While the news is still majoring on the sovereign debt/Euro crisis, UK engineering subcontractors seem to be increasingly busy, based on anecdotal evidence and the flow of company and business news across Machinery's desk.
The EEF/BDO quarterly Manufacturing Outlook report for the first two quarters of the year showed, for the second quarter, larger balance figures for companies reporting growth versus those not. Metals, metal products, mechanical, electrical and other transport sectors all grew in Q2 versus Q1. So metal went from a balance of around 11% to 32%; metal products moved from about 15% to 36%; while other transport shot up from about 34% to 63%. Forecasts for the next three months did not indicate such large balances, however, but we'll have to wait for the next report to see reality.
Also demonstrating growth in the mechanical engineering industry were the ONS' latest Index of Production figures. These showed that the manufacture of machinery and equipment rose 8.3% from August 2010 to August 2011, contributing 0.6% to overall manufacturing growth of 1.5% – meaning it represented 40% of the manufacturing's growth.
One company that is reporting better times is Portsmouth-based precision subcontract specialist – The Di-Spark Group, which says that it is back on track, with business booming, order books looking healthier and more robust, while margins, although still tight, much improved.
How so? Strategic investment in new, advanced machine tools, continuous improvement in its manufacturing processes and systems, a clear head and nerves of steel, it says, have all contributed to its strong recovery.
The last two years have seen "a dramatic turnaround in fortunes for Di-Spark", but this is, it is admitted, due, in part, to external factors, such as sterling's weakness against other currencies, helping exporters, and the UK's ability 'win back' manufacturing work previously lost to 'low-wage, low-cost' economies.
External or macro-economic factors apart, though, it has been continuous improvement in plant, equipment and people, coupled with an undeviating and relentless desire, as the group's managing director, David Light, says "to be the best we can possibly be", have all played their part and have had a significant and positive impact.
"The 2008 'Banking Crisis' triggered the start of the slowdown for us. A major customer of ours, looking to reduce their own costs, pulled the plug on work we depended upon and this, along with other customers postponing or scaling back their projects, resulted in a 25% drop in sales turnover from what was achieved in 2007," reveals Mr Light, who underscores the fact that: "2008-09 was an uncomfortable period for us and we knew we had to knuckle down to weather the storm."
The downturn represented "a period of consolidation for the company – and gave us an opportunity to review who we were...where we were going and how we were going to get there", he says.
"There is always 'risk' associated in any business and, to mitigate the effects of this, we used our experience and knowledge to make some decisions and assumptions about the future."
Di-Spark has always invested in high performance, high productivity machine tools (a significant number of these from GF AgieCharmilles – 024 7653 8666), and these machines provide the company with extensive and flexible machining capacity and capabilities. David Light explains: "We made our first investment in 5-axis machine tool technology way back in 2002 and have never looked back. This technology allows us to manufacture complex, high precision parts in fewer set-ups, and has helped us reduce our costs, achieve improved part accuracies, avoid production bottlenecks and meet ever stringent customer lead times.
"Because we know that this technology gives us a distinct competitive advantage, we continued to invest in this type of technology right through the recession and beyond."
Image: Five-axis technology has been a key element of Di-Spark's strategy
NO LET-UP DURING THE RECESSION
Indeed, in the teeth of the recession, the company installed two 5-axis machines from GF AgieCharmilles (Mikron UCP 600 Vario and UCP 600), and has recently installed two more Mikron UCP 600 Vario's and one Mikron HSM 400U machining centre.
A decision was also made some time back to reduce its customer base, focusing its efforts on fewer customers in the high-end aerospace, defence, medical, oil and gas, and motorsport sectors, strengthening its supply chain position with such customers.
Says Mr Light: "We design and deliver bespoke, sophisticated manufacturing solutions and are not in the commodity market. Using our technologies and skills, we have developed stronger relationships with a smaller group of customers and, because we operate across a number of sectors, we are better positioned to cope, if a specific sector is experiencing a downturn."
In 2010, the company acquired a new 6,000 ft2 unit, increasing the company' floor space by 50%, which enabled Di-Spark to re-organise and streamline its manufacturing operations. Machines have been re-located to create high efficiency and autonomous manufacturing cells that are delivering increased productivity.
Di-Spark has also achieved AS 9100 registration, and this has helped spearhead its growth in the aerospace sector, while it is a recent signatory to SC21 – the supply chain improvement programme for the aerospace and defence industries.
In conclusion, Mr Light offers this: "Although business is good, we are not complacent. I believe the decisions we have made, and the continuous improvement and investment strategies we have implemented, and continue to implement, have made us stronger and leaner, and better prepared to prosper and grow in these challenging times."
FIVE-AXIS TECHNOLOGY HERE, TOO
Another company that has installed high technology machinery and prospered during the lean times is Coventry subcontractor, Cam-Tech Engineering. This firm has increased turnover every year for the past decade. And, since 2008, that growth has accelerated, due, it is said, to the installation of three 5-axis machining centres from DMG (01582 570661). They are used extensively to produce brake and clutch components for luxury, high performance and specialised cars.
