoor types.
North West England in the mid-19th century may not have been the tourist destination it is today, but it was a place of great industrial activity — powered by the water that cascaded off the surrounding hills.
The firm of Gilbert Gilkes and Gordon Ltd was founded in 1853 to design and manufacture the turbines and infrastructure required to take advantage of this resource, and the company is still in Kendal today — occupying the building that it moved into 120 years ago.
A sepia photograph hanging beside Gilkes’ current production lines shows workers shifting supplies into and out of boats on the Lancashire Canal, but there are few other reminders that this privately owned company has been in existence for over 150 years. Today, one half of the factory floor is packed with the latest Haas CNC machine tools (www.haascnc.com)
, arranged in cells and making pumps for diesel engines; the other is open space where components of hydro-power turbines are assembled before being shipped to destinations world-wide.
The Haas CNC machine tools are used to manufacture a range of pumps for cooling diesel engines and plant. Indeed, Gilkes supplies many of the world’s major diesel engine manufacturers; the company also produces pumping solutions for the lubricating of oil, gas and steam turbines. Operations director Andy Poole says Gilkes produces pumps for a diversity of applications, and has been trading on a reputation established during the Second World War.
“We developed a pump that went on trawlers. When the war finished, the fishermen remembered the name and, when later they built their own boats, they told the engine suppliers what pumps they wanted and the demand has simply grown from there.
“Many competitors’ pumps feature rubber impellers, but we’ve always offered metal ones, which means our pumps last longer. This year, we’ll make about 19,000 units on the Haas machines in our Kendal facility.
“That said, turbine parts are not manufactured in Kendal. We do all the design work, but the components are made by sub-contractors and only assembled here. We also have a pump plant in Houston, which was established around 35 years ago to refurbish units for our US customers.
Furthermore, Caterpillar and Cummins run refurbishing programmes, where they take engines back from customers and overhaul them. They usually send the pumps back to us for rebuilding, which means we’re now working on pumps for generator sets and industrial and marine applications that we may get back for reconditioning in around seven or eight years’ time. Many of the bronze pumps you see around the factory are for marine applications.”
In Gilkes’ goods-inward area, pallets are stacked high with cast pump bodies in different finishes and colours. The castings are all sourced in the UK, which allows any quality issues to be resolved quickly and easily. Assuming the casting is good, it becomes a finished pump in around a week. “We don’t run a Kanban system,” says Mr Poole. “We make for stock or to order. We have a warehouse in the USA, because our largest customer — Caterpillar — rarely gives us more than one or two days’ notice.”
The decision to invest in Haas CNC machine tools had a lot to do with the company’s US operation, as Mr Poole explains: “Although we researched the market, one of our main considerations when we short-listed the possible choices was that we wanted to have the same machines at our US plant in Houston as we use here in the UK. We wanted a machine tool that was going to be supported both sides of the Atlantic and used the same control. Haas has a huge user base in America, plus they have a wide range of machines for different applications. It also means our engineers in the UK can easily share their experience and best practice with their US counterparts.”
Gilkes’ Haas machine tools are organised in product cells, the eventual aim being to have six cells, with Haas machines replacing all of the company’s older machine tools. One of the cells, which is making small bearing housings and bodies, has two Haas SL-30 turning centres and an EC300 horizontal machining centre. Another cell, making larger housings and bodies, comprises SL-40 turning centres and VF-3 vertical mills.
A high-volume cell has a Haas DS-30SSY high-speed turning centre with Y axis and live tooling, a Haas bar feeder, an ABB robot for unloading parts, and a Renishaw Equator bench-top gauge for in-process testing. The cell is designed to work two shifts a day making one collar and one spacer for every pump; with spares, this accounts for some 50,000 parts a year. The whole investment totals more than £400,000.
“We also have two more Haas lathes due for installation. These will form a cell for machining impellers. There is also a pair of Haas TL-2 tool-room lathes making bronze parts for marine pumps, plus a TM-1P CNC tool-room mill dedicated to making impellers.”
Although Gilkes is still managed by members of the founding family, it is unlike some firms that find it difficult to let go of the past; the company is planning and investing for the future and has recently received a Government grant for a purpose-built factory on the outskirts of Kendal, where it will have room for its biggest expansion to date.