Tooling up: purchasing engineering machines

John Dunn looks at the various ways UK engineers approach getting the right tools, the right components and the right machines for the job in hand.

Albert Soave prefers profit to turnover. As founder of Oxfordshire subcontractor Acrona Engineering, he’d rather do small runs of high-value components. And that’s why he had to have a machining centre that could be changed from job to job as fast as possible.

But Albert Soave is also a patient man. He took over two years to pick the right machine. Soave looked seriously at six machines, short-listed two, and finally picked one. This was the Hurco 4020 machining centre supplied by Hurco Europe in High Wycombe. He particularly liked its Ultimax 4 control system. ‘It’s in a class of its own for ease and speed of programming,’ he says. He now has three.

Dave Neville prefers strength. As quality manager for F1 gearbox manufacturer Xtrac, he has to have lathes that can produce gear blanks fast and to a high degree of accuracy. That’s why Xtrac has stuck with Okuma CNC lathes from NCMT in Thames Ditton, Surrey. They are tough enough to hack off lots of metal all day long and yet still remain within tolerance. Just how tough they are, Neville found out one day when a collision ripped the turret off one of the Okumas and sheared four 14mm diameter bolts. ‘We thought we’d have to write off the machine,’ says Neville. ‘But it was back in production within a few days.’

Buyers of machine tools prefer to get back into production as soon as possible, too, it seems. When A&S Precision Machine Tools threw open the doors of its Melbourne, Derbyshire showroom for a three-day open house recently, over 130 machine tool buyers turned up. But such is the pressure of manufacturing industry these days that the busiest times were during lunch and after 5 o’clock. Visitors still managed to stop long enough to buy six Star sliding head machines, and A&S managing director Bob Hunt is planning another open day in October. Better lay on lunch.

And a stiff drink. You’d need one if your brand new £1m flexible manufacturing system suddenly started to think for itself, changing its settings without so much as a by-your-leave from anyone in the factory. It happened to Nick Whitman at Oxfordshire garden machinery maker Countax. Whitman is project manager for the company’s new FMS consisting of two Finn-Power Shear Genius punching and nibbling cells. Supplied by Press & Shear of Tamworth, Staffordshire, the machines work 24 hours a day, churning out sheet metal mower and tractor parts.

But those Finn-Power engineers back in Finland are fussy. They installed a remote monitoring system to enable them to look at Countax’s machining cycles on-line and modify them to get the best out of their machines. ‘It was eerie the first time,’ says Whitman, ‘watching the machining parameters being changed on screen without the apparent intervention of anyone.’