Worthing-based subcontractor Roscomac has installed a second twin five-axis, robot tended production cell for prismatic components.
The company installed its first Japanese-built Brother production cell at the end of 2019, comprising two 5-axis Speedio M140X2 mill-turn centres served by a Feedio vision-based robotic unit for component handling. A second identical unit is now due for delivery in April this year from Brother's sole UK agent Whitehouse Machine Tools.
Roscomac owner Joe Martello says this latest acquisition is symptomatic of a fundamental change in the way he views automated manufacture.
He said, "About 20 years ago we installed a large flexible manufacturing system consisting of six 3-axis, 40-taper, half-metre-cube machining centres linked by a three-level storage and retrieval system for 104 machine pallets.
"Having served us well, it is being decommissioned in February 2021. Part of the space it frees up will be used for relocating the first Brother cell and the second will be placed alongside it, all in a relatively small footprint.
"Since 2018 our company has undergone a major shift towards 5-axis machining. We have spent the majority of a £4 million investment in that period on multi-pallet pool systems with large tool magazines.
"They machine parts in fewer operations while achieving a high level of automation, without the complexity of an FMS based on 3-axis capacity. Had we not gone down the 5-axis route we would be dead in the water by now.
"With the two Brother systems, we have gone a step further by installing our first 30-taper 5-axis capacity for automated, ultra-fast machining of aluminium components in fewer set-ups and hence to superior quality."
While the FMS was an efficient production facility, the 3-axis CNC technology often required several parts at a time to be clamped multiple times in expensive staged fixtures for completion of several separate machining operations.
The timing of the arrival of the first Brother cell, a matter of months before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, could not have been more fortuitous. Nearly a quarter of Roscomac's turnover normally comes from the medical industry but in 2020 that proportion doubled, leading to an increase in annual turnover of £2 million despite the virtual disappearance of aerospace work, which historically has accounted for one-tenth of Roscomac's throughput.
For many years the subcontractor had been machining four different components for hospital syringe pumps from aluminium castings and extrusