CAD to the rescue

Faced with a shortage of skilled designers and apprentices, Midlands-based die-maker Michael J Billingham wanted a cost-effective design and drafting system to help overcome a design backlog. The solution proved cheaper and more productive than the firm expected. The lost-wax die-maker, established in the 1980s, employs about 21 people at its Brierley Hill plant, and […]

Faced with a shortage of skilled designers and apprentices, Midlands-based die-maker Michael J Billingham wanted a cost-effective design and drafting system to help overcome a design backlog. The solution proved cheaper and more productive than the firm expected.

The lost-wax die-maker, established in the 1980s, employs about 21 people at its Brierley Hill plant, and was desperate for young apprentices.

With a wealth of orders for bespoke wax pattern dies for the aerospace and automotive industries, and for prosthetic knee and hip joints, the company’s design work was piling up due to the local skills shortage. It also needed to update a 2D Easicam system to a more advanced 3D solid modelling tool.

Managing director Michael Billingham complains that he toured local schools and invited groups to visit the plant to attract young talent without success.

‘The schools are steering kids into further education rather than engineering apprenticeships,’ Billingham says. ‘They don’t realise that a modern three-year apprenticeship will train people to a degree standard while employed, and it’s as big an opportunity for girls as boys.

‘We’ve tried to raise awareness among local career advisers, but have had little joy, as engineering gets such a bad press.’

The firm produces one-off tools or dies for customers to use in the lost wax or investment casting process, which dates back to Egyptian times. In the process, wax is injected into the aluminium tool; once solidified, it is removed to form a positive around which a disposable ceramic mould is formed. The technique is used to make a diverse range of goods from bomb cases to prosthetic knees or other small production parts. Big customers include Marconi, Rolls-Royce, Ford and Dunlop.

Billingham found that a new CAD system held the key to overcoming the design backlog and resolving shopfloor skill shortages.

The company had run a Varimetrix system on a Silicon Graphics workstation for some years, and initially budgeted £30,000 to cover the cost of a further Varimetrix seat. But Billingham insisted: ‘Keep your options open.’

Several systems were considered, including Delcam’s Duct design and manufacture software, which systems manager Robert Bodley had worked with, as well as Autocad.

‘We needed good modelling facilities and drafting with the ability to manipulate and trim surfaces easily,’ Bodley says.

Speedy training was a priority. The company wanted engineers to produce workable cutter paths for tools within a week of training, and gain expertise within three months.

Bodley hoped the new CAD system would be able to design the tools in more detail, ‘so that thinking time on the shop floor, where tools are hand-finished, could be reduced’.

After discussions about alternative system configurations, West Bromwich-based consultant Alta convinced Michael J Billingham it could use Autocad cost-effectively. Works director Darren Withers says: ‘Alta assured us it could meet our needs with Autocad packages.’

The system was tested with a complex 3D multi-surface model, which it easily coped with. Impressed, Billingham purchased two seats of Mechanical Desktop 2.0 and Hypermill Class, running on a Pentium II 233, with installation and training included in the package.

‘Since implementing Desktop 2.0 and Hypermill, working practices have improved significantly and job completion is far faster,’ he says. ‘We now have the confidence to set up a job on the CNC machine and walk away knowing that there will be no gouges and that it will be 100% accurate. Jobs can be left overnight and our order book potential has increased significantly.’ There is considerably less hand finishing, and the company can now handle multi-surface finishing.

Mechanical Desktop 2.0 is used to design tools that require cutter paths, while non-CNC tools are still designed on the shop floor by skilled toolmakers. Because of the shortage of good toolmakers, Michael J Billingham ultimately wants to move all design to CAD, which will allow it to employ more semi-skilled workers.

The backlog the company suffered in the design department before installing the new system has moved to the CNC machines, which Billingham prefers, as he says it is easier to source CNC skills than design.

Jobs are now completed quicker and there is less scrap. Within six months of using the system there has been a full return on investment and a further seat is likely to be bought.

3D CAD models are received or transmitted to customers via the Internet for approval or amendment at the touch of a button. Direct links are planned via the Internet to Billingham’s satellite manufacturing operation in Altrincham. A company web page has also been set up.

‘Profitability has increased all round,’ says Billingham. ‘The CAD system is reducing the need for skilled labour on the shop floor, but we still need skilled operators for the finishing.’

He estimates about 50% of the firm’s jobs are now computer-controlled and the rest is handled manually on conventional milling machines.

Looking to the future, Billingham says: ‘We currently design the tool and it generates a cutting list. We can use that to order materials directly and at present this means getting three quotes from three different suppliers. At a later date, we’ll be able to order direct over the Internet once we’ve set up a preferred vendor suppliers list.’

For a small parts supplier like Michael J Billingham, advanced automation is a formula for better quality tools, less skill needs, faster production and higher profits. ‘The British are the best toolmakers in the world,’ says Billingham. ‘With the latest automation packages we are unbeatable.’