In the last three years, the number of Hurco vertical machining centres on the shop floor at Tool & Gauge, Co Sligo, Ireland, has trebled to six, and the mould- and tool-maker has also invested in computer-aided engineering software from Pro/Engineer, SolidWorks and Delcam.
The company specialises in providing customers with a high level of consultancy at the early development stages of a product, followed by project management from design through optimisation and manufacture of the mould to tryout runs on seven machines rated up to 400 tonnes. Plastic injection moulds are the core business, although some thermoset, compression, rubber and blow mould tooling is also produced.
Managing director, John O'Donnell explained, "We started using Hurco machines back in 1988, as conversational programming at the twin-screen Hurco control was intuitive and quick, giving us good 2.5D modelling capability. So we avoided the difficulty of using G-codes, as on other machining centres.
"Today we program almost exclusively by downloading files from our CAD/CAM systems, as parts have become full 3D and much more complicated. However, the latest Hurco CNCs have more powerful processing capability, giving us the flexibility to program simple to relatively complex 3D jobs, if necessary, from a drawing on the shop floor."
Driving the recent investment is fierce competition from overseas toolmakers, particularly in China. Mr O'Donnell says that three Chinese toolmakers a week send him e-mails offering their services, so they must be blanket-mailing all of his competitors and customers in the UK as well.
Tool brokers are also calling on customers regularly to offer their services. Portuguese toolmakers are around, but Tool & Gauge does not find difficulty competing with them on price. There is not so much direct toolmaking competition from Eastern Europe at present, although some UK firms are relocating out there and sourcing their moulds locally.
"Where companies like ours score is in the level of service we can provide, not just in design and consultancy, but also in speed of order turnaround," continued Mr O'Donnell. "Whereas five years ago we used to quote 14 - 16 weeks delivery, this has fallen to 8 - 10 weeks now."
"Overseas toolmakers, especially those in China, find it almost impossible to compete with those time frames; and if things go wrong or design alterations are needed, deliveries take much longer. There is evidence that some work is coming back from the Far East due to long lead times and quality issues."
Prices have to be competitive, however. Tool & Gauge quotes the same price for a job today as it did five years ago, yet material costs and overheads have risen considerably, so charge-out rates have dropped in real terms. To make a profit as well as to meet tight delivery deadlines, it is essential to invest in modern production plant, hence the installation of two Hurco VMX42s, a VMX64 and a VMX42 over the past three years, which joined a VMX30 and an older BMC2416.
Labour costs also have to watched carefully over the two- and sometimes three-shift operation. Two operators look after all six Hurco machines, even though some cycle times are as short as one hour; but this is offset by other jobs being on a machine for up to a week.
Concluded Mr O'Donnell, "Price and delivery of Hurco machines are good and they do exactly what we need them to, reliably and efficiently. To continue our push towards more complex, higher added-value contracts, we will probably invest in a 5-axis machine next."
Established in 1956, Tool & Gauge (www.toolandgauge.ie
) employs 50 people at its 3,500 sq ft factory in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. There are over 45 metalcutting machine tools on the shop floor including machining centres, lathes, wire and sinking EDM, and both surface and cylindrical grinders. Markets served stretch from Ireland and Britain to mainland Europe and the USA.