One British subcontractor fighting back against the threat from China, India and Eastern Europe is Formagrind (www.formagrind.com
) based in Neath, South Wales. Despite a tough period during 2002 and 2003 in the electronics industry that it predominantly serves, the company has carried on investing in an average of one Hurco vertical machining centres per year since the late 90s, and now has eight on the shop floor.
Commented Formagrind's manager, Mike Couser, "Our customer base is unrecognisable compared with five years ago, showing how quickly we have had to adapt to stay in business.
"We face a double threat – loss of work to overseas subcontractors as well as relocation of factories from South Wales to low-wage countries. Five major electronic firms have announced plant closures in this area in the last few years, most recently Sony and Panasonic."
He explained that to keep production costs down, Formagrind concentrates on multi-manning the Hurco machines and minimising set-up times, allowing competitive prices to be quoted. At the same time, over-reliance on one sector, that of making parts for printed circuit board assembly and wafer processing machines, has been cut back from 80 per cent of turnover to 35 per cent. In its place, the company has won new contracts from the automotive and health care sectors, albeit still with the accent on electronic components for engine management systems and medical apparatus, for example.
Driving down non-productive time has been crucial. In this respect, the ease of shop floor programming on Hurco's proprietary control system has been helpful. Mr Couser says that around half of all components are programmed on the shop floor, as the menu-driven CNC system is particularly user friendly and quick, taking the load off the company's CAD/CAM systems, which are reserved for programming more complex work.
He continued, "The advantage of our Hurco VMCs is that we can produce long and short runs economically on them, giving us considerable flexibility and allowing us to offer quick turnaround to match our top quality and competitive prices.
"For example, we currently devote two machines over two shifts to the manufacture of 20,000 components per month for one customer, whereas other machines frequently produce prototypes and small batches.
"The reliability of the Hurco machines has also proved to be very good, so downtime does not eat into our profits."
Serving customers in a wider variety of industries has dramatically expanded Formagrind's experience in machining different materials. The majority of tools and fixtures produced in the early days were steel, whereas now the firm is routinely working with tungsten, titanium, ceramic, silicon carbide, silicon aluminium and exotics such as Kovar, Super Invar and other controlled expansion alloys.
General tolerances are ± 10 microns, although ± 2 microns is routinely held for some applications. Quality control is underpinned by CNC co-ordinate measuring and SPC software. ISO 9001:2000 has been held since 1994.
Recent examples of parts made by Formagrind on its Hurco VMCs include an electronics package for a GPS tracking satellite, machined from aluminium alloy in a two-hour cycle and then ground; and five-sided machining from solid round Super Invar of a microscope stage for nanotechnology, with subsequent wire erosion.