Sheet metal volume manufacture and fabrication specialists, Contracts Engineering, entered 2020 with an increasing demand for its services. In order to boost productivity and meet this rise in orders, it turned to systems integrators Cyber-Weld Ltd to help identify, install, and support its first foray into the world of welding automation.

Now, with FANUC’s ARC Mate 100iD/8L a key part of its production process, and a conscious effort to generate engagement with current employees, Contracts Engineering is reaping the rewards. 

2020 was a challenging year for manufacturing, as the industry grappled with the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one of the standout success stories was undoubtedly Kent-based sheet metal volume manufacturer and fabricator, Contracts Engineering Limited (CEL), whose savvy investment in automation enabled it to weather the storm and continue to grow.

Underpinning this growth was an increase in orders from one of its core clients, for whom Contracts Engineering fabricate their main product line sold to cities around the UK and Europe. Furthermore, two of CEL’s other clients had high volume welding requirements that couldn’t be met by manual welding. CEL needed an automated process to manage the high volumes and repetitive, tight-tolerance nature of the MIG welding.

Troy Barratt, Managing Director at Contracts Engineering, comments: “We have a strong working relationship with this client, built over years of supporting their development and production ramp-ups across several of their products.  We started having conversations back in 2018 to try and predict what volume of product we’d be required to deliver in the years ahead. The projections highlighted that sooner or later manual welding wouldn’t be able to keep up with demand, and it became clear that we needed to invest in automation.”

The crucial role of systems integrators

Given this would be CEL’s first experience of robotic automation, finding the right systems integrator was key. It meant identifying someone who would not only deliver the most appropriate solution, but also work as a partner to ensure seamless implementation.  

Troy continues: “We were quite upfront in how we went about finding the right partner. We were honest and said that this was our first robot, and while it probably won’t be our last, we’ll need some help on this. We are experts in welding, we know that side of the business, but we need expertise, advice, and training when it comes to robots.”

Troy, alongside Ross Campbell, CEL’s Operations Director, arranged meetings with a number of integrators, and following visits to the leading candidates identified midlands-based Cyber-Weld Ltd as the clear leader, and ultiamtely their chosen systems integrating partner. Alongside specifying the most appropriate automation solution, Cyber-Weld Ltd also ensured it was installed and set-up correctly, conducting on-site training to alleviate concerns and navigating travel restrictions during 2020’s first lockdown.

Fraser Reid, Managing Director at Cyber-Weld Ltd, comments: “First and foremost, we wanted to make sure we specified the right robot, that could meet the demands of high-volume, precise welding, and would fit neatly into Contracts Engineering’s production processes. We opted for a FANUC ARC Mate 100iD/8L with 3 auxiliary axes, because not only does this model deliver fantastic performance, but it also integrated nicely with the FANUC CNC that was already being used at the facility.

“It also became clear that having an internationally recognisable name like FANUC would be of benefit to the wider business. FANUC’s reputation proceeds itself and from CEL’s point of view it’s great to be able to say to their clients that they have a FANUC machine. There’s an element of assured familiarity there. It also helped that CEL’s CNC Turret Punching machine is programmed with a FANUC controller, so they had some familiarity with FANUC’s industry leading control units.”

Employee engagement

One of the most commonly cited concerns with introducing automation is the effect it will have on existing employees. There is an unfounded fear that robots will replace jobs, and as Troy explains, this is something that needs to be addressed from the very beginning:

“Nothing determines a business’s success more than its team. It’s a cliché but it’s true, and we were determined to ensure our staff, our fabricators, our people in offices and the factory were on-board with the improvements that would be brought about by automation. Very early on in the procurement process we talked openly about the benefits during our ‘All-Hands’ meetings, and offered training opportunities for our staff to learn about robotics.

“We got amazing engagement with this, with more time for training as the robot undertook the laborious, time-consuming and repetitive tasks. We have developed and trained one of our best welders to lead the robotic programming, and he is doing a brilliant job.  Furthermore, many of our other fabricators are learning more advanced welding techniques to go beyond what the robot can do, including more TIG welding of aluminium and stainless steel.”

CEL’s focus on investing in its staff has had a significant impact on Contracts Engineering’s workforce. Employment has grown +50% since 2012, and average pay is up 20% on top of a bi-annual company profit share. Job satisfaction is also high, with a low staff turnover of 5-10% per year, compared with a UK manufacturing average of over 25%.

Getting results

Crucially, this culture of openness has ensured the ARC Mate 100iD/8L has slotted seamlessly into the facility, and by September, just three months after delivery, it was operating at full production capacity. Productivity has doubled, with weld time cut by as much as 60-70%. This has ensured Contracts Engineering has been able to keep pace with its key bicycle rack client’s orders.

Troy continues: “Without automation, we may have been in the position where we would have had to turn away work, just because we couldn’t keep up with demand through manual welding alone. Now, we’re able to deliver to existing clients, while also actively seeking out work which requires more advanced welding applications, thanks to our increasingly skilled employees.

“Aside from the tangible productivity gains, we’ve found that automation has also facilitated greater integration of some of our departments. Engineers who are doing the CAD work are now working closely with the machine operators, which helps to bring the whole process closer together.  By the end of 2021 we plan to have our 3D CAD designed integrated with robotic programming so we can do it offline”

Looking ahead

 In spite of the difficult circumstances of the past year, Contracts Engineering has managed to increase its client base. Working with the knowledge that the ARC Mate 100iD/8L would see a return on investment from the cycle parking project alone, it has allowed Troy to pursue further business with full confidence, including engaging with the other clients that had robotic requirements. 

He concludes: “Investing in robotic automation during a pandemic could be seen as risky, but open and frank conversations with Cyber-Weld Ltd helped to minimise the fear factor that was associated with it. From a business point of view, it’s meant an increase in operational capacity that has enabled us to generate more business, and offer our existing clients even greater support.

“Most importantly, we’re delighted with the engagement we’ve seen from our staff. It’s a perfect example of how automation can enhance job roles, equipping employees with new skills that diversify their working day and ensure we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

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