At first glance, there appears to be nothing out of the ordinary about P&C Precision Engineering of Leighton Buzzard. However, upon meeting the company's founder and managing director, Paul Crux, it becomes apparent that there can be few harder working individuals in the industry.
"It's not unusual for me to put in 100 hours a week," he states, admitting that the business he founded 16 years ago has become his life. "Like many people, I was working at an engineering firm and wanted to try starting my own business. I made a promise to my boss that I wouldn't approach any of his customers and, armed with a manual mill and a manual lathe, set about cold calling for business."
Although the long hours he put into the business have been rewarded with considerable growth for P&C, part of the reason for continued dedication today is the changing face of component supply.
"Before the economic downturn, we could plan our machining schedules two or three months in advance; now we are lucky to get two or three days," he reveals. "Nearly all of our orders are wanted immediately. For example, we recently had a phone call at 3 pm from a customer whose supplier had let him down. And although he wanted parts at 9 am the following day, we met his request. As you can imagine, orders like those create certain headaches, in terms of job planning, and ultimately mean we must be flexible as a workforce."
Although tough, word about the company's willingness to react quickly to demand has helped secure orders that might otherwise have been placed elsewhere. In fact, to aid rapid turnaround even further, the company has just invested in four new CNC machining centres from Haas Automation.
"I very much believe in letting our machine tools do the work," says Mr Crux. "We have a small workforce, with one operator generally tending four or five machines. It's impossible to survive, employing one operator for every machine."
Wanting to implement a replacement programme for machines that were around 15 years old, Mr Crux was also looking for a new machine tool partner.
"Previously, we used a single-source for most of our machine tools, but the last couple they supplied failed to impress. For this reason, I contacted Haas and they came up with a pretty attractive package."
PRIDE OF PLACE
Installed in August 2009, two Haas VF-3 and two VF-2 CNC vertical machining centres now take pride of place at the company's 8,500 ft2 premises. With 1,016 and 762 mm in the X-axis, respectively, both models feature 14.9 kW, 7,500 rpm spindles with through-coolant. One of the VF-3 machines has been supplied with a 4th axis rotary table.
Image: Haas machines are helping P&C compete
According to Mr Crux, another major factor in the selection process was precision. "Not long ago, we won a contract to produce vacuum chamber components for a customer in the science sector," he says. "The parts are made from 304 stainless steel and require circular interpolation to 0.01 mm. I'm pleased to say that the Haas machines have no problem with either the material or the tolerances."
However, among all the attributes of the new machines, it is arguably the control that has impressed most.
"The operators love the Haas CNC – it's a wonderful system and saves a tremendous amount of time," says the company's production director, Steve Holliday. "Our other machines feature an industry standard control, which is great in its own right, but the Haas control beats it hands-down.
"Because of the short lead times, we are often faced with programming online at the machine," he continues. "The control provides us with a massive boost when up against tight deadlines."
The Haas CNC has a number of innovative features, such as word-processor editing, one-button features, multi-function jog handle and Visual Quick Code programming. According to Haas, operating the machine becomes like driving your favourite sports car: it'll go wherever you point it; it's easy to point; and it won't say no.
Although largely dedicated to new jobs since installation, the Haas machines have accommodated one or two components that were previously made on existing P&C machines.
"The Haas machines are so much faster," says Mr Holliday. "The canned cycles in the control, particularly the tapping cycle, in combination with the rapid toolchange, make for fast machining times. On some module blocks we make for the pneumatics sector, we've cut six minutes from just one twin-operation."
Image: Production director Steve Holliday, left, with managing director Paul Crux
VICIOUSLY COMPETITIVE MARKET
Speedy programming, set-up and cycle times have become crucial in what has become a viciously competitive market. P&C operates across many sectors, such as satellite, telecommunications, scientific, pneumatics, automotive, aerospace and medical, and Mr Crux can cite many examples of rival firms taking on jobs at a loss, just to pay the wages.
"It's extremely tough out there, but I always give very honest quotations, based on a machine rate of just £25 an hour," he says. "This is enough to cover our costs and generate a modest profit, and, in my experience, represents one of the best rates around. We achieve it by having more machines and less manpower."
Despite the competitive rate, some jobs are still out of reach. One of the company's customers was recently acquired by a German organisation and Mr Crux had the opportunity to quote for a number of new parts. One particular component, of which there were five types in annual volumes of 24,000, featured a number of complex milling and drilling operations, including undercuts in recessed bores. P&C was unsuccessful in its tender and Mr Crux was told the winning bid was £1.60, "a remarkable price that included raw material and plating".
Undeterred by these isolated incidents, P&C Precision continues to survive, using its mix of hard work, experience and technology. That said, Mr Crux is less than impressed with the high expectations of many customers in the engineering sector.
"Considering the thousands and thousands we spend on technology, I sometimes think it an injustice that we can only charge £25 an hour for our services," he says. "After all, a solicitor can charge £150 an hour and all he has is a biro. The engineering sector certainly wants a lot for its money."
Nevertheless, despite the tough times Mr Crux is optimistic that the upturn is not far away, with a few signs of improvement already beginning to emerge.
"The past six months have been the toughest I have witnessed in the 16 years since I started this company. However, any machining company that can see 2009 out will be flying next year," he says. "In terms of further investment, although we now have five 4-axis machining centres, we are looking at adding a 5-axis trunnion to one of our Haas VF-3 machines. In fact, we will definitely be buying more Haas models as part of a steady replacement programme."
First published in Machinery, October 2009