2006 saw a rationalisation in the press tool making industry in the West Midlands, with dozens of firms going out of business, including some of the biggest names. A similar shake-up in the plastic injection mouldmaking sector happened a few years ago. These trends are mirrored around the UK as OEMs either relocate overseas or buy their tools from low-wage countries.
One Birmingham company bucking the trend is A&M EDM. It is one of the few electric discharge machining specialists in the UK that, working in partnership with other tool makers, helps to manufacture such a wide range of tools including single-stage press tools, progression tools, injection moulds, blow moulds, composite moulds and, increasingly, foundry patterns. Set up in October 2002 by partners Mark Wingfield and Arthur Watts, the firm has invested over £1 million in shop floor plant, notably wire-cut, die-sink and EDM drilling machines from Sodick, and machining centres from Hurco.
The customer base numbers more than 200, including all the remaining major press toolmakers in the West Midlands and many pressworkers, as well as automotive and motorsport companies, aerospace manufacturers and even universities. Sixty per cent of turnover is derived from tool making, the remainder being general subcontract work.
Said Mark, "It is sad to see such a significant reduction in our tool making industry, which has resulted from some UK suppliers trying to charge excessive rates and some buyers willing to sacrifice our indigenous manufacturing base by going overseas to extract every last bit of profit. "However, the skills are still here in the UK and if you quote the right price and supply a top quality tool on time, the business is there to be won, especially if the tool is complex or needed quickly."
The company's progress over the last four years is proof of that, and as there are fewer competitors around, its success is likely to continue. A&M EDM is also helped by negative issues associated with putting work abroad. For example at the time of interview, a tool produced in Estonia was having to be extensively reworked, as it had out-of-tolerance features and had not even been dowelled! "That tool will end up costing the buyer more than having it made here," Mark wryly observed.
Electric discharge machining is the mainstay of the firm's expertise and accounts for 80 per cent of value-added metalcutting. Milling has been growing since mid 2004. At that time, the copper and graphite die-sink electrodes were becoming more complex, necessitating either uneconomical wire-erosion or putting the work out to a subcontractor with 3D machining capability.
Keen to keep electrode manufacture in-house to control lead-time, quality and cost, Mark decided to buy a vertical machining centre to produce the electrodes. In addition, more and more customers were asking for a total package including sparked and wired tools plus machined plates, the latter needing a machining centre for their production.
As he had worked very satisfactorily in the past with a combination of Sodick EDM machines and Hurco machining centres, Mark decided to go the same way again and bought a Hurco VM3 with 1,270 x 457 x 457 mm machining capacity. When customers saw the new metalcutting facility, other work started to come in for it.
Then A&M EDM invested in a large wire eroder with 1,100 x 700 mm cutting area, so a larger machining centre was needed to make the tool and die plates. Furthermore, people were asking for larger, non tool-related prismatic parts to be machined and Mark was having to turn it down. So in 2006, the company installed a larger Hurco VMX64 with a 1,625 x 864 x 762 mm machining envelope.
Almost all jobs on both Hurcos are programmed quickly by manual data input at the controls on the shop floor, as components are generally not very complex. Even some 3D cycles such as for machining electrodes are programmed on the Max and Ultimax CNC systems, these being proprietary controls fitted to the VM3 and VMX64 respectively. A&M EDM's Camtek PEPS and Delcam Powershape CADCAM systems are reserved for programming the Sodick machines.
Although parts produced on both of the machining centres are relatively simple, such as platework for the moulds and tools, total tolerance on relative bore positions, for example, can be as tight as 10 microns. These are easily held on the Hurcos. Jobs being produced on them when the machine shop was visited were part of a composite mould requiring 3D surface milling on the VM3; and mild steel rolling mill plates on the VMX64.
The future for the company will be continued steady growth coupled with the pursuit of additional industry approvals and recognitions to add to the ISO 9000 and BS EN 9100 (aerospace) quality standards already held. Early in 2007, Mark hopes to secure NADCAP accreditation for supplying the global aerospace industry.
Furthermore, at one of A&M EDM's local customers – Burcas – there is an ongoing supply chain development programme, funded by the DTI manufacturing advisory service, MAS West Midlands. Aimed at the aerospace, automotive and defence industries, the approach is based on TEC-Concepts, fusing best practices of Six Sigma, Kaizen Blitz and Lean Enterprise with sector-specific standards related to quality, the environment and health & safety. The result will be recognition of high performing, integrated management systems throughout the Burcas supply chain, including of course at A&M EDM.