The showroom and associated offices of Hexagon Metrology's Telford facility give little indication that the company is part of a €2.2 billion (2011) global technology leader with a presence in over 40 countries. Metrology is one of three areas that Swedish giant Hexagon AB operates in, accounting for 30% of total revenues in 2011.
Within the metrology area, Hexagon incorporates many previously separate brands, such as DEA, Brown & Sharpe, Leica, Leitz and m&h. In fact, Hexagon AB has acquired 70 companies since 2000 and, over the past 10 years, revenue expansion has been 60% through acquisition and 40% organic, says Ola Rollén, president and chief executive officer, although he adds that this will reverse in the coming 10 years. It was Mr Rollén, incidentally, that put a focus on metrology after he joined the company in his present position in 2000.
So that's what sits behind the Hexagon Metrology Telford operation, but, at a more local level, what does the company see happening in the UK market? David Brown, general manager of the UK operation, offers that it is the portable measurement side of the business that is a rising star. This is one of three segments into which the business is channelled, namely: portable measurement, stationary measurement equipment and aftermarket services. The latter incorporates elements from both the previous two, as well as company-wide services, such as training and inspection services. Aftermarket activity represents some 50% of the UK's turnover, in fact, while, in the new equipment area, portable is growing faster than stationary.
Image: Hexagon's Telford showroom - part of a global measurement empire
THE PORTABLE SLICE
The portable technology slice incorporates trackers (Leica), white light sensors (Cognitens), arms (Romer), plus related service, training, contract inspection and rental. "The focus on portable as a business segment really started following the acquisition of Leica Geosystems [in 2005]. What we found was, obviously, the product is unique and different, but so is service and all the aftermarket demand; culturally it is, too. The difference is that the majority of the portable products are manually operated, so it becomes critical when the device needs to be repaired or serviced, because the customer wants to keep that associated equipment operator occupied. To satisfy that demand, we focus on rapid turn-around time or back-up equipment, so that they're up and running fast."
Mr Brown suggests that the increasing demand for portable measurement solutions, by which he means portable arms and trackers in the main, has a number of reasons. "For one, the market is becoming more aware. The technology has been quite well marketed, so we are growing demand through increasing awareness. Also, the performance, capability and reliability of the equipment is now settling and becoming more robust. An arm 10 years ago was not reliable, unstable; you knocked it and it was out of spec; now the technology is pretty robust.
"And because their performance has improved, and continues to improve, they are now cannibalising what would have been traditional manual CMMs, like horizontal arm units, and even big structures, like gantry machines. People are seeing that the performance of Leica Tracker T-Probe systems and Romer arms are getting close to CMM territory. A few years ago, if you went to an automotive company, there'd be an abundance of horizontal arm CMMs: now there's technology available, with arm and Tracker systems, to do more than those machines did, but make it portable and more capable."
Looking at Leica and Cognitens only, the UK's strength in aerospace means the UK is a key market for Leica, with most aerospace companies using this technology in assembly, while opportunities for this technology also exist where other large structures require measurement, such as renewable and nuclear. In fact, last year Hexagon became a Tier 1 member of the Nuclear AMRC, located between Sheffield and Rotherham, and also became a Tier 2 member of the Midlands Technology Centre (MTC), Coventry. Leica Tracker systems feature in both, while the MTC also boasts a Leitz UHA CMM in the facility's metrology laboratory, with the Nuclear AMRC to get a large volume (3.3 by 6.6 by 1.8 m) DEA CNC gantry CMM.
As for Cognitens, used mainly in the automotive sector, this white light technology is seeing more interest in the UK, now that the sector is on a growth trajectory again, says Hexagon.
Stationary measurement technology incorporates CMMs, optical and multi-sensor, plus services, training, contract measurement. "This has greater depth to it than the portable segment, because it is more mature. Indeed, this also incorporates second user machines that are retrofitted and then returned to the market," Mr Brown offers. However, an interesting point is made regarding suitability of older equipment for continued use. In fact, he says the company is "retracting from this market" and is being selective on trade-ins, as to whether they will be returned to the market.
LEVELS OF PRECISION UP
The reason is that industry's accuracy requirements have stepped up. Mr Brown: "Standards have improved. The levels of precision that companies machine to are far tighter and getting more so. That means that whatever you use to measure parts has also to be capable. The older machines, frames and controllers were good in their time 10 years ago, but, even if you are investing around 50% of a new machine on a second user CMM, it's not necessarily economical; you're not giving yourself the capability or throughput any more. Indeed, we should be making that point to the market: if companies are using a CMM that is 8-10 years older, they could be way out of alignment with their production technology's capabilities. If you want to be on the leading edge of machining, you probably wouldn't be using a 10-year-old machine tool, for instance. I think the market needs to awaken a little. In some cases the CMMs might still be nice and shiny, but they aren't performing to the level they should be."
And this increased demand for more accurate measurement saw the company kick off an initiative at the beginning of last year to drive ultra-high accuracy measurement strategy (UHA). "That is definitely the future," says Mr Brown. And the product range to support this area is continually being broadened, he adds.
