Algernon Precision Engineering, a subcontractor based in Cramlington, specialises in tackling difficult materials. Parts machined from stainless steels including duplex and super duplex account for three-quarters of throughput. Most of the remainder are produced from nickel superalloys such as Inconel, Hastelloy and Monel.
In September last year (2014), the company invested in its first 5-axis machining centre, a Hurco VMX42SRTi with twin-screen control. The idea was to simplify the manufacture of increasingly complex components for its diverse range of customers from sectors such as oil and gas, subsea and automotive.
The 5-axis machine succeeded in achieving significant cost-per-part reductions, mainly through 5-sided machining with three axes interpolated and the two rotary axes clamped, while some 4-axis simultaneous work has also been carried out. Drawing tolerances are generally to within ± 50 microns, although ± 10 microns is sometimes specified.
The company is now targeting the aerospace supply chain, which is strong in the north of England, to win extra work for which the 5-axis Hurco will be ideal and is also looking to the medical sector, which requires complex parts machined from difficult materials.
The ISO 9001:2008-accredited subcontracting firm was established in 1987 by managing director Graeme Watson, an experienced engineer who previously held positions in well-known engineering companies in the Newcastle upon Tyne area.
He started out in 440 sq ft premises on the Algernon Industrial Estate near the north end of the Tyne Tunnel with two lathes, a milling machine and a pedestal drill, all manually operated. Work mainly centred on producing tools and parts for blow moulding machines.
Even at that time, the company adopted the policy of training its own staff rather than hiring skilled machinists. Ninety per cent of shop floor employees have come through as apprentices, the longest serving having been with the company for 25 years.
A variety of component and fixture manufacture was gradually taken on and three years later Mr Watson added an adjacent rental unit, doubling the factory space. It was not until 2000, however, that the company was able to make a big step forward to a 2,300 sq ft factory on the same estate.
At that stage, Mr Watson operated only two CNC machines, both lathes, but that was soon to change. The firm was doing well, having received a lot of work from oil and gas customers and other offshore equipment suppliers. Additionally, a substantial amount of machining work was supplied to the automotive sector. Manufacture of repair components for production machines and lines was another specialism.
Towards the end of his tenure on the Algernon Industrial Estate, Mr Watson bought his first Hurco machine, a Hawk CNC mill. It was closely followed by a VM30 vertical machining centre with a 1.2-metre X-axis and 4th axis rotary indexer. The machine greatly increased the size of component the company could produce and was ideal for milling shafts.
A key driver for choosing the latter machine was the WinMax conversational control system, which lends itself to shop floor programming of simple to complex components, without the need to use time-consuming G- and M-codes.
After three days of on-site training by Hurco, Mr Watson and his operators were proficient. The speed with which cycles could be created, assisted by the power of WinMax to calculate unknown points on cutter paths, fitted well with Algernon’s need to produce a lot of prototypes and small batches quickly.
Mr Watson recalled, "Rapid set-ups on the Hurco VM10 made us more competitive, especially on shorter batch work. Similarly, for larger runs into the thousands, we were able to get the first parts out of the door faster, which meant that we could invoice them more quickly.
"By 2012, we were in a position to take a quantum step forward and move to our current, 10,300 sq ft premises in Cramlington."
By the time Andrew Marley joined Algernon in May 2014 as business / engineering development manager, three more Hurco machines were on the shop floor.
One was a TM12 lathe that increased CNC turning capacity from 250 to 415 mm diameter to address bigger shaft work for oil and gas. It also has a Windows-based WinMax control, so was easy for the operators to learn and enabled quick set-ups. It was joined by another Hurco turning machine, a smaller TM10i, that was a direct replacement for an ageing CNC lathe.
The third machine was a VMX30m with a high torque motor for tackling tough superalloys. The vertical machining centre has a generous 610 mm Z-axis travel to allow large parts to be machined in a 4th axis and tailstock arrangement clamped to the table.
Mr Marley commented, "It was apparent when I arrived that Algernon had decided to standardise on this supplier for metalcutting equipment.
"Soon afterwards, the 5-axis machine was installed. It raised productivity and greatly extended the markets that we could target.
"There has been a lot of interest in the new capacity from our existing customer base and new business has been won as a result, helping to increase turnover."
The style of 5-axis machine chosen does not have a trunnion-mounted rotary table. Instead, the two rotary CNC axes are provided by a swivelling B-axis motor spindle that moves in Z and a C-axis rotary table mounted flush with the surface at one end of a table that moves in X and Y.
The classical advantages of 5-axis machines apply, namely the ability to machine more complex parts and also to produce components in fewer set-ups, without the need for expensive fixtures or incurring the risk of introducing accumulative errors.
With a B-axis and flush rotary table-type machining centre, overlaid on these benefits are a considerably larger working envelope than on a trunnion machine of equivalent footprint. It also allows the possibility of ignoring the rotary table and fixturing a large component for 3- or 4-axis milling and drilling. Such flexibility is useful for subcontractors, which have to undertake a wide variety of work.
Algernon Precision Engineering has continued to invest for the future with the purchase in July 2015 of a Hurco VMX60ti with 1,676mm x 660mm table, which gives the company a stronger and more competitive position in the manufacture of even larger components.