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25th Sep 2008 (17:23:32) by Nick Groom

One year after second-generation Nick Groom took over the managing directorship of Qualiturn, he explains the latest steps the company is taking to maximise efficiency
Hertford-based contract machinist, Qualiturn, which specialises in precision mill-turning of components on sliding-head and fixed-head lathes, has invested £320,000 in 2008 to upgrade its capacity and streamline shop floor procedures with a view to maximising production efficiency.
The money has been spent in three main areas – purchase of a new Star SV-32 sliding-head lathe to replace a nine year old model, high pressure coolant (HPC) on this and another lathe, and automated storage systems for bar stock and tools.
It is Qualiturn’s policy to update its machines regularly to take advantage of the latest capabilities of modern plant, including higher cutting speeds, faster feed rates and rapid traverses, more tooling stations and new attachments.
High pressure coolant
The latest SV-32 has been fitted with HPC, as it improves efficiency when machining stainless steels, which now account for about half of throughput at Hertford. The increase in use of this material is partly due to customers wanting to avoid electroplating brass and mild steel components, which has become more expensive since the solvent emissions directive became law in October 2007.
HPC helps to break up the stringy stainless steel swarf, facilitating its removal from the working area of the lathe, so machine stoppage is minimised and production efficiency increased. The chip-breaking action of HPC is also invaluable when gun drilling, as the swarf is more readily extracted from deep, narrow holes, particularly if they are blind.
Coolant delivered at high pressure to the point of cutting also has the effect of cooling the component and cutting tip, which is useful when machining exotic alloys as their toughness tends to result in heat being generated during machining.
To maximise the benefit of HPC and at the same time keep down expenditure, Qualiturn opted to buy a portable coolant delivery unit from Star. It can be wheeled between the latest SV-32 and another Star sliding-head lathe, a 20 mm capacity SR-20RII to which HPC connections have been retrofitted to the back of the machine. The coolant is routed at up to 140 bar to the working area of the lathe, where retrofitted pipes have their nozzles aimed specifically at the main spindle and the live stations that perform reverse-end machining in conjunction with the counter spindle.
New storage systems
Following Qualiturn’s announcement in mid 2008 that it had installed a computer-controlled vertical lift system from Couzens Storage Solutions for automatically storing and retrieving bar stock up to 6.5 m long, the company has purchased another, smaller system from the same supplier.
Installed in October 2008, it houses collets, bushes and all other items of tooling except for cutting tools, which are held in an Autocrib store.Commented Qualiturn’s managing director, Nick Groom, “The bar store has proved to be a really worthwhile investment, as it freed up space on the shop floor and has allowed us to feed material faster to our 18 bar lathes, reducing the time that spindles are idle during changeovers. Stock is also more secure, faster to trace and levels can be monitored more easily.
“The second, multi-level store is having similar benefits, as the tooling is no longer in trays on the factory floor. Setters can access tools faster when setting up a new job, so there is less delay in getting the machine running again.”
Qualiturn offers in excess of 10,000 hours per month capacity to around 250 customers in the aerospace, automotive, surgical and electronics sectors. With around 100 set-ups a week, the company is always keen to increase further the efficiency of just-in-time deliveries, a objective that is helped by initiatives like the high rise, automated storage systems.
Other recent investments made with the same aim include £120,000 on CNC inspection machines from Tesa, two MecWash aqueous cleaning machines with ultrasonic capability, a Star SR-10J slider with 35 m/min rapids for very fast production of sub-10 mm diameter parts, and a PSL Datatrack production management system that has made the whole operation virtually paperless. The system links in with the Couzens stores, Autocrib and measuring machines, and coordinates quotations, sales order processing, workshop scheduling, purchasing, stock control and finance.
Shortage of skilled staff
Rationalisation of space on the shop floor at Hertford has freed up enough space to install two more machines, which would help to reduce Qualiturn’s lead-times further and increase turnover. Nick Groom says that he could currently fill three to four extra machines with work, 24/7, partly due to the high level of direct and indirect orders from Europe due to the strong Euro.
“Finding experienced setters is the problem”, continued Mr Groom. “There’s no point our investing in more machines and winning new orders if there are not enough people on the shop floor with the right skills to do the work.”
