Automotive manufacturing - getting into gear

5 min read

The changing profile of one firm's business and first installation of Mazak technology; Edgecam selected by automotive giant; and small parts manufacture, courtesy of Star sliding-head machinery. Machinery reports

Motorsport, and Formula 1 in particular, is still a very important part of our business. I wouldn't want anyone to think otherwise. But, let's face it, regulation changes, such as those in Formula 1, have reduced the number of engines used and the number of parts we can supply," explains Martin Keswick, managing director of Capricorn Automotive, who has recently chosen Mazak technology (01905 755755) for the first time for the business that is increasingly looking to road-going 'supercars' for business. From its 40,000 ft2 facility in Basingstoke, which houses 55 employees, the company supplies machined engine components, including forged pistons and precision cylinder liners, to most of the major forms of motorsport, from Formula 1 through to Moto GP, Superbike, NASCAR, Le Mans, DTM, World Touring Car, WRC, IRL and others. "Motorsport is still our core, but, due to reducing volumes, it is in effect a declining market," he says. "Regulations are meaning less variety and fewer components. Take IRL (Indy Racing League), for example, which in 2012 is changing engine configuration from V8 to V6; that's a 25% reduction in volume right there." And, as volumes drop, competition increases. Capricorn Group, which includes facilities in France, Germany and Italy, as well as the UK, has been fortunate in being owned by a far-sighted shareholder who is willing to plan for the long- term. "That security has enabled us to make a strategic decision to target niche automotive sectors that the big players tend not to be interested in. Our growth is now coming from other segments, such as high performance road cars, or 'supercars' as we call them," Mr Keswick explains. Image: Capricorn is moving towards road-going supercars and away from F1 A QUESTION OF VOLUME "The difference between the supercar sector and motorsport lies as much with batch sizes as the type of component machined", he adds. "Tolerances on road cars and professional race series vehicles are not much different nowadays. However, F1 may only want 600 pieces a year, whereas our road car customers want anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000. "The road car business is very much the bread and butter of our company now. It's stable business, not great margin, but a consistent contributor, whereas motorsport is very volatile, very seasonal and very demanding. We have customers ordering later and later, but when they finally commit, they want it immediately. Of course, that demands a higher price and a better margin." Capricorn's main activity at Basingstoke sees machining centres and turning equipment used for both rough and finish turning. "We don't necessarily need super, super precision, if the application does not demand it," Mr Keswick offers. "We are working on cylinder liners to a typical 10 micron cylindricity tolerance, so what we are looking for is good metal removal rates, combined with good dimensional and geometric control." The company's latest investment is two Mazak Quick Turn Nexus 200 MSY machines. "We were about to place an order for one new lathe with a competitor, but decided to take a look at the Mazak product. The perception we had was that Mazak was mainly into mill-turn Integrex-type machines and not a company we considered for a standard lathe package. However, looking at the specifications and stated accuracies, we were very surprised at how price competitive they were." Capricorn asked each of the potential machine tool suppliers to machine a test part, in order to compare performance. "Some of our key setters and team leaders were a bit sceptical about using the Mazatrol conversational programming. We quickly sent these guys up to Worcester to use the Mazatrol system as part of the cutting trials at Mazak and, to a man, they came back and said "we have to go with Mazak". They all found it much more intuitive and easier than the old long-hand programming route, and now they view Mazatrol as a positive, rather than a negative. Overall, the new machines are giving us much quicker changeovers and much greater flexibility." The new machines are being targeted specifically at Capricorn's motorsport business, which has allowed Mr Keswick to move machines around the factory floor to create two distinct areas of capability. "We have created a specific motorsport section, which is where the Mazak machines are housed, alongside a volume supercar section, which houses the machines that the Mazaks have replaced." Turning to a mainstream automotive player, ZF Friedrichshafen AG has a multi-billion Euro annual turnover and 120 sites in 25 countries. It makes a range of components, such as transmission systems, axles, shafts and housings for customers including Caterpillar, Claas, John Deere, CNH and AGCO. The company has selected Edgecam CADCAM to support the manufacture of parts, following a stringent selection process. Explains production services team manager, in Passau (for 12 A-division-plants), Peter Robl: "Edgecam was the only system that delivered the process automation tools we demanded during our evaluation of 10 CAM solutions. The degree of integration and interoperability we achieve between Edgecam and our corporate CAD solution, Pro/Engineer, enables us to take component designs and automatically generate and apply optimised tool paths." He says the fact that the Edgecam product team have a good understanding of the problems and issues facing ZF's intensive manufacturing practices has developed and speeded up their NC programming. DRIVING OVER 400 MACHINES With ZF having a total of 84 users working on 52 seats of Edgecam (01233 506100), the software drives more than 400 CNC machines across manufacturing plants – mainly 3 or 4-axis milling centres and lathes with 2 spindles and 2 turrets from a number of manufacturers. Also, 5-axis and turning-milling machines are programmed by Edgecam. ZF's Edgecam modules include Ultimate Milling and Ultimate Turning, Solid Machinist, Strategy Manager, Solid CAD/CAM, 5-axis Simultaneous Milling and NC Simulation, which are employed at six manufacturing plants in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They have generated around 2,200 Edgecam programs in total, many of them using more than 100 tools, and with over 1,000 instructions. Image: Edgecam technology is employed at six ZF plants across Europe, helping to efficiently machine parts like this At the smaller end of the spectrum, Basildon subcontractor Specialized Engineering Components (SEC) is using a Star sliding-headstock lathe (01332 864455) and considers the machine ideal for working with high tensile steels, stainless steels and other tough materials. Established in 2000, the firm has traditionally operated multi- and single-spindle cam autos, as well as CNC fixed-head lathes. Its first slider, a Star SR-20J, was installed in July 2009 to reduce production costs across a range of four diesel engine components. Three of them were previously produced in three operations each – blank turning on a cam multi, followed by manual milling and then drilling/reaming. The fourth part needed two separate operations. All are now produced from bar in one visit to the Star multi-axis CNC sliding-head lathe. "We produce 6,000 of each diesel engine component on the Star and ship them every month, whereas before we had to spread delivery over two months," explains Steve Clifford, a director of SEC. "Cashflow is better now, as we can invoice quicker and secure payment earlier; there is no longer part-finished work-in-progress cluttering the shopfloor, which is useful as space is limited at present; a further advantage is a big saving in labour costs, which helps us to keep prices competitive, despite having to pay for the new machine." Image: One-hit machine of parts like these is now undertaken on Star sliding-head machinery First published in Machinery, June 2011