Stockholding in the past equated to little more than ‘breaking bulk’; buying in volume from mills and selling on smaller quantities to lots of different customers. However, as customers began to request material ‘cut-to-length’, stockholders responded by offering a processing service using relatively low-tech equipment such as bandsaws and circular saws. Says Ralph Robinson, Managing Director of Barrett Steel Ltd’s Tubes Division: “We then realised that customers actually wanted more than just a cut-to-length capability. What they really want is a finished component, and we knew we could both justify and fund the purchase of the high-tech equipment needed to deliver exactly that…while taking cost out of the customer’s manufacturing process.”
The first step was to set up LaserTUBE Cutting, initially as a subsidiary of ISO 9001:2000-accredited tube and hollow section stockholder Tubes (UK) Ltd, to process stainless steel hollow sections for the coach-building industry. Now a separate company within the Barrett Steel Group, one of the largest independent steel stockholders in the UK, LaserTUBE Cutting in partnership with Tubes UK provides what Ralph Robinson describes as “the total solution in processing tubes and hollow steel sections”.
As part of a continuing investment programme LaserTUBE Cutting installed a 48 metre long by 20 metres wide, £1.25 million, tube laser alongside its four existing laser machines. Nine lorries were needed in November 2007 to transport the component parts of the aptly-named BLM ADIGE LT JUMBO CNC tube laser to the Tividale, West Midlands site where it now processes round tube from 80 to 508 mm diameter, square hollow section up to 400 mm by 400 mm and hollow sections up to 500 mm by 300 mm in cutting thicknesses up to 16 mm. The maximum length of tube that can be loaded automatically is 18 metres.
Only the fourth to be installed world-wide and the first to be installed in the UK, the LT JUMBO, which has two Siemens 840D CNCs controlling up to 28 axes, is housed in an extended 100,000 sq. ft. building situated adjacent to more than 5000 tonnes of hot and cold formed tube and hollow section stock held by Tubes UK. This additional 3500 W laser source power processing capacity means that LaserTUBE Cutting can machine the whole of the Tubes UK range for a wide range of customers, including round, square and rectangular hollow sections for manufacturers of heavy-duty trucks, earthmoving equipment, agricultural machinery and machine tools.
“The reaction among customers to the installation of the LT JUMBO has been one of excitement because they can see that this latest investment will give them a competitive edge,” says Ralph Robinson. “It’s a win-win situation because we are helping customers to grow their businesses and to retain work in the UK, while at the same time we are expanding our role.”
Dave Cleaver, General Manager, LaserTUBE Cutting, acknowledges that when it comes to promoting added-value laser cutting, there is still a strong element of ‘we’ve always done it this way, so why should we change?’. His response? “Once you can convince a designer of the benefits that laser cutting gives, the ideas really start to flow because designers are always seeking to move to the next level,” he says. “You then find that the production manager sees the advantages that could result, for example, from minimising the flow of material through the workplace. Not having to move a component from machine to machine means that the accuracy and repeatability of the laser cutting process are unrivalled, and this eliminates the requirement for inspection of every component in a batch. It also provides additional benefits in subsequent welding and fabrication operations because parts fit together in exactly the same way every time.”
Summarising the strengths of the Tubes UK/LaserTUBE Cutting partnership, Ralph Robinson says: “We ensure consistent quality because we purchase material from quality suppliers and, in turn, provide our customers with full traceability and the reassurance that material and any subsequent processing will be consistent batch after batch. In addition to an extensive machining and processing capability that includes tube manipulation (bending and swaging) and deburring, we offer finishing services such as galvanising, powder coating and painting.”
To which Dave Cleaver adds: “We now have several years’ experience of laser cutting, so rather than just quote against a drawing we look at ways of enhancing a design and making manufacture easier and less costly. All of a sudden, the buyer doesn’t have the final say, because discussions focus on more than price and delivery, and it’s no exaggeration to say that laser cutting is revolutionising the way in which tubular components are produced.”