The most recent product introductions in the stationary area have been the DEA Global Silver CMMs, which offer faster more accurate measurement and better scanning functionality (www.machinery.co.uk/34038
). And the company's Optiv multi-sensor range has brought non-contact measurement to the CMM measurement arena over the past few years (www.machinery.co.uk/34039
Moving to Hexagon Metrology's third element, aftermarket, this sees the whole Hexagon Metrology customer database as its focus area. One of the services that cuts right across the whole database is measurement training and this is an area where the company has a strategy to grow, Mr Brown offers. "We see that there is a big opportunity and it breaks into two areas: customers with Hexagon product, including our own software – PC-DMIS, of which there are some 2,500 users; and those that are not Hexagon product users."
Growth is being driven by a new telemarketing and telesales team, under Sam O'Prey, aftermarket commercial manager, which communicates with customers regularly, talking to them about their skills levels and training needs.
"We are able to offer refresher training on our own software and are still also working with the nationally accredited NPL metrology training initiative [www.machinery.co.uk/7912
"We already do have a regular throughput of people here on the NPL courses. And, in fact, NPL is expanding its training materials into the portable measurement technology area," explains Mr Brown.
That there is a need, indeed an increasing need, for such training is borne out by a recent survey undertaken by Mr O'Prey's team. "Anyone within the industry in design, manufacturing or inspection should have an understanding of GD&T. The survey came back with 60% of the questions answered incorrectly. The last time the company undertook such a survey that figure was 40%; so things are getting worse, not better. There is a clear need to address that and we can see this with some of our customers. They can come to us thinking that they have a problem with the software or equipment, but, more often than not, it turns out that it is a problem of understanding of drawings or co-ordinate measurement."
This GD&T knowledge is part of the NPL training courses and Hexagon now has a full time NPL course trainer – previously it was only a half-time activity – and the company will recruit another trainer to ramp up its activities further.
Contract inspection, an established activity for the company, is another area targeted for expansion, Mr O'Prey offers – currently based in Telford and Swindon, with portable technology, the company can take the solution to the customer, of course. Hexagon also works with partners, including perceived competitors, to deliver a broad service. A doubling of contract inspection revenues is targeted over three years.
Metrology equipment servicing is another growing area, driven in part by companies experiencing higher demand and which is also reflected in their keenness to have their CMMs serviced in shorter periods of time. Hexagon Metrology has also seen a return of companies, following a dalliance with independent CMM service companies. "We know they [independents] can't offer a complete service, because they don't have access to the CMM error map. So, if they find an issue that needs addressing, they can't resolve it to the level that we can," says Mr O'Prey. "Some companies say they are calibrating when all they are doing is verifying and telling you what the results are. They can't change anything, because they don't have access to the error map. We always recommend having a full service by the OEM, as we wouldn't service our competitors machines for this very reason. To undertake a full service and calibration on a CMM will take around three man-days or more, depending on the machine size and type; some companies will say they can do it in half a day. That simply is not possible; at best they are verifying results."
As a reflection of all this, aftermarket services saw 27% revenue growth in the first six months of this year, compared to 2011, and double-digit growth is considered feasible going forward.
More generally, over the next 18 months, Mr Brown says there are plans in place to expand resources and facilities in the UK, with action in both the south and north of the country.
Extended article from here
Box item 1
Getting the measure of F 1 in schools
David Brown is keen to make metrology a part of the F1 in schools initiative (www.f1inschools.co.uk) and is currently in discussion to move this on. "I think our metrology base station is appropriate to F1 in Schools – hand tools, sophisticated multi-gauges, height gauges, etc – although it obviously has to be priced sensibly.
"At the moment, I've observed measurement is undertaken using plastic gap gauges – go/no-go. This doesn't allow the young teams to think deeper, 'yes, it meets FIA regs, but can we move the design to optimise it within the regs'."
Portable arms are used in the real world of motorsport to check F1 FIA compliance, of course.
Box item 2
Special products group
A department within Hexagon's Telford operation is focused on special products. This five-man operation has its roots in special-purpose hard gauging used in high volume environments ,an area that Gary Brice, business manager, believes may develop where high volume and greater accuracy parts are manufactured.
One of the department's activities is the building of laser interferometers to an NPL design under licence. These are sold mainly to national measurement institutes, some 30 units in all to date (see comment, page 00). The devices come in two designs – a two-laser 300 mm maximum length gauge block measurement unit, where the blocks stand vertically; and a three-laser 1.5 m maximum length gauge block unit, where the blocks are held horizontally. This length capacity makes the technology close to unique in the world.
The special products group also designed and made a high resolution CMM camera – CMM-V – five years ago for one customer, but has since seen sales of these increase. Indeed, it sold 30 units last year, but has sold 22 in the last quarter. The ability to design and make such a piece of equipment rests on the historical skills of the group. The system has a measurement accuracy of 20 microns. (YouTube video)
The Swift-Fix modular CMM fixturing system is another of the department's outputs. A feature of this is the standard base plate that allows multiple plates to be joined together (See here). The system can also support automated and manual loading of pre-fixtured parts onto CMMs.
Image: The CMM fixturing system developed by the Special Products Department
Finally, the special products department is also the manufacturer of the Metrology Stations – mobile workstations with drawers and which can be kitted out with a variety of metrology. Each station comes with a choice of £3,000 worth of Tesa hand gauges plus a Romer arm. This was launched at MACH earlier this year.