16 September 2011

BLM tube laser opens new doors for Northern Ireland subcontractor

Not long after joining the family business full-time Mark Hutchinson persuaded his father, Creighton, to invest in a flat bed laser. To put this in perspective, the cost of this first laser cutting system equated at the time to around 70 per cent of the subcontract company’s annual turnover…and Mark Hutchinson had come to SJC Hutchinson Engineering Ltd straight from A levels at the local college. “Being young the decision to go ahead with this investment didn’t bother me too much,” he recalls. “However, looking back it was probably make or break, and I’m sure my father had quite a few sleepless nights.”

A decade or so later, ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 18001-accredited Hutchinson Engineering employs 55 people, has a turnover of around £6 million and provides a complete fabrication and finishing service. This encompasses everything from initial design right through to delivery of the final product, and investment continues with the recent installation of a BLM ADIGE LT8 tube laser. Planning permission has also been granted for a 7500 sq. ft. extension to the 26,000 sq. ft. factory built in 1974 and last extended in 2004.

The latest addition to the company’s plant list has enabled the Kilrea, Northern Ireland-based subcontractor to take on a broader spectrum of work, speed up the manufacturing process and keep costs down. This is at a time when customers are demanding greater accuracy but are unwilling to incur any additional expense. “Investing in more productive equipment and in good people to run that equipment pays dividends in the long term,” says Mark Hutchinson, now Managing Director. “So, too, does our focus on quality of service – which gives customers the confidence that orders will be delivered on time and to a high standard of accuracy – and our emphasis on full traceability.”

With a round tube processing capacity of 12 mm to 220 mm and a maximum square section capacity of 200 mm by 200 mm, the LT8 Lasertube is capable of the intricate profiling of a wide range of tube and section weighing up to 35 kg/m. It has a 3.5 kW laser as standard and is fully programmable via the Siemens 840D Solution Line digital numerical control. The LT8 is available with an automatic bundle loader and an automatic single bar loader, as is the case at Hutchinson Engineering, or with two automatic tube bundle loaders. The latter option doubles to 5000 kg the amount of material that can be held ready to cut.

“With the LT8 we can provide customers with up to 40% savings simply by eliminating multiple operations and the need for welding jigs,” says Mark Hutchinson. “This gives us an important competitive edge but our biggest challenge in terms of moving forward is making more people aware of the many benefits that result from using a tube laser.”

Although happy with the performance of its two existing flat bed lasers and with a third now on order, Hutchinson Engineering opted for the LT8 Lasertube after seeing the technology in action in Italy. “With its 50-plus years of experience in tube processing BLM Group has the right background in terms of tube bending, cutting and profiling,” says Mark Hutchinson. “This is especially helpful when it comes to open profile and section (angle/channel) work. What BLM is not is a flat bed laser manufacturer that has decided to offer a tube laser machine. Back-up was an initial concern, but we have since enjoyed excellent service and support from the Group’s UK operation.”

Hutchinson Engineering’s design capability is channelled on-site through its H360 Ltd subsidiary, which exists to take ideas from concept to reality by way of 3D design, prototyping and testing. One example of how this works in practice is the re-designing of a component that previously required six separate operations to complete and is now completed in two operations – laser cutting of box section on the LT8 and welding of the assembly, with tab and slot techniques eliminating the need for jigs.

This is indicative of the skill and experience that has been built up since 1971 when Creighton Hutchinson, having been an apprentice engineer and coming from a farming background, decided to set up in business making agricultural products. These ranged from silage barriers and hay racks to gates and railings. However, a slump in demand in the 1990s prompted a switch to industrial subcontract work in stainless steel, mild steel and aluminium. Today Hutchinson Engineering is one of the largest facilities of its kind in Northern Ireland, and with its emphasis on lean manufacturing techniques has customers throughout the UK in the coachbuilding, quarrying and construction industries.

An intriguing example of the company’s expertise can be seen at the Ann Street entrance to the £400 million Victoria Square Shopping Centre in Belfast. It is here that several laser-cut human silhouettes direct shoppers towards 810,000 sq. ft. of retail floor area in one the most expensive property developments ever undertaken in Northern Ireland.

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