06 April 2012
Seco Tools - on being different
Seco Tools (UK) is setting out to differentiate itself from the pack. Andrew Allcock visited to hear more from the company and how it intends to deliver this message (extended version)
[Video shows Seco's Jetstream tooling in action]
Seco Tools (UK), apart from offering Seco tooling-based manufacturing solutions, is a centre for custom tool manufacturing. Around 25 of the 115 UK employees are involved with the design and manufacture of such tooling, while half of the remaining workforce is field-based.
Custom tooling represents around 10% of the Alcester, Warks-based company's sales – 90% derives from the standard Seco tooling programme that takes in some 30,000 products. It is a Seco group-nominated centre of excellence for custom JetStream Tooling – ultra-high-pressure coolant toolholder technology (online article).
"We are very proud of our custom tooling operation. We are unique in our field. A lot of our competitors have subcontracted that operation out – we undertake both design and manufacturing in-house," explains Mike Fleming, technical and marketing manager.
Image: Seco's current custom tool operation
And managing director Richard Jelfs explains the bigger picture: "This is part of our vision. We want to bring customers into an environment that is first and foremost a manufacturing environment; that they see we are producing state-of-the-art tooling, using 21st century technology, with motivated employees all working together in an open environment. This is where production staff, designers, product managers, product specialists and project engineers work together, proving our products within our UK manufacturing facility."
While this is already an existing state of affairs, later this year it will take on a whole new level of reality, as Mr Jelfs explains: "We have been investigating a move for about three years. We considered redeveloping our current site, which we own and where we have two acres of land, but this gradually became more complex and more expensive. So, around the middle of 2010, we took interest in a 4,000 m2 unit just down the road and will start to develop the site during Q1 of this year."
Complete with car parking for 100 vehicles, the new building will deliver a greater level of integration to the company's activities. "When I look at the set-up we have here, it's pretty fragmented; people are separated by walls and long corridors, with many staff having their own office. I want to see an environment where there's more interaction. Indeed, one of the company's core values is family spirit (online article), with part of that being to create an open and friendly work environment, where we share knowledge and ideas. There's only so far you can go before you're constrained by the building."
The new building has been purpose-designed to highlight the manufacturing nature of the business. The first thing that customers see as they enter reception will be the production offices and custom tooling manufacturing area, which will also be the company's technology centre, on view to them through a large glazed wall. Elsewhere, open-plan offices encourage team working (online article). "Looking ahead, we won't have a separate technology centre – our technology centre will form an integral part of our custom tooling operation. In it, we will demonstrate all of our technology: tooling and services, including automated tool vending and web-based applications, all of the value-added services which we offer to our customers today."
AGGRESSIVE GROWTH PLANS
This move and new environment will underpin aggressive growth plans for the company. Mr Jelfs again: "We have a plan for 2010-2014 that sees our revenue grow by 55%. That was seen as ambitious when it was put together, but we've had such a good 2010 and 2011 that we are currently a year ahead. What we planned to achieve by the end of 2012, we achieved at the end of last year." Moving-in date is before the end of this year.
Indeed, in 2010, the company was 20% up on the very high level it was running at during 2008. In analysing this recent feat, Seco Tools (UK)'s managing director suggests that nobody predicted just how steep the downturn would be, but that, similarly, nobody could predict just how fast business would come back. In fact, the initial 2010-2014 business plan forecast that the company would be back at 2008 levels of business in 2012/13. "Most businesses in Western Europe were saying that they weren't expecting to get back to 2008 levels until beyond 2014, but, by staying close to our customers and listening to what they were doing, we were confident."
And Seco's customers are those that typically fall within what Mr Jelfs describes as "high-tech companies investing in latest technology and with the 'best brains', because those are the companies that are going to be here for the future".
Seco Tools (UK) has a limited resource, so it has to be focused. Particular sectors of attention are aerospace, Formula One, oil and gas, automotive and medical, although general engineering also gets a mention – "it's doing rather well for us at the moment and it's a sector that we successfully built our business on originally". In fact, the company has some 2,000 active direct customers on its books at the moment.
(Some of Seco's partnership distributors [18 of the approaching 30 distributors in the UK] deal with leading companies such as first tier aerospace suppliers on their own account, too, while distributors overall account for 35% of revenues in total. Partnership distributors offer a technical service allied to Seco's tooling, so have tool application competence as well.)
There is clearly already momentum behind Seco Tools (UK)'s business, with this to be given a further helpful shove with the new technology centre, but, in serving its customers even better in the future, Mr Jelfs says the company will analyse its core strengths and establish partnerships where there is benefit.
"As a company full of highly skilled engineers, the tendency is that we try to do everything ourselves. We have been evaluating our competences to see where we should focus in the future and where we need to let go. So when it comes to things like fixturing, workholding, machine tools, CADCAM and coolants, that's where we collaborate," he says.
These partnerships are already up and running, and are brought into action, for example, when Seco Tools (UK)'s project engineers take on turnkey component tooling challenges from customers – an expanding part of the business, adds Mike Fleming, who, incidentally, highlights that a key ingredient for the tooling company is that customers are fully involved and do not only walk away with a solution, but a full understanding of the resolution.
At a higher level, the inclusion of Seco within parent Sandvik Group's Machining Solutions business (see here) means that, on the product side, Seco gets access to Sandvik Coromant's patents, material technology and R&D, while, on the business side, rationalisation of central distribution (not distributors) and back-office IT is also anticipated, which will deliver commercial advantages. However, while Seco, Sandvik Coromant, Walter and Safety exist within Machining Solutions, multiple brands, together with their teams, will continue to compete in the market place.
