With 70% of its turnover in aerospace, Rugby-based subcontractor Technoset was badly hit when COVID-19 grounded most aircraft and orders plummeted seven-fold.
Towards the end of 2021, the company's production of aircraft parts is still below one-quarter of previous volumes.
With the business facing an existential crisis, managing director Kevan Kane and the firm's owners set about restructuring the operation, positioning Technoset as a solutions provider rather than a supplier of components. It also started targeting challenging contracts for the supply of tight-tolerance components to more industries, notably lasers, fibre optics and telecoms.
The success of these policies has seen the number of components going through the shop floor for the first time for both existing and new customers more than treble from 10 to 33%. A large proportion have benefited from design-for-manufacture expertise from Technoset engineers to reduce piece part costs for customers.
The first new machine tool the company has bought since the onset of the pandemic was a highly specified, twin-spindle Cincom M32-VIIILFV bar-fed, sliding-head mill-turn centre, which was delivered by Citizen Machinery UK in spring this year 2021.
A primary reason for acquiring the latest M32 was a need to machine complex telecoms components, in particular a family of 12 mainly aluminium connector parts for use in the defence industry. Many of them are complex, with a lot of milled detail, and drawing tolerances are below 10 microns.
That level of accuracy is achieved reliably, even when running lights-out, partly because the lathe incorporates Citizen's LFV (low frequency vibration) software in the Mitsubishi control's operating system. Variants of the LFV function can be called up automatically in any part program to break what would normally be stringy swarf into manageable chips. It is no longer necessary to stop the lathe to untangle and clear potentially harmful swarf from the tool and/or component.
Productivity is therefore maximised, the operator is freed to carry out other tasks on the shop floor and the machine can be left with confidence to run unattended. The programmable chip-breaking software is not only beneficial when machining the aluminium connector parts but will also prove invaluable when Technoset restarts producing aircraft components in significant volumes from Inconel, titanium, Waspaloy, Nimonic and other superalloys, all of which tend to birds-nest when turned and drilled.
In anticipation of acceleration in the return of aerospace work, the subcontractor introduced a second shift in early September 2021. It is to ensure that contracts for aircraft components, which typically involve batch runs of 1,000 to 2,000-off, do not dominate the shop floor and dilute the production of new work that has been taken on in other industries. Consequently, aerospace work at the AS9100-accredited contract machinists is unlikely to exceed 50% of throughput in the future.
Looking ahead, Technoset has wide-ranging plans for digitalisation and automation. The turning side of the business, which currently accounts for around two-thirds of turnover, is already automated through the use of bar magazines. The milling side will take a significant step forward in spring 2022 with the installation of a 5-axis machining centre with built-in robotic component load/unload and on-board part probing. It will be the first automated prismatic component manufacturing cell on-site.
Photo: One aluminium component in a family of 12 defence industry connector parts machined by Technoset on the new Cincom M32 with LFV, showing complex detail milled in-cycle, some to tolerances below 10 microns.