Working at Paxman Diesels in Colchester, a manufacturer of heavy duty diesel engines for applications including rail and marine, the main crankcase machine shop was dominated by a behemoth of a machining centre from the Asquith stable. It was this machine that I took visitors to view on factory tours to give them a real sense of scale involved in manufacturing an engine with 185 mm cylinder bore 196 mm stroke capable of outputting over 5,000 bhp at 1,950 rpm.
Cut back to the present day and it is that feeling of scale and size that hits you first about Asquith Butler, the only remaining UK producer of large capacity machining centres.
The gantry machining centre on display has a 7,000 mm X-axis, 5,200 mm Y-axis and 1,250 mm Z-axis and the workplate are capable of taking 35 tonnes/m². Spindle power is 51 kW and spindle speed is up to 3,000 rpm. The machine is controlled by a Heidenhain iTNC 530 digital control system.
The Star Cut 400S is a bespoke large capacity, high precision machine based on the proven technology of the Star Cut range. UK-built, it is destined for a supplier to the Ministry of Defence and is the latest of a long line of machines installed by the customer. (In fact the first machine is still performing within its original micron level tolerances some 30 years after installation). It is this level of reliability and longevity from a legacy brand that has positioned Asquith Butler well to take advantage of future and emerging markets.
An example is the development of the market in India and the Far East through its Sharpline Automation business based in Thane, Mumbai. While the start of production at the Indian factory has been slower than planned, as Asquith Butler ensured its high quality standards are maintained, it is anticipated that the site will produce half a dozen machines in 2011, utilising heads and rams sourced from the UK, while building the frame and supplying the electrical systems locally.
As well as supporting the India efforts in 2011, the Brighouse site will be focused on the refurbishment of several heads and rams, in support of the 2,600 CNC machines in service around the world, as well as the build of two or three new machines for its niche markets or stock.
Image: Asquith Butler's Brighouse site
Building to stock may be a sign of a more sluggish economy than in the past for these £1.5-2 million machines, but Asquith Butler is not concerned that the machines centres will not sell. With long lead times consuming much of a year for these large machines Asquith Butler needs to maintain the flow of work through the factory so these 'stock' machines are actually picked with two or three end customers in mind.
Such is the case with the second machining centre being displayed, the PowerCentre 500 horizontal machining centre, with an 8,000 mm traverse in the X-axis, 2,500 mm in Y-axis and 1,500 mm in Z-axis. The machine has a C-axis of 360 by 1°
and an A-axis of 220 by 1°. Spindle power is 500 kW and the machine control is Siemens 840DSL.
Image: Power Centre 500 horizontal machining centre
In terms of new opportunities Asquith Butler says it is excited by the potential of the nuclear industry, a niche sector, both military and civil, that has a large requirement for the scale of machine Asquith Butler makes.
Machines have already been supplied for the manufacture of large components for the Astute submarine development programme and the company is hoping for orders soon for the manufacture of parts for the Trident replacement, provided it is given the green light by the Coalition Government.
The civil nuclear programme is expected to provide the company with a substantial area of growth, once the programme gets underway. Asquith Butler has been working closely with the AMRC in Sheffield, where the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is based. AsquithButler says it has already received serious enquiries from a number of companies expecting to manufacture components for use in the build of nuclear power stations.
Paul Hinchliffe, managing director at Asquith Butler, says: "These are important areas of development for the country and we are recognised as a premier manufacturer of large capacity machining centres throughout the world. We are in an ideal position to win a substantial proportion of the business available from both areas of nuclear development."
More traditional markets, such as the energy and construction sectors, continue to be an important part of the company's overall business and are showing signs of recovery.
The last few years have seen something of a company 'reboot' with the amalgamation of two historic brands (Asquith and Butler) ,and the commencement of exciting new chapters for the company with Mr Hinchcliffe at the helm and the backing of the Kingsbury group. However, the company is mindful and proud of a heritage that dates back to the1860s and maintain records of the machines still in service, as machine refurbishment is an important part of the company's business.
And so, what of the Paxman machining centre? Well, it's doing better than the Paxman site, which if you type the post code CO1 2HW into Google maps will show a satellite image of what was a heavy batch manufacturing site reduced to a flattened sandpit. On recalling the machine to Mr Hinchcliffe, he was able to tell me instantly, without having to look through company records that it had been refurbished and was continuing its productive life at a new site, adding to the history and legacy of the Asquith Butler brand.