26 March 2014

Fabricator installs laser profiler and press brake to speed expansion

Bystronic machines were best for performance and accuracy

Based in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Grail Engineering has offered a fast turnaround fabrication service for nearly half a century, supported by machining, finishing and on-site installation. Its structures have been supplied to such prestigious companies as Rolls-Royce, GlaxoSmithKline, Federal Mogul and Delphi Diesel Systems as well as the MOD, Heathrow Airport and even the Chelsea Flower Show.

Historically, the company subcontracted laser cutting of a wide range of materials, from stainless and mild steels to aluminium. However, this function was brought in-house in 2012 following the purchase of a Swiss-built CO2 laser profiling machine from Bystronic UK and a CNC press brake from the same supplier. The £750,000 investment, which included modifying the factory, led to the formation of a new division, called Grail Laser. It supplies machined metal sheet and plate to Grail Engineering and also provides a subcontract laser cutting service.

Managing director Chick Grail commented, "Laser machining services are available in Tewkesbury and Bristol but we are located between the two, in Cinderford, so there was a gap in the market geographically.

"We felt it was the right time to invest in 2012, as the UK seemed to be coming out of recession. It was the right call, as Grail Engineering had its best ever trading year in 2013, with staff even working over Christmas to meet demand. This year will be even better if business carries on as it started in January.

"Most laser cutting subcontractors stop at 12 or 15 mm thick material, so we decided to differentiate ourselves by investing in a machine capable of processing heavier gauge plate up to 25 mm.

"Subcontractors never know what type of material they will need to cut next, so having bigger capacity on the shop floor gives us a distinct competitive advantage."

The Bystronic ByStar 3015 CO2 laser profiler, rated at 4.4 kW and with 3 metre by 1.5 metre capacity, was installed in March 2012. It essentially selected itself, as it was the only machine out of four shortlisted that was able to cut 25 mm structural mild steel (S355) without any problems. The other three either could not cut that thickness at all, or struggled to make a poor cut after some adjustment. A higher power CO2 source would have been needed, which would have cost more to buy and run.

A similar procurement process was carried out in 2013 before purchasing the Bystronic Xpert 250 press brake, which was evaluated alongside three other machines. In this case, the four-metre, 250 tonne model was selected due to its superior accuracy when bending up to 25 mm thick mild steel, and for the convenience of its control.

Justin Phelps, Grail Laser's foreman who programs and operates the Xpert 250, said, "I have used Bystronic press brakes in previous companies and know how good they are.
"Their quick-change tooling really speeds changeover, down to less than a minute as there is no need to line up the tools. It raises productivity, especially when producing one-offs and small batches.

"The automatic backstops, which are programmable on this 6-axis machine, also increase productivity. They do away with jigs and fixtures, allowing fast set-up and flexible programming.

"A few weeks ago I bent two-metre lengths of 10 mm thick stainless steel twice to form a channel. The press brake, with its built-in angle measuring system and hydraulic crowning, held better than ± 0.5 degree and ± 0.5 mm accuracy across both bends along the entire length.

"On single bends, we routinely hold ± 0.2 degree and ± 0.3 mm, even on thick, difficult materials. Everyone here thinks it is remarkable. With that sort of repeatability, I know that once the machine is programmed and set, I can push all the other components through without checking them again."

He also commented on the advantages of the Bystronic control system, DNC-linked to a seat of the manufacturer's offline programming software, which frees the machine for production when setting up and proving out the next job. The ByVision CNC system has close integration with Grail Laser's SolidWorks and AutoCAD design software and directly accepts 2D DXF files supplied by customers, avoiding the need to program manually.

Mr Grail added, "Another reason for choosing the ByStar 3015 was the absence of laser cutting knowledge in our company at the time.

"Bystronic's UK subsidiary in Coventry has a reputation for strong support. In 2012, we relied on them a lot for advice on programming and the best parameters to cut certain materials.
"However, we got to grips with the machine and control system quickly and are now fully conversant with the technology. Our latest apprentice, Ben Jones, who is on day release to Gloucestershire College, learnt to program and operate the machine without any trouble."

Mr Grail anticipates that, by the end of this year, the 16 per cent of Grail Laser's output currently consumed by Grail Engineering will have fallen to 5 per cent, as a result of expected growth in subcontract laser profiling for external customers. Three more apprentices will be employed across the group to bring the total to eight – impressive for a 40-person company.
Within the next two years, provided business growth continues at its current pace, the company will relocate to larger premises nearby, double the size of the current 18,000 sq ft factory.

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