Glasgow-based sub-contractor Castle Precision has just completed a £6 million investment programme in plant and buildings, supported by regional selective assistance.

The official opening of the 150-employee, £14 million-plus turnover company's extended and expanded facilities was held on 8 September, with many of its technology partners in attendance. Top of the list of invited guests was Mori Seiki's president, Dr Masahiko Mori – Mori Seiki being a major beneficiary of the investment, which is spearheading aerospace-focused Castle's move into 5-axis machining in earnest.

But while the value of the money invested in such equipment might be considered reason enough for such attendance, Dr Mori went further in his address, highlighting Castle Precision as one of a select number of customers worldwide with which his company wants to work closely in the development of advanced technology, while also acknowledging owner Marcus Tiefenbrun's pivotal role in driving the company forward.

"We have about 150,000 machine installations; around 50,000 customers in 60 countries; but, for machine development, I concentrate on a few important customers, in terms of industry sector and vision. So we decided that, for Scotland, Castle Precision would be our partner and that we must listen to their requirements."

Image: Dr Masahiko Mori spoke eloquently at the official opening ceremony

Dr Mori highlighted the importance of software in the efficient application of hardware – people and machines – and praised Castle Precision's innovation and development of, and its investment in, software, citing the company as one of the most advanced customers worldwide, in that respect. And he praised the owner in personal terms, too: "Marcus-san has lots of energy, and he also has many ideas, plans and dreams; dreams that can be realised in just a few years, which is what makes me want to work with him."

SEASONAL SHIFTS

Mori Seiki's president also acknowledged the wisdom of investing in what he called "winter time", when machine deliveries are quicker and the customer's negotiating position strong – "after winter time, spring and then summer will come," Dr Mori underlines, meaning that business will improve and boom times return, with companies investing now ready to take advantage when the season changed.

And the Japanese machine tool builder's top man made a commitment to Castle Precision: "For as long as I am president, or maybe chairman in the future, Mori Seiki will give a better service, provide continuity of spare parts, support for education, and will work together to develop latest machine tool technology for this important company."

In return, Marcus Tiefenbrun paid tribute to Mori Seiki, which, under Dr Mori, he noted, has become one of the top five machine tool companies in the world. "Although we do not formerly benchmark ourselves against other companies, Mori Seiki has been a de facto benchmark and has inspired us to improve our performance," the Scottish sub-contractor's managing director offered.

Established in 1951 by Marcus Tiefenbrun's father, Jack, and in its current locations since 1963, innovation has always been a feature of the company, Mr Tiefenbrun underlined in his opening address: "Castle was amongst the first to buy NC and then CNC machinery; the company purchased the first Matsuura machine and the second Mori Seiki in the UK – although my father would have bought the first, had it not already been sold," he explained to Dr Mori.

With its latest investments, the company has maintained this innovative track record. The 920 mm diameter turning capacity Mori Seiki NT 5400 DCG 1800S turn-mill centre is only the fourth such machine to be installed in the UK; Castle is the first company in Europe to take delivery of a new 800 mm diameter capacity Taiyo Koki NYG-8CT vertical grinding machine from Mori Seiki, which offers a working capacity that places it in an exclusive club; while a Leitz PMM-C CMM from Hexagon Metrology, to be installed imminently, will be the most accurate CMM in the UK, with an accuracy of 0.6 micron, moving the company from its previous CMM accuracy level of 3 microns. The company has also installed two Mori Seiki NMV5000DCG 5-axis vertical machining centres.

Image: Two NMV5000DCG 5-axis machines are part of the recent investment at castle

Next March, the company will take receipt of the largest-in-the-UK Mori Seiki NT mill-turn machine – a 1,070 turning diameter NT 6600 DCG 4000CS – but, more importantly, it will be the first in the world to feature a hobbing capability to produce splines on shafts.

"Should everything go to plan, Castle will be the first company in the world to turn, mill, drill, grind and hob to produce a shaft of this level of accuracy [ANSI class 4] in one operation. Until now, such splines have either been made by dedicated splining machines or have been ground on, as opposed to produced on a mill-turn, and, as such, this advance represents a revolution in the method of manufacture," Mr Tiefenbrun explained.

The company is also set to introduce Seco JetStream tooling to its new machinery, with the aim of moving from 180 m/min to 800 m/min surface speed when cutting titanium jet engine shafts, while Sandvik Coromant Capto tooling is already widely used to gain better rigidity during machining and repeatability of tool location.

Apart from this list of leading-edge kit, Castle Precision's owner has also snapped up a second-hand, two-machine FMS – a 16-pallet, Makino A77-based system (initially to be used for Rolls-Royce fan discs), complete with Royal tool presetter; while it is also bringing into service a recently acquired second-hand Studer S40 cylindrical grinder, as well as retrofitting a Mori Seiki MH-63 horizontal with 6-pallet pool machine.

Returning to yet more examples of the company's innovation, the managing director underlined that Castle Precision was one off the first to be awarded BS5750 – later ISO9002 – and that by 2006 it had won AS9100 accreditation. The company is now on the SBAC (Society of British Aerospace Companies) SC21 path, with it becoming part of the recently established official Scottish programme, which is led by one of the company's customers, Selex Galileo.

Castle can also claim, it is believed, a training first. As part of the company's expansion into neighbouring Linn Products' vacated factory (high-end hi-fi equipment maker Linn Products [www.linn.co.uk] is run by Marcus Tiefenbrun's brother), the company has introduced American organisation Tooling University's online training materials (www.toolingu.com) to the business.

