XYZ equipment helps precision engineer meet the demands of the space industry

Thomas Keating is a provider of precision engineering and tool making services, with capabilities covering jig boring and grinding, EDM, electro-forming, and CNC and manual machining.


The company has been successful in winning contracts worth €8.5m from the European Space Agency and Airbus to design, manufacture and test a range of sub-systems for the microwave instruments in the ESA MetOp-SG weather satellite programme. The instruments, featuring proprietary technology from Thomas Keating include: on-board calibration targets for the MicroWave Sounder (MWS), on-board calibration targets for the ICE Cloud Imager (ICI), and the Quasi- Optical Network of the MWSl measure. This equipment will take soundings of atmospheric temperature and humidity, which will provide a significant part of the backbone data required for global weather predictions when it is launched.

This contract has placed an additional load on an already busy machine shop so Thomas Keating’s technical manager, Simon Duke started to review existing capacity. “We initially wanted to replace some older manual machines and had no intention of looking at CNC, but when we came across the XYZ SMX 4000 bed mill fitted with the Prototrak control, we realised we could have the best of both worlds, that said, we are rarely using the machine in manual as programming it is so straightforward.”

The XYZ SMX 4000 is now playing an important role being used for roughing operations and pre-op work, as well as on development projects. This is having a significant impact on the available capacity of more expensive machines, which are now free to concentrate on finishing operations to tolerances at sub-five micron levels.

Thomas Keating chose the SMX 4000 due to its spindle power and table size. The 5.75Kw (7.5HP) allows it to carry out roughing operations on materials such a titanium and Vanadis 10 tool steel, while the 1,470 x 356mm table has created the opportunity to have multiple set-ups in place at the same time. The Prototrak control and its ease of use was also a major influence in the purchase of the machine. “With only one day’s training we were confident in the operation of the machine and we have now entrusted its operation to Thierry Chapman, who has just completed his apprenticeship. In a way, we threw him in at the deep end when the machine arrived, but he has taken to it like a duck to water,” said Duke.

Chapman was one of three people from Thomas Keating to attend the one-day training course where the basic machine operation and use of the Prototrak was explained, including the conversational programming, canned cycles, and how to make use of the Traking, which allows the operator to manually wind handles to move the machine through the program, to confirm that all movements are okay, before pressing cycle start. This is added reassurance for users over and above the graphical representation of the program on screen. “After the one-day training and about one week of operating the machine I was very confident in operating and programming it. Now it is a case of constantly improving how I make it work and my next project is to develop the 3D machining capability,” said Chapman.

The overall capability of the XYZ SMX 4000 is allowing much more to be done on it than originally intended. It is being used as a test bed for machining strategies and developing fixturing. “These are things that we simply did not have capacity to do on our machining centres. For example, we do a lot of electroforming, which requires mandrels/ forms to be machined, onto which we deposit copper and gold. We can experiment with the development of these on the SMX without interfering with intricate setups on our machining centres. So, the decision to buy the SMX with its Prototrak control was definitely a good one,” said Duke.