Renaissance For British Toolmaking
Kannect Precision Services quadruples injection mould making in a decade and adds compression tool manufacture.
British toolmaking is making a comeback, according to Hartlepool firm, Kannect Precision Services. In the early 2000s, loss of tool and mould manufacture to the Far East and elsewhere had prompted the company to diversify strongly into subcontract machining of components, which by 2005 accounted for 90 per cent of turnover. Most of the remaining work was modification and repair of worn moulds or substandard ones made abroad.
Today, manufacture of new injection moulds plus refurbishment work accounts for 40 per cent of turnover, due to erosion of the advantages of having tools made in, for example, China. Kannect’s owner and director, Geoff Beddow, said that increased wages overseas, quality problems, delays and logistics costs have all made the UK more attractive for mould and tool making. This is especially true of tools weighing over one tonne and increasingly applies to smaller ones as well.
Recently, manufacture of compression tools for a brake pad manufacturer has been added to the subcontractor’s activities, boosting the tool and mould making side of the business to two-thirds of turnover - a far cry from the position a decade ago.
In recent years, Kannect has relied on machine tools from Hurco (www.hurco.co.uk) for much of its production. The supplier’s machining centres have always been synonymous with toolmaking, largely due to the user-friendliness of the WinMax windows-based conversational control system. It lends itself well to rapid set-up for cost-effective production of one-offs and small batches, which are the norm in toolmaking. The benefits are similarly evident for short-run subcontract component manufacture, while longer runs remain economical.
The first Hurco machine to arrive on the shop floor was a VM2 vertical machining centre in 2007. Kannect had used other makes of prismatic machining equipment since the mid-90s. However, the move towards subcontract manufacture was in full swing and Mr Beddow wanted a more robust machine for tackling low volume, high complexity work in difficult-to-cut stainless steels and nickel alloys for the petrochemical sector. One Hastelloy variant in particular, a corrosion resistant material called C-22, has especially high shear strength and needs a rigid and powerful machine tool.
Mr Beddow commented, "At the time, we looked at a number of alternative potential sources of machining centres. We decided on Hurco based not only on the rigidity of their machines, but also the competitive price and perhaps most of all on the confidence we had in the company, which has a reputation for reliable machine tool supply and service.
"We were keen to do as much shop floor programming as possible to take the load off our seat of Delcam Powermill CAM software, which was tied up programming our other machining centres that have Fanuc controls.
"Our operators mainly program conversationally in WinMax at the Hurco controls, with the Delcam system needed only for more complex jobs."
During that period, Kannect was subcontracting a lot of CNC turning. The decision was taken to bring most of it in-house, so in 2010 a Hurco TM10 lathe was installed. It uses WinMax software similar to that on the machining centres, so was an obvious choice, coupled with its rigidity to cope with machining large quantities of nickel alloys and steel for the petrochemical industry and the oil and gas sector.
It led to the purchase of a Hurco TMX10 CNC lathe of even sturdier build and with a more powerful motor for turning components from corrosion-resistant cobalt alloys. Swell chambers for subsea dredging are typical components produced from these tough stellites. Meanwhile, Delcam FeatureCam has been purchased for programming the CNC lathes, but conversational programming of turning cycles in WinMax is used extensively as well.
Hurco by then had become the metalcutting machine supplier of choice to Kannect. In 2012, one of its VM30 vertical machining centres with a 1.2 metre bed and Nikken CNC202YA fully integrated 4th axis was added to the shop floor in Hartlepool. The trigger for its purchase was a need to mill an Archimedean screw thread for plant that produces magnetic composite materials. The machine is also a valuable resource for producing petrochemical and other components, as the additional axis is used for positioning components for 3-axis milling and drilling, eliminating one or more separate operations.
Another Hurco machining centre arrived in January this year (2015). It is a VM10i and is a direct replacement for a different make of machine of similar capacity that took up significantly more factory space. Mr Beddow pointed out that the Hurco VMC’s small footprint was an important consideration in his 7,000 sq ft factory unit.
He added, "The VM10i is capable of higher productivity due to it having the latest iteration of WinMax software.
"Features include a spiral toolpath for 3D roughing, ramping down by a specified amount on each pass until the final depth has been reached. Metal removal is noticeably quicker and tool life is extended.
"The latest control includes Ultimotion as standard, so programs are executed faster and corner profiles and areas where the cutter changes direction are smoother and more accurate."
Mr Beddow predicted that Kannect will have a Hurco 5-axis machine within the next three years to carry out projects of even higher complexity. Aerospace will be a target market, as the company already produces jigs and fixtures for the sector and has recently won a contract for the time-critical production of satellite parts. Pleasingly, the enquiry came in unprompted via the company’s website - www.kannect.co.uk - a point that should be noted by subcontractors whose web presence may need updating.