And overarching all of this, Mr Jelfs believes that Seco Tools has a golden opportunity to differentiate itself. "We all offer nice shiny products, broad product ranges, solutions and answers for the various segments. I see the opportunity for us to do something different, because nobody else really is. This difference will be enhanced within our new technology centre by working closely with our customers via motivated employees. Our customers will be able to see our competence in UK-based tool design, manufacture and application, using leading-edge 5-axis machine tools serviced by Erowa automation, plus automated tool vending – the whole package will be on view and demonstrably working, in-house, in the UK. It's a unique offering, but I don't think that enough people know about it. They will."
 JetStream Tooling
 The people advantage
 The new technical centre in overview
 Latest product developments
 Aerospace competence initiative
Box item 1
Jointly developed by a UK aero engine manufacturer and Seco Tools (UK), Jetstream Tooling is covered by a patent. Jetstream Tooling works by delivering a concentrated jet of coolant at high velocity straight to the optimum position. It is the closeness of the coolant jet exit point to the cutting edge, delivered via an 'inducer' (see picture), that is key to the patent and its success, in fact, other systems deliver coolant through toolholders directed at the cutting edge, but they cannot do so at such close range. Only Jetstream delivers coolant close enough to the cutting edge, to positively affect tool life and chip control, it is claimed.
Image: Seco's Jestream tooling features an inducer, which sees the coolant exit hole positioned very close to the cutting edge - it is this facet that is subject to patent
This jet of coolant penetrates the friction zone, lifts the chip away from the rake face, improving chip control and tool life and enabling increased cutting data to be applied. JetStream Tooling has been proven to work in all material groups and with a wide choice of coolant pressures, these ranging from 5 to 275 bar. However, just as important to the pressure is the flow rate, says Mr Fleming, who adds: "JetStream Tooling should be considered a standard solution, even if you don't have high pressure coolant, as having coolant directed so close to the tool tip is an advantage, even at low pressures. We're lifting the chip off the insert, reducing friction and heat generated. Other benefits of the technology are chip evacuation and chip breaking. It's a very strong technology and is being taken forward at group level for the next generation of JetStream Tooling technology."
Benefits for the technology, in terms of increased productivity, are between 20 and 40%.
Box item 2
People – the advantage
Seco Tools (UK) has four major priorities, explains Richard Jelfs: "Growing the company's active customer base; growing its customer relations; understanding its customers' industry (business intelligence); and, most importantly, developing and motivating our people.
"That last one is really important. People are our competitive advantage, our key differentiator. We are in an industry that is very product-centric, but people are our competitive advantage, our key differentiator, without them we are nothing. At Seco Tools (UK), we recruit for aptitude and train for skills. And if we have happy, motivated staff, the chances are we will have happy customers, which will lead to good business results."
At corporate level, Seco has its 'shared values' policy, with these values set out under three headings:
Passion for our customers - we identify with our customers; we build trustworthy win-win relationships; we all do our best to make a great delivery.
Family spirit - we create an open and friendly work environment; we trust and respect each other; we share ideas and knowledge with our worldwide network.
Personal commitment- we look for opportunities and take responsibility; we like to win and make it happen; we continuously improve quality and speed.
Box item 3
In talking about the new technology centre, the language is much about how people will work and interact with each other. So, the building is described as an agile working environment that will be an exciting and enjoyable place to work. Enclosed workspaces are reduced, while open space for ad hoc meetings are maximised, with 'think tanks and 'huddle areas'; there'll additionally be wi-fi and hot desking to support flexible working for field-based staff.
Downstairs are the production offices and manufacturing area, plus the canteen and networking area, as well as a gym. There'll also be a 120-seater auditorium on the first floor, featuring flexible seating, versus the current 50-seater, fixed-layout area at the current location. Reception is a double-height affair, with a feature staircase leading up to the office level. At this level there is also an exhibition area, which overlooks the production floor, and from which there is a bridge to the open-plan offices.
Box item 4
Minimaster Plus – Seco is the originator of the exchangeable head milling concept some 25 years ago and has brought its offering up to date with this latest development. Featuring taper and face contact, runout is 0.015 mm and length variation 0.025 mm for the 10-16 mm diameter insert range. Through-coolant is also offered. Semi-finish and finish operations in aerospace can now be supported. Download brochure
Crownloc Plus, a new generation of Seco drills with exchangeable tips, which features an improved locking system for better repeatability and performance. The crown features a new drill geometry and coating that improves wear resistance and chip evacuation in a variety of materials. Initially available in 3xD and 5xD drilling depths, covering diameters from 14 – 18 mm in 0.5 mm increments, the range will be expanded from 12 - 20 mm during this year. Download brochure
Square 6 -04 has been expanded through the addition of a smaller version, with the Square 6 -04 range. With the same six edges per insert, this smaller version supports endmills down to 20 mm diameter, with two or three inserts. See here
Next generation Double Octo, 16 edge system sees inserts positioned in the pockets by hardened to 65 HRC HSS pins, making indexing easy and secure. Download brochure
The high feed milling method can remove material up to three times faster and can be applied with a number of Seco milling products. See here
Box item 5
Aerospace competence centre
With the UK boasting the world's second largest aerospace market, after the USA and ahead of France, Seco Tools (UK) has strong aerospace competence, as does its French counterpart and, as Michael Fleming explains, the two are pooling their knowledge: "We want to merge our competences, initially between the UK and France, and build an aerospace competence centre. That way, we'll be able to help support each other's markets.
"This is sensible since the two countries share some of the same companies. Where the competence is in France, we will bring that person over to work here with the customer and vice versa.
"We are in the early stage so far, mapping each other's competences, and once that is done, we will have a team of people that we can call upon to support customers in both countries.
"Both markets are very keen to pursue this and we believe it to be a real area of opportunity."
First published in Machinery, April 2012
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