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RE Thompson is fully charged with hyperMILL

Posted on 06 Jun 2022 and read 1605 times
RE Thompson is fully charged with hyperMILLProduction floor at RE Thompson with automated cells

Hampshire-based RE Thompson has ambitious plans for its new manufacturing facility and recently implementing the right CAM system was seen as a critical decision requiring due diligence for the sub-contract manufacturer.

Founded in 1948, the company has manufactured aerospace components for more than 60 years, diversifying into the electronics and semiconductor, medical, hydrogen, and electric vehicle (EV) sectors in more recent times.

To undertake this diversification, the company has invested over £7 million in the last 10 years. This has included the opening of a second 20,000ft2 manufacturing facility in 2015, installing advanced fibre connectivity and decarbonising infrastructure, the purchase of DMG Mori five-axis machining centres and most recently an Okuma Multus from NCMT and a coordinate measuring machine from Hexagon MI.

The next step for the company is to increase its throughput and workflows through automation. Unlike most sub-contract manufacturers, RE Thompson already has impressive factory floor automation with 512 pallets on just nine machining centres. The bottleneck for the company has been the process flow away from the factory floor — primarily CAM programming.

The company’s existing CAD/CAM system was tired, and the technology was not available for modern machining strategies such as the lens and barrel tools that it requires for machining blisks and impellers for the aerospace industry.

ThompsonCompany owner Michael Thompson (pictured left) said: “Our previous CAD/CAM system was falling down on meeting our requirements and some of its strategies were at least 10 years old, and every time a new version was released, there was nothing significantly new about it. We first put the old system in our factory around 30 years ago and over the years it has failed to keep up with technology to the point that the developers do not even create their post processors.”

He continued: “The system put a lot of limitations on our business with regards to our MPI (Marginal Propensity to Invest). From now to October, certain things will be transforming within our business, and this includes the MPI, lead times and turnround times. We have a lot of knowledge and skill in the company, but our old CAD/CAM system was holding us back.

“What we are doing now is building a new system from the ground up, we have installed a new fibre network infrastructure and installed ultra-efficient air compressors with full redundancy, allowing better use of what we have.”

With regard to selecting Open Mind Technologies’ hyperMILL, Mr Thompson said: “We looked at five or six systems, but we wanted the flexibility to create really good tool paths. hyperMILL is very well supported in the UK, lots of prestigious companies and sub-contractors use it, and there is local support.

“However, local support is now increasingly irrelevant, as the pandemic and our complete feasibility study through to adoption have shown. We have been implementing the system with Open Mind over Teams and have yet to meet them in person. We sometimes have people in six to eight locations working from home, so being able to implement hyperMILL with everyone involved has been fantastic.”

Advanced tool path strategies

Mr Thompson explained: “When we narrowed our process down to two vendors, we found that hyperMILL had advanced tool path strategies and the overall support was outstanding. We spoke with Ken Baldwin and Jon Shortt in the UK but also the Open Mind team in Germany who detailed innovations in the pipeline that would help us with our ambitious plans that we are working towards for October.”

Before alluding to the next tranche of features in the pipeline with hyperMILL, Mr Thompson emphasised the existing features that helped the company make its decision: “The flexibility of hyperMILL is second-to-none and they have really honed-in on three- and five-axis strategies as well as turning – with its reputation in high-end five-axis machining, we were very surprised by how good the turning package is.”

Looking at particular components manufactured by RE Thompson, Mr Thompson continued: “hyperMILL will help us with very small parts where we want to make multiples through to very large semi-conductor chambers. There was one part in the Manufacturing Performance Index (MPI) stage that would save us a staggering four days by utilising hyperMILL. This saving will be achieved through automating datum settings. These jobs can take weeks to programme, but just in one area, hyperMILL will make a huge four-day saving – that is just phenomenal.”

“When you have a lot of datums and ports on a job, we have to set those all individually and on our previous system, you really had to mark down in detail what had been set up. With hyperMILL, it just does it for you. This saving is just in setting the jobs, it doesn’t even account for the possible savings in overall programming and the machining cycles.

“When it comes to machining cycles and retracts, hyperMILL will naturally follow the shortest tool path – at present, our system retracts the tool all the way out for each process. This can be analysed and used to continuously improve our MPI data. Providing increased capability when assessing our productivity versus profitability for our manufacturing processes.”

ThompsonOn the factory floor, the company produces everything from one-off and small batches to runs of hundreds of parts. Turning naturally has higher production volumes, but some milling jobs can be up to 500-off a year of very complex parts for some clients. Parts are processed with utmost efficiency due to the company’s investment in 512 pallets that are either integrated via machine tool suppliers like DMG Mori or through automation specialists Fastems.

With no difference between complex and less complex parts. This has enabled the business to run lights out 24/7 since 2008. New business is from the semi-conductor, maritime autonomous vehicle, aerospace enclosure, hydrogen, and EV industries – all requiring ever-faster turnround times. Some of these companies will only want 20-50 parts each month, with others requiring significantly greater numbers.

Off-machine savings

Looking at this evolving mix of work, Mr Thompson explained: “Other than retracts, our toolpaths are pretty good, and we minimise air-cutting and maximise machine utilisation where possible. Where hyperMILL will make a difference is during the time from order receipt to first-off production. We expect lead times to be hugely reduced. It means our productivity will at least double as we can do the MPI and produce a lot more in a shorter time.

“It has been a bottleneck in our business for some years now, and we cannot afford to just keep putting more engineers into the business. At present, we have four manufacturing engineers programming, but we have another three setters that will be trained to programme, and we have another three positions advertised at the moment. To facilitate this, we will be investing in a further 10 seats of hyperMILL, but I expect this to double and eventually increase fourfold, as we expect our throughput to more than double with hyperMILL.”

Matthew Shaw, head of sales at RE Thompson, said: “The addition of hyperMILL will be great for the sales team, as we will have more capacity to sell. We can also adopt a much better approach to the market. hyperMILL will give us greater speed to market, a faster-quoting process and with improved throughput, our lead-times will improve significantly. Furthermore, with improved processes and machining strategies available to us through hyperMILL, we can emphasise the value this brings to our business and most importantly, our customers.”

More competitive

Mr Thompson added: “Sometimes we weren’t competitive machining propeller blades or impellers, as we couldn’t use barrel tools. So, our sales team had trouble selling that facility. With hyperMILL, we will be able to utilise all of those tools and strategies. Our team has seen some of the features in the software package and they immediately recognise the benefits on offer.”

“Also having the facility to build a tool library with comprehensive data on speeds, feeds, materials, and machining parameters excites our team, and Open Mind has even more features in the pipeline. This will be a huge benefit coming from the limited tool library facility in our existing CAM system. Another important factor in selecting our supplier was that we wanted to use a company that makes its living from CAM.

“If you look at some systems in the market, they don’t rely on CAM as their sole product, and this is where they fail to evolve. As an analogy, I look at restaurants. A restaurant that solely survives on selling food will live or die by the quality and service it provides whereas a restaurant in a hotel, sporting venue or other complex is only complementary to the venue — serving quality food isn’t the core reason for the business. This analogy is similar to ‘CAM companies’ and ‘companies that also do CAM’ – we wanted the best possible product and service.”

Mr Thompson concluded: “One of the key considerations to implementing a new CAM system was the ability to integrate it into our automation plans. We are looking in-depth at the automation of our processes and systems away from the factory floor and this will include the CAM software.

“We are looking to adopt new systems and methodologies by the summer, with hyperMILL’s Virtual Machine and automation systems playing an integral role. By the beginning of October, we want to be offering a very short lead time to our clients and we will announce more on this in due course.”