A huge volume of tube is consumed by UK manufacturing every year, although annual consumption has remained fairly constant over the last four years. What has changed, however, is the way in which tube is processed, with a six-fold increase in the volume of tube processed by tube laser machines. This is convincing evidence of a growing acceptance by UK companies involved with tube fabrication of the need to embrace tube laser technology if they are to compete with imports from low wage countries.
Judging by the experience of Duright Engineering, a West Midlands-based sub-contractor, the decision to move on from the traditional multi-machine approach can be a hard call to make but the rewards from investing in laser technology are far reaching and substantial. Although a well-established business with a 30-year track record, installing its first BLM ADIGE tube laser had an immediate impact on Duright, contributing 30 per cent of turnover in the machine’s first year of operation. And by the time a second, more powerful, BLM ADIGE tube laser was installed at the end of 2005 turnover had more than doubled over a three year period, although the number of people employed in the business had not increased. In 2007, with both its existing tube lasers working flat out 24/7, a third, latest generation, BLM ADIGE tube laser was installed in response to the growing demand from UK companies faced with a serious predicament.
“Their production requirements do not justify the purchase of their own tube laser,” says Ross Taylor, Duright’s Managing Director, “but continuing with traditional multiple machine processes with their high labour costs is making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to compete against cheap labour economies. A robust pricing policy that reflects the speed, flexibility and productivity of our tube lasers provides an attractive alternative and has significantly expanded our customer base. As well as competing for volume production we can also produce prototypes and re-designs in minutes rather than weeks or months, because it simply involves programming the tube lasers rather than the production of hard tooling. This benefits customers in terms of both development costs and time-to-market for new products.”
Ross Taylor does, however, point out that investment in new technology is definitely a chicken and egg situation. “When we first considered installing a CNC tube laser, we found that without the machine in place customers would not talk in depth about the type of work we could do on it. So we couldn’t count on getting the additional work needed to justify the purchase and, on the face of it, we were unwilling to risk an investment on this scale without that guarantee. Eventually, however, we jumped in with both feet, borrowed the money and took the gamble…and it has paid off for Duright and for our customers, who now enjoy the benefits of laser technology without having to worry about the upfront cost.”
Looking back, he acknowledges that the greater risk to Duright lay in not investing in a technology capable of revolutionising every aspect of the tube fabrication process – from design to manufacture to final assembly. He says the decision to install the first tube laser, with the backing of an understanding bank manager, “changed the nature of our business virtually overnight”.
The fact that the laser cutting side of the Duright’s business has grown so rapidly is evidence that customers are obtaining significant benefits. Consolidating separate manual operations into a single, continuous, non-contact cutting process equates to reductions in cycle times and direct labour costs, while eliminating the cumulative error that inevitably results from the traditional multi-machine approach. Then there are the savings to be had on handling, rework and reject components. However, the major attraction is that virtually any shape, however complex, can be laser machined on both ends of a tube or along its length, with components completed in a single hit and on a fully-automated basis. Not only does this free up valuable floor space by reducing work-in-progress and material inventory, the accuracy and consistency of laser-cut parts has a very positive impact on subsequent welding, assembly and inspection times. All of which, says Ross Taylor, “goes a long way to securing customer loyalty”.
Prior to installing its three BLM ADIGE tube lasers BS EN ISO 9001-accredited Duright Engineering was processing 3.5 million tubes a year for suppliers and distributors, mainly free issue material that was simply cut-to-length. Today it supplies UK and European customers with laser cut and profiled tube of any section in various materials from mild and stainless steels, titanium and exotics to aluminium, brass and copper. Quantities vary from one-offs to 200,000 or more, with Statistical Process Contol (SPC) routinely applied to every order.
“We have a standard pricing policy based on the complexity of the work, whether it is 20 components or 20,000 components,” says Ross Taylor. “There is very little difference in terms of volume price because changeovers are so quick. A customer can come into the office with a drawing and within 20 minutes a finished component can be on the desk in front of him. This helps with the technical aspects of a design and the actual appearance of the component or assembly. Changes can be made and samples produced before there is any need to commit to volume production.”
Ideally, Duright likes to be involved at the design stage because this can save customers money. “It is not unusual to visit a company and find that it is carrying out second operation work that could be done on our laser machines at very little additional cost. A recent example is of a round tube that originally was having a long slot and a hole punched in it. We laser cut samples and then found that the customer was carrying out second and third operation work. At that point we proved that we could easily integrate these additional operations into the initial laser cutting and profiling requirement. In fact, once customers appreciate fully what these tube lasers can do, they start saying ‘here’s another part you could do’…”
Although servicing customers across a wide range of industry sectors – agricultural machinery, medical equipment, security fencing, etc – the automotive industry, directly or indirectly, accounts for around 75 per cent of Duright’s output. According to Ross Taylor, the only way to compete in this highly competitive global marketplace is by investing in technology to counter the labour cost advantage enjoyed by competitors in India, China and other low wage economies. Nearer home he claims that the quality aspect of laser cutting and profiling puts it ahead of traditional alternatives such as punching and pressing.
On this basis, he extends an open invitation to visit Duright and see what is on offer, adding that “when have been invited to supply laser cut components on a trial basis, customers have never returned to tube machined by traditional methods. For example, we quoted on one job and delivered a trial order for 2000 parts, after which we heard nothing for a couple of months until the customer ‘phoned to place substantial batch orders. His welders had pointed out how much faster – in some case up to 60 per cent faster – laser cut parts went through the welding process. Why? Because laser cut components fit right-first-time and every time, and, in this particular case, produced a 15 per cent productivity improvement at the welding stage.”
When Ross Taylor took charge of Duright on his father’s retirement he was determined to make the company stand out from the crowd. “For more than half our customer base we now source material and provide full traceability of the machined component with a 100 per cent inspection capability,” he says. “Having fully embraced CNC laser cutting and profiling, our intention is to offer even more value by way of tube bending and robot welding, because the trend is for OEMs to outsource as many components as possible and to buy in completed sub-assemblies whenever possible.”