Qualiturn believes in training its own setter / operators in-house and prefers to employ people with no previous experience. It takes two to three years before they develop into proficient setters, but the upside is that the trainees become highly productive because they are familiar with the subcontractor’s machines and procedures.
“Training staff to use the latest production technology improves morale and encourages people to stay”, comments Mr Groom. “To introduce variety to the work, we give the machine operators responsibility not only for producing parts but also for first-off and in-process inspection.”
Interestingly, he says that people with an academic background are not necessarily the most successful at learning to set and operate a CNC lathe. A college student recently left after three weeks, whereas a former fork lift truck driver from Bernard Matthews in Lowestoft is currently proving an ideal trainee. An inquisitive mind and the right attitude are what is needed.
Caveat emptor
The Latin expression for “let the buyer beware” is just as appropriate for buyers of turned parts as for those investing in property or anything else, as Mr Groom explains.
In recent years, tier 1 and 2 suppliers, large subcontractors and third-party firms that buy in machined components from around the world have rationalised their supplier bases, as have most OEMs. In many cases, the number of sources they turn to for precision turned parts has been cut dramatically and the trend continues.
The main advantage of this policy to the customer is a simplification of purchasing and accounting procedures. Other areas of administration are streamlined as well, such as checking that firms meet the required quality and environmental standards.
The downside of a reduced supplier base is that a lead supplier is unlikely to be able to produce everything that customers need, if indeed it manufactures anything at all. So it has to buy in components manufactured by outside specialists, such as Qualiturn, which introduces the ‘middle man’ mark-up and raises prices.
Nick Groom says that his company works directly for many end users, but entering the ‘clubs’ that supply the larger OEMs is difficult and only firms over a certain size tend to be considered. So there is an upward trend towards Qualiturn manufacturing parts for third-party firms that add handling charges when consolidating larger orders for supplying to OEMs, many of which have no idea where their parts were actually produced.
It brings Mr Groom back to his original point about the need for buyers to be careful of where they source their components, as they may well be paying considerably more for them than they would if they ordered directly from the company that manufactures them. By chance, he has found out through speaking with end users of mill-turned components that have clearly been manufactured by Qualiturn that marks-ups of 25 per cent are common and 50 per cent are not unusual.
Consultancy cuts costs
A further advantage to an end user of dealing directly with the company that produces the components is the opportunity to optimise designs for manufacture. Most subcontractors are highly experienced and quickly recognise how to modify a drawing to make it easier to machine the part. 
At Qualiturn, this service is a speciality and frequently lowers the cost of production.
Mr Groom cited a recent meeting with a manufacturer that is looking to have three shaft-type, stainless steel components machined to form part of an instrument for keyhole surgery. If the business is won, the components will be produced on the Star SR-10J.
One of the components is a two-part assembly that Qualiturn pointed out could be made as a single part, which would cut the amount of machining and save the cost of assembly.
A designer at the medical company had unwittingly harnessed the power of a modern CAD system to over-engineer the other two components by incorporating features that were unnecessary to the instrument’s operation. One was a 0.02 mm external radius and the other was a
2 mm diameter blind hole with a flat bottom.
The 20-micron radius was simply not required and would have been expensive to machine and inspect. Neither in this case was the 90-degree feature in the hole, which would have needed to be drilled and machined again using a form tool, compromising the tight tolerance on the small diameter.
Qualiturn has consequently advised changes to these features that will simplify and reduce the cost of machining. Potential savings are substantial, as projected annual quantities are 50,000-off.
Cutting out waste
Concludes Mr Groom, “What amazes me is the wide range of work we are asked to do, which often involves machining of non-metallic parts. Two new contracts that came in earlier this year were for the production of acrylic lipstick holders and carbon fibre collars from tube. We are also doing more assembly now as companies outsource as many functions as possible that do not fall within their core disciplines.”
“All our investments and every plan we make have the sole purpose of cutting out waste in our operation, whether it be a spindle that is idle for too long, a cutting cycle not as efficient as it could be or a piece of paper being unnecessarily shuffled around a desk.
“It is helping us to win new business by being able to keep down our production costs and hence the prices we charge to customers. We are always on the lookout for new technology to further that aim.”
Issued by:          THE RIGHT IMAGE Ltd,
                              PO Box 42, Twickenham, TW1 1BQ.
                              Tel: 020 8891 0603.
                              E-mail: therightimage@aol.com
            Contact: Chris Wright

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