28 January 2009

50 years old and still going strong!

2009 sees general precision sub-contractor Allsops Limited celebrate its half century. We take a look back through its history to see how investment in modern capital equipment has positioned the company as one of the UK’s leading sub-contractors.

In 1959 Bob Allsop had a vision to create a high quality, high capacity and highly efficient sheet metal fabrication company geared to the needs of the then booming industries in Yorkshire. With just three other employees Bob Allsop established Allsops Limited.

Today, half a century later Allsops Limited boasts an annual turnover of in excess of £10M and employs 120 staff. The company has become one of the most respected names in the field of quality sheet metal components and fabrications, supplying a wide range of industries. Much of its success is down to its philosophy of investing in the latest state-of-the-art equipment, computer technology and automation.

Until 1990 the company was a traditional sheet metal subcontractor using conventional machine tools, marking jobs out on a bench. Recognising the need to become more efficient and more competitive the company, with some trepidation, installed a Pullmax 6C CNC punching machine. This bold investment completely revolutionised the punching process in terms of speed, accuracy, control and programming whilst the increase in the sheet size that could be processed greatly improved flexibility, throughput and machine utilisation. The investment also contributed to a reduction in material costs.

Paul Goodwin became managing director in 1993 and he comments: “The Pullmax 6C opened our eyes as to how CNC equipment could enhance the business and so we began an on-going programme of investment which continues even to this day. Soon after the 6C was commissioned we realised we had to invest in CNC bending and chose equipment from Pullmax’s range of press brakes. The machines suited our needs and Pullmax were able to provide us with the service and back-up we required. These press brakes allowed us to bend complex components accurately, and crucially, in one handling.”

Allsops investment programme with Pullmax continued and in the year Paul became managing director the company made its first move into laser cutting with a Bystronic Bystar 3015 laser cutting centre equipped with 2.8 kW resonator. Over the next few years Allsops invested in two more Pullmax press brakes and also two Pullmax P126 punching machines. Productivity increased by 30 per cent thanks to the punching machines’ cutting speed and flexibility. In addition, by designing components to suit the parameters of the machine, throughput increased, resulting in a reduction in the production cost of the components. Increased utilisation achieved by using larger sheet sizes reduced machine loading times so more the machine time was spent in cycle. Stock levels were also reduced when sheet sizes were rationalized.

The company came to a point where it was running flat out, 24 hours a day, four days a week plus half day on Friday and the programme of investments had paid off with turnover doubling in just two years.

Paul Goodwin continues: “Considering we have never had our own product it is amazing that we were able to continually expand, particularly during some of the difficult trading conditions in the 1990’s. We put this ability down to our large, diverse customer base. We keep a careful watch on industry and market trends and seek new areas of business where opportunities are identified. We try to always anticipate change and are prepared to exploit other avenues of business. We manufacture, to order, from customer’s own designs or we can draw up customer’s requirements ourselves, for many industries including shopfitting, electrical control cabinets, lighting, metal furniture, food processing equipment etc.

“The choice we can offer customers of CNC laser cutting and high speed CNC punching provides customers with the most cost effective choice of flat component production.”

Following the installation and success of the P126 punching machines and the company working almost flat out, Allsops then had a choice – did they bring in another punch or further utilize the existing machines. The company decided to make its first move into automation.

“We decided we could get at least another 50 per cent out of each machine by adding an automatic load/unload system to each P126 punching machine. The result of this action was an average 20 second changeover cycle as opposed to a minute or two, depending on sheet size weight. In addition, we only required one man to operate both machines and we were able to go from 24 hour operation to an 18 hour operational day, while at the same time, creating that essential extra capacity.”

By 1998 the company was employing 120 people and boasting a turnover of £5.5M. Around this time a purpose built powder coating plant was introduced to further enhance the service Allsops offered to customers. It featured a three stage pre-treatment cycle (degrease, iron phosphate and dual rinse) and fully conveyorised booth of 3 m x 1250 x 1500 mm envelope, fitted with automatic and manual powder guns with fast colour change capability.

The most significant investment and further step towards automation took place in 1999 when, by this time, Allsops had commissioned nine press brakes. Allsops commitment to investing in the latest technology saw the company installing the UK’s first Pullmax Motoman CNC robot. Linked to an existing press brake, this created a unique bending cell of its own, providing improved efficiency on long batch runs as well as 100 per cent consistency. The robot is capable of handling sheet sizes up to 2 m x 1 m with a capacity of 30 kg.

Paul continues: “We identified a need to improve the productivity of the press brakes particularly on repeat jobs where cycle times were in excess of five hours. Another press brake was not the solution as would have only gained extra capacity, not the essential productivity.”

“We looked at the factors holding back productivity on the longer cycles and decided the only way to speed up the press brakes and improve production levels was to fully automate the process. The robot was the perfect solution. Although for individual components the robot does not seem any faster, I was amazed at time savings achieved over a complete batch. The robot’s cycle is working continuously. The success of the system has been phenomenal and whilst we were the first company in the UK to have the courage to go with the system, many other companies have now followed our lead.”

This enterprising company continually looks ahead to further growth and as it entered the new millennium growth and expansion was very much at the forefront of Paul Goodwin’s mind. At the start of 2000 the company invested in its second Bystronic laser cutting system, this time a Bysprint, and towards the end of the year the company purchased the lastest Pullmax 6000 punching system.
The company moved to a new 85,000 sq ft site in 2001 and at the same time substantial investment took place in an additional powder coating plant and a second Bysprint laser cutting systems as well as a Virtek Laser QC quality inspection system. Additional investment in Bystronic laser cutting and bending systems and Pullmax punching machines took place throughout the years until 2008 when automation really began to play a major part in Allsops manufacturing process.

Paul Goodwin comments: “2008 was a significant year for Allsops, investing in equipment from Bystronic and Pullmax valued at in excess of £1 M. Our intention was to maximise our laser cutting and punching potential to ensure we stayed ahead of our competitors.

“Over the years laser systems have become equal to and often in many cases faster than punching systems, particularly the Bystronic Byspeed laser cutting system. However, for us the main disadavantage of laser cutting was that in the past the load/unload options available were very expensive and slow or were only semi-automatic and needed supervision at all times.”

In early 2008 Allsops commissioned two Bystronic Byspeed 4.4 kW laser cutting systems, each equipped with the ByTrans automatic load/unload system. ByTrans has been specifically designed for those companies that produce predominately medium to large size batches with a limited selection of raw materials. It is a portal solution providing vibration free handling of the cut sheets and the choice of model is dependent on individual requirements and space constraints. Production is said to increase by up to 50 per cent when a laser is equipped with ByTrans with typically only an extra machine investment of 20 per cent.

“The new ByTrans handling system has revolutionised automatic laser cutting,” continues Mr Goodwin. “We now run lights out in a real production environment within the sub-contract arena – in other words we are able to stack different material types and thicknesses with in a band width – and move automatically from job to job. At night we are running lights out, unsupervised production which gives us additional capacity and during the day, because of the faster cutting cycle and the systems automatic load/unload capabilities, have been able to free up labour, to do other jobs, by 60 – 70 per cent over other systems. Another benefit of the ByTrans is the material is less likely to become damaged.

“The other evening I went back to the site which was in complete darkness apart from the sparks of the laser cutting machines in operation – it really was a tremendous site.”
In addition to the automated Byspeed system Allsops has also invested in an automated Pullmax 720 punching system equipped with the extended tooling magazine.

“Tool changing between jobs accounted for a significant amount punching machine down time. The advent of the extended tooling magazine has given us the flexibility to load different sheet sizes, thicknesses and types without the need to involve operators between jobs. When combined with Pullmax’s automatic load/unload facility we have been able to achieve improved parts picking and increase sheet utilisation. We are also running the punching machine unmanned during the night and at weekends.”

“Automation has enabled us to reduce our running costs and the hourly rate charged for our services. We are able to maximise material utilisation by processing multiple jobs/accounts at the same time which in turn allows us to even out production and time phase issues. We believe that our confidence in the latest laser and punching equipment has enabled us to win orders from very high profile customers.”

One such order from a well known high street retailer is for an Interactive ‘Pay as you go Kiosk’ which eliminates the need for the customer to queue and pay for their items. They can simply insert their credit card into the machine. The units are laser cut due to the large number of cut outs and irregular shapes. In contrast an order for an electrical cabinet is produced on the punching machine due to the large number of perforations and formed louvers.

Paul Goodwin concludes: “As we are about to celebrate our half century we are facing some difficult trading conditions. However, we have continued to invest in the future and we are confident that we are well positioned to meet the challenges ahead. Our latest investments have given us increased capacity whilst at the same time reducing our costs and we are convinced we will remain at the forefront of the market. Our customer service is second to none, we offer a 24 hour lead time. Our commitment to on-time deliveries is best reflected in that we have both our own in-house transport fleet and a modern high specification but extremely flexible rapid painting cell so late deliveries and a high quality finish are rarely an issue with our customers.”

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