Founded in Shannon by John Bolger in 1998, the company originally specialised in aircraft component machining, notably for Boeing and Gardner Aerospace. It moved from Ireland to Coventry one year later. Shortly afterwards, the aerospace industry contracted, so, as that sector accounted for 80% of turnover at the time, Mr Bolger started to produce parts for sports cars and other top-end road vehicles.
Around 4,000 brake calipers per month are currently produced by the ISO9001:2008-accredited company on the DMG machines, mainly from free-issue aluminium castings, but also from solid billets, in the case of prototypes and smaller batch quantities.
About a dozen varieties of caliper of various sizes find their way into anything from an armour-plated limousine to a small electric hybrid car. Many high-end marques have been supplied, including Porsche, Subaru, McLaren, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Ford RS Cosworth, Bentley, Bugatti and Lotus.
The first 5-axis machine, a DMU50, was bought in 2008 after one of Mr Bolger's customers agreed to transfer caliper work from another subcontract machinist. At a stroke, it increased Cam-Tech's turnover by 20%.
A 3+2-axis machine was the optimum choice for prismatic machining of the calipers, but most machining centres on the market of this configuration were 3-axis models with a bolt-on trunnion/table. In fact, the DMG machine was the only one Mr Bolger could identify as being a purpose-built 3+2 axis type and with the rotary axes built in.
"We saw a similar DMU50 in action at Red Bull's manufacturing centre in Milton Keynes and felt that it offered the best rigidity for high accuracy machining, day in day out over two shifts," explains Mr Bolger, adding: "We have just finished paying for the machine and it continues to be an excellent production centre.
"The other advantage with built-in rotary axes is that the Z-axis travel is not compromised, whereas it is curtailed, if a compound rotary table is added to the fixed bed of a 3-axis machining centre."
The installation was so successful that Mr Bolger had no hesitation returning to DMG in 2010 for his next 5-axis machine as caliper volumes continued to grow. This time, he opted for a full 5-axis model, a DMU50 eVo Linear, which, although a little more expensive, came with two advantages for the subcontractor.
First, it allows 5-axis interpolated machining, a function not currently used, but will be when the right work comes along. Second, it has a higher specification, including 18,000 rpm spindle speed, high pressure through-tool coolant, faster cutting feed rates and rapids, and a 60-position tool magazine. Used in 3+2 mode for machining calipers, it is one third more productive than the original DMU50, according to Mr Bolger.
In early 2011, a third DMG machining centre was added, similar to the first 3+2-axis DMU50, to cope with a further increase in caliper demand. It has resulted in the automotive sector accounting for 90% of the subcontractor's business.
Having made the move away from aerospace initially, however, the company is now seeking to balance its automotive-heavy focus with work from that sector, as well as from the medical arena. Both of these will be targets for the company's full 5-axis machining capability, supported by AlphaCam programming (024 7671 3434).
Subcontracting investment news in brief
 O.L.D. Engineering has, in the last 12 months alone, invested in eight Doosan machines, supplied by Mills CNC (01926 736736). According to Mary Topp, O.L.D. Engineering's managing director: ''Business was, and still is, booming, and we needed to invest in new machines to capitalise on the upturn.''
The 70-employee firm is mainly involved in heavy machining of cast iron, aluminium and steels to high accuracy and surface finish requirements. The machines installed are: one Puma 600 lathe; three Puma 400 lathes; two Lynx 300 lathes; and two VC 500 twin-pallet vertical machining centres.
 Devon-based mould tool maker Amtek Precision Engineers has recently invested in a new 3-axis high speed machining centre from GF AgieCharmilles (024 7653 8666). The machine, an HSM 300 GraphiteMaster, is used to machine graphite electrodes. Since 2002, five-employee Cannon Engineering, Whitehall Cross, Leeds, has installed multiple XYZ Machine Tools machines (01823 674200)s: a ProTURN manual/CNC lathe; two-axis entry-level ProtoTRAK Edge 3000 manual/CNC turret mill; a larger ProTURN SLX 425 (replacing the first ProTURN); two full-CNC Mini Mill 560s; and now it is to be one of the first to install an XYZ ProtoTRAK LPM machining system, the first ProtoTRAK-equipped machine to be fitted with an automatic toolchanger. Prototype and one-off repair work are the company's forte.
 The Laser Cutting Company of Sheffield, a subcontractor specialising largely in tubular fabrication, took delivery of the UK's first TruLaser Tube 7000 tube laser cutting machine earlier this year. Although the fourth tube laser on site, it is the first from Trumpf (01582 725335).
Image: Tube laser cutting using Trumpf technology: a first for The Laser Cutting Company
First published in Machinery, November 2011