Automation Getting around the skills shortage with easy to operate 5-axis machining centres
In its 20,000 sq ft, purpose-built factory in Hayes, near London Heathrow airport, subcontractor Wellington Engineering uses 45 CNC machine tools to produce parts for sectors as diverse as aerospace, medical, semiconductors and cryogenics. The latest machine to arrive on the shop floor, in mid-2022, was a Hurco VC500i machining centre.
Subcontractor Wellington Engineering recently adopted a strategy of looking to take on more complex prismatic machining work and had already identified a number of contracts. Owner and managing director Daimon Wellington commented: “It was just a question of finding a suitable machining centre. Full 5-axis capability was the next step up for us in terms of technology and as we use a lot of Hurcos, we decided to source our first true 5-axis machining centre from them.”
The cantilever-type VC500i is ergonomically designed for easy operator access, has a 520 x 450 x 400 mm working volume and a ± 100 degree swivelling trunnion carrying a rotary table, ideal for machining five faces of a component in a single set-up. It drastically reduces the number of separate operations needed compared with using the subcontractor's 3- axis machines, including those fitted with single- or two-axis dividing heads.
Wellington observed: "Our other machining centres were taking too long to produce the increasingly complex components. Productivity drives profits and we have had excellent results in this respect since the 5-axis Hurco was installed. Parts come off much quicker and we are not tying up the capacity of our other machines and their operators. Also there are far fewer issues with workholding and there is less deburring and hand fettling, all of which saves time. With 5-axis strategies, jobs are coming off more economically in shorter cycle times, giving us more confidence to tell customers reliably when they can expect deliveries.”
Wellington Engineering uses machine efficiency software to monitor cycle times and the uptime of its plant. Immediately apparent were the efficiency benefits of completing a job in two operations maximum on the VC500i, rather than having to put it up four or five times on different machine tools. One of the advantages is that manufacturing procedures are less complicated. Previously if the operator of one of the machines called in sick it would disrupt the entire process chain, but that is no longer the case, greatly improving efficiency.
Milling and grinding of large components in one set-up
In Wellington's opinion, there is a shortage of young talent coming through in manufacturing these days, so it is highly beneficial to install a machine that can do the work of four or five yet be operated by just one person: “With Hurco's support and the ease of conversational programming using the Max 5 control, we are getting around the skills shortage and producing high quality components in fast times. Our operators especially like the ability to edit during the machining process, giving confidence that the part will come off right first time. We are now absolutely looking at jobs in a different way. Whenever we produce an estimate to quote for a new job, we always look at it as one that will potentially go onto the 5-axis machine. That is because of the benefits it brings, especially when we are able to use simultaneous 5-axis cycles, which is impossible on our other machines, while the VC500i is equally beneficial for 5-sided work.”
He is delighted to be receiving reports from customers saying that the prices he is now charging are competitive with those of low-cost sources overseas. It is largely due to being able to cut down massively on set-up times as well as the cost of jigs and fixtures for presenting components at multiple specific angles to the spindle. The subcontractor is now quoting successfully for work that it had previously considered but had to turn down, as its prices were too expensive.
In conclusion, Wellington's overall perspective on his latest machine tool investment is that the main benefit is the high level of output. Jobs that would normally take three to four weeks to complete are produced in days, without all the work-in-progress involved manufacturing parts on several machines sequentially. The other significant advantage is that the 3- and 4-axis machines on the shop floor are freed up for simpler work.