Fast cut to new market

Rye Machinery has branched out into lucrative new markets by showing manufacturers that a traditional woodworking tool, the router, can also be applied to other materials such as aluminium and composites, writes Douglas Friedli

Most manufacturers would love to be able to double their sales simply by finding different uses for existing products. Woodworking equipment maker Rye Machinery has done just that by moving into the aluminium and composite cutting markets.

Rye is based in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, a former centre of the furniture industry. Its staple product is the router, a fast-cutting unit which is generally used to make patterns in wooden panels.

Routers don’t have the strength to cut steel, but they can be used effectively on aluminium, carbon fibre and plastics. Rye sold its first router to a non-wood customer, a local aerospace company, nine years ago. Sales to similar companies were initially slow, but picked up as Rye gained more confidence in dealing with a new market. This year the company expects to sell 60% of its routers to companies outside the woodworking industry.

Managing director Adam Kingdon believes the balance will stay about the same. `I think the wood market is bigger, but it is also much more competitive,’ he says.

Competition in the woodworking market comes largely from keenly-priced Italian manufacturers. There is plenty of competition in the non-wood market, but routers can be more cost-effective for some tasks. `The traditional machine tool is designed to machine steel, which takes heavy cutting forces and relatively low speeds. It has to be enormously big and strong, and probably weighs about 10 times as much as a router,’ says Kingdon.

But power and weight are less important in some applications, such as trimming and pattern making in composites and aluminium.

Because few non-wood customers have even heard of routers, Rye has to market them as machining centres – but they do have some special characteristics. Routers generally use a vacuum under the part being machined in order to hold it in place. This means that parts can be changed more quickly than with other fixing methods. Along with spindle speeds of about 18,000-24,000 rpm, this means that a large number of parts can be processed in a given time. This has always been important in the furniture industry, a consumer business where volumes tend to be very high and margins tight.

But routers have a lot in common with other machining centres. Most are CNC controlled, dimensions can go up to 4m x 4m with a 1.75m Z-axis, and multiple tables are common.

One of the largest markets for non-wood routers is aerospace. Hamble Group uses a Rye machine to trim and put holes in the Boeing 727’s wing skin structures. And Westland has just put an order in for a second twin-table machine for putting the details on aluminium doors. `Someone like Westland traditionally thought in terms of machine tools which would cost three times as much,’ says Kingdon.

Aluminium routing is not new – according to the Institute of Machine Woodworking Technology, it has been going on since 1938. Leicester-based router manufacturer Wadkin has also dipped its toe in the machine tool market. John Gibbon, Wadkin’s sales manager, says: `We sell about 20% of our output to non-wood customers, all in the aircraft industry. Although these machines are not particularly expensive to them, they are at the top of the woodworking range.’

But Rye is ahead of its rivals in developing markets outside aerospace, especially in the car industry. Worcester-firm Superform Aluminium uses a Rye pentaxial CNC router to trim front and rear wings for Morgan and the radiator grille and boot finisher on the Bentley Arnage.

As well as finding new markets at home, Rye is attempting to revive its overseas sales. The company’s owners appointed Kingdon in October 1998 in the face of falling export sales, down from 70% in the 1970s to 10% last year. He and his new management team have set a target of 50% of sales over the next three years, helped by two new distribution networks. There have to be two, because the non-wood customers generally get their equipment from machine tool suppliers.

The second part of Rye’s revival strategy is to outsource all manufacturing and concentrate on design and sales. From this autumn, all machining will be done by Turton Brothers & Matthews in Sheffield. According to Kingdon, this will allow Rye to offer a wider range of products and produce them more quickly. `The problem was that Rye’s own machine tools were very old. It couldn’t justify investing in new ones,’ he says.

`Turton’s can machine one of our beds in four hours: it used to take us four days. And we can avoid the horrendous bottlenecks we used to get.’

Traditional use: a Rye Synergy CNC router cutting kitchen unit doors. The new use, inset: a Rye Pentaxial CNC router trims front wings for a Morgan sports car at Superform Aluminium in Worcester