Brett Mitchell and Darren Withers founded their new company, RP Tooling, as recently as June 2005. Yet by September 2010, turnover had grown to the point where they were able to move out of a rented industrial unit in Halesowen and purchase a freehold property nearby. The two partners, who now employ 20 additional staff, put their success down to following the market and targetting industry sectors that are buoyant at any given time. For example, three years ago a majority of work was for the aerospace industry whereas presently, moulds for automotive customers account for half of throughput.
Purchase of seven vertical-spindle,3-axis machining centres from Hurco has also played a part in the toolmaker's expansion, allowing high quality products to be delivered on time and within budget. It is noteworthy that three of the Hurco machines as well as a Mitutoyo CMM were installed in summer 2009, right in the middle of the recession, underlining Mr Mitchell's opinion that regular investment in new plant is crucial for business expansion, even in difficult times.
RP Tooling specialises in short-lead-time design and manufacture of aluminium injection moulds for producing plastic prototypes and short batch runs, typically up to 5,000-off. Some smaller steel tools are machined for longer production runs. The firm also makes investment tooling for production of castings, destined mainly for export markets in Europe.
Another facet of its business is low-volume machining of bespoke jigs and fixtures as well as components in anything from resin board through plastics and aluminium to hardened steel, predominantly for Formula 1 teams and luxury car manufacturers.
At the outset, Messrs Mitchell and Withers researched the market for mid-range vertical machining centres (VMCs) that could cope with such a wide variety of work. Mr Withers commented, "We chose Hurco VMCs because their sturdy construction and build quality stood out from the rest. Compared with some of the machines we looked at, there was a big difference in robustness.
"The Hurcos have also proved easy to use. Two days' training is provided with each machine, but we have not been on any of the courses. The engineer that commissioned the first machines showed us a little of how to program using the conversational control and we just took it from there."
RP Tooling is not a typical user of Hurco VMCs, however. The powerful, Windows-based Ultimax control running proprietary WinMax shop floor programming software is often the deciding factor at the time a customer purchases a Hurco machine. It had no bearing on the Halesowen toolmaker's choice, though, as staff rarely use the facility. It only comes into play for engraving part numbers around tools and for preparing programs for machining some components and fixtures.
Invariably, mould design and programming are carried out off-line using ZW3D (formerly VX) CAD and NCG CAM software based on an imported solid model of the end product supplied by the customer. A single post processor is needed for downloading machine code to all seven Hurcos via DNC links. As the machines have similar sets of cutters resident in the tool magazines, jobs are freely interchangeable, providing considerable production flexibility. Mr Mitchell added, "Although we do not use Ultimax for programming our tools, we do find the control's 'work offset' feature useful when running machines unattended overnight and at weekends, which we do regularly.
"It means we can maximise productivity by fixturing multiple jobs on each machine table, as appropriate. We may import, say, three programs created on our CAD/CAM system and simply enter two additional G-codes to tell the spindle to redatum automatically after each job has finished."
All CNC plant for prismatic machining at RP Tooling is from Hurco. The machines work alongside a CNC toolroom lathe and various manual mills, drills and lathes and a small sparker. There is also a 130-tonne injection moulding press on site for proving out tools and undertaking low volume runs for customers, and two wax presses for proving out investment tools.
The company's next purchases will be a 5-axis Hurco machining centre to expand component manufacture and speed complex profiling jobs; and a much larger DCX22 with a 1.75-metre Y-axis to tackle larger moulds that the company is currently having to turn away.