Delivered in a new training room facility, the company has purchased some 3,000 online courses to support the education of its 33 apprentices. The local college, Anniesland, where Castle sends its apprentices, has expressed interest in the training materials, in fact.

These courses, which all have an associated written test and related certificate, take a detailed look at, for example, threading and will help apprentices better prepare to operate the new, advanced 5-axis machinery, explains Willie Greenwood, who is in charge of training. The courses will be supplemented by individuals within the factory with specialist knowledge, he says, so that "classes will get better and better".

The training manager is himself an experienced centre lather turner, for example, and is keen to see manual machines, which are currently present in the tool room, added to the company's new, dedicated apprentice machining room to impart core understanding – "conventional turning and milling skills are essential", he believes. The facility is currently kitted out with one new Mori Seiki DuraTurn 2550 lathe and one DuraVertical 5080 mill. Apprentices work on real parts, in accordance with systems, processes and procedures employed in production, but the components are likely to be those made of lower value raw material, so that any mistakes are not too costly.

Image: A new dedicated apprentice training facility has also been kitted out with Mori Seiki technology – twin screens in the background

Castle Precision takes on six to eight apprentices each year, all entering with Scottish Highers (A-levels). They take SVQ level 2 and HNC qualifications in their first year, then move through the remainder of their four-year apprenticeship within the factory, while also working towards SVQ level 3 and a Modern Apprenticeship award. Most of the company's senior managers have come up through the apprentice route, a fact Mr Tiefenbrun underlines.

SOPHISTICATED IT SYSTEM

But, as Dr Mori noted in his delivery, in addition to investment in manufacturing technology and people, Castle Precision has made significant investment in in-house software development. And the existence of a sophisticated IT system is visually underlined by the twin flat screens that can be found in most offices and at every machine tool or piece of working equipment. Developed over many years, it is a system that has already caught Machinery's eye, in fact (see November 2007 issue, page 18), but a brief overview, plus details of recent developments, remains interesting and instructive.

Image: Marcus Tiefenbrun alongside one of the ubiquitous twin flat screen displays: visible evidence of the comapny's powerful, in-house developed IT system

On the machine shop, employees log on and off jobs/machines (via bar codes on job cards and on machine tool images) and via time-stamped operator fingerprint recognition. Operators subsequently input current status, too. A live view of machine loading and job status can thus be accessed, with data feeding through into such things as WIP reports, and, along with additional cost information linked to such things as tooling and raw material costs, the system supports the creation of a full profile of current orders, related costs, turnover and profit.

Interestingly, once costs for specific items, such as cutting tools, are in the system, a higher than 'system price' cannot be paid, unless a reason to do so is entered and signed off. There is total control of costs, underlines George Kennedy, technical sales manager, Scotland. But there are reports for just about everything, since data about just about everything is input to the system. Twin screens and a PC at machine tools: display 2D drawings, with highlighted dimensions indicating those with inspection instructions; display job history; show 3D component models that can be interrogated; and run VERICUT toolpath simulations (CGTech). A particularly simple, but effective, screensaver is a blue/green/red bar displaying progress against standard time. Blue, available time, is 'swallowed up' by the passing of time, green, with any lapse beyond showing red – a signal to supervisors that something is going wrong long before it shows retrospectively in a report.

Two recent additions to the capability at the shopfloor are the ability to call up SPC charts for the last 25 parts, to help proactively improve processes, and the so-called Proactive Error Prevention system, which allows operators to log any issue that crops up, with these assigned to an individual (supervisor or project engineer) to manage and resolve. The company is also looking to introduce full machine tool and component simulation, reports Tommy Grassie, engineering projects manager, increasingly important now the company has complex, high value 5-axis machines.

Another recent development has seen the use of tool probing to check that the correct insert has been fitted and to update offsets. It is now possible for the company to check automatically that the correct tip radius exists. It's all about "building quality into the job", eliminating potential for error, Mr Grassie underlines.

All machines now have cameras fitted, so project engineers can see via the IT system when their attention might be needed, while tools are being bar coded so that their location can be logged, allowing set-up times to be reduced and project engineers to know if there is sufficient tooling to support required jobs, the engineering projects manager explains.

The same twin PC screens are found alongside each engineer in the projects office and also in the quality department. Jigs and fixtures are designed via SolidWorks (New Technology CADCAM); NC programs created via CAMWorks (New Technology CADCAM); toolpath simulation undertaken via VERICUT (CGTech); with PC-DMIS (Hexagon Metrology) used in the QA department for offline CMM programming.

The screens/IT system also offer other tools, such as forms/audit trails for new product introduction, or engineering change control.

And, of course, the same twin screens can be found in the managing director's office, who, in answering the fundamental question, 'why invest now?' offers this: "Even in recessions, the vast majority of commercial activity continues and certain sectors still prosper. It is also the best time to gain market share from your competition. Small players with minimal market share can do this, if they can demonstrate a competitive advantage. At times of growth, people and companies will purchase and renew as a matter of course. In the depth of a recession, customers need a compelling incentive to purchase. That incentive is significantly improved performance and for that reason recessions are a spur to innovation. The new, innovative machinery and systems deliver a step-increase in accuracy, capability, quality and value for money."

And he concludes: "Our success is not accidental, but the result of our philosophy of long-term investment and consistent planning, supported by the commitment, ingenuity and dedication of our people."

First published in Machinery, November 2009