6 April 2009

New-look tube manipulation specialist aims for the number one spot

When in late 2006 Graham Barrows and Peter Fellows embarked on a buy-out of tube manipulation, machining and welding specialist Willenhall Tube and Forging Co. Ltd, they found themselves in competition with a couple of large PLCs and a rival subcontracting company. What tipped the scales in their favour was the fact that both directors, born and bred in the historic Black Country part of the West Midlands, were committed to retaining existing jobs and to maintaining the company’s long established links in the Walsall area.

“The immediate priority was to move the company locally from very old premises into a modern 4,000 sq. m. facility on the Bloxwich Lane Industrial Estate,” says Matt Gilkes, General Manager. “We are now adjacent to J10 of the M6 motorway, easily accessible from anywhere in the country and with plenty of room to expand.”

The next step was to implement an investment programme focused on replacing production equipment that was no longer current or competitive. “There’s no denying we had inherited some rather old-fashioned production processes,” says Matt Gilkes. “For example, virtually every tube manipulation job seemed to require a wooden pattern board to check the first-off sample component. If a correction needed to be made, it became a matter of judgement rather than of precise measurement feedback. However, within a very short space of time we had identified the technology required to achieve our ambition of developing into a world-class manufacturer capable of satisfying the most diverse and stringent demands of our customers.”

WTF already had a dozen or so tube bending machines but the new owners decided that the business needed a multi-axis tube bending capability. Having evaluated the available options, the decision was made to install a BLM E-TURN 52, an all-electric 12-axis CNC tube bending machine designed specifically for the bending of the small to medium sized tubes typically used for complex automotive and aerospace components and operating via VGP-3D Visual Graphic Programming software.

Because the complete head can rotate through 180 degrees, the BLM E-TURN 52 is capable of highly accurate and repeatable left- and right-hand bending in automatic cycle, eliminating work-in-progress and optimising just-in-time production. But what was also needed was a fast and reliable way of accurately measuring the critical dimensions of each first-off component. For this ISO 9001:2008 accredited WTF again looked to BLM Group UK Ltd for the answer.

According to Matt Gilkes, the BLM MT4 measuring system meets all of the company’s tube measuring needs. The system is available with either a Renishaw touch probe or a non-touch laser probe, and can be used either for machine programming of tube parameters or for controlling the bending of tubes during the production cycle. Among the system’s features are the automatic set-up of tube inspection procedures, including editing procedures for holes, flanges or other fittings, and a 3D graphic representation of the measured tube with printout capability.

“Because the MT4 system is fully compatible with the BLM E-TURN 52, information can be sent back across the factory to modify the bending parameters,” says Matt Gilkes. “Now, if you want to make a copy of an existing part, the measured dimensions can be sent automatically to the E-TURN 52’s operating software and can then be recalled at any time to make an identical part.”

WTF, which has 60 years’ experience of processing a wide range of materials, including mild and stainless steels, titanium, brass, copper and aluminium, has since moved to the next stage of its ongoing investment programme. This is the installation in 2008 of a BLM Adige LT120 CNC laser tube cutting system complete with fully-automated loading system. This tube laser is ideally suited to the cutting and profiling of the light metal and thin walled tube components up to 120 mm diameter produced by WTF for major industry sectors, including automotive, medical, commercial furniture, agricultural equipment and architectural components such as balustrades, as well as a wide range of bespoke components for brand leading manufacturers.

“We had a number of jobs for which we were outsourcing the laser tube cutting but this involved keeping a very close eye on lead times as any delays affected our delivery schedule,” says Matt Gilkes. “There was also the problem of ensuring accuracy all the way through a production process that can include robotic welding and assembly. Installing the new tube laser has resolved these issues and reflects the very good working relationship we have with BLM. They have recommended the right machines for our applications and have delivered on their promises with regard to machine reliability and service and support. Evidence of this support was demonstrated during our last visit to the BLM factory in Cantù, Italy, when it was confirmed that, as part of the BLM service package, our machines would be connected to the company’s dial-up diagnostic systems as soon as our development work has been completed.

“Having invested more than £¾ million since the take-over and with plans to invest more, we are confident WTF is at the leading edge in terms of what we provide to our customers. We see this recession as a challenge but also as an opportunity, because we have the equipment and the skills needed to survive and grow. In the longer term we could be installing a second or even a third tube laser, bearing in mind that by 2012 new automotive models will be coming through to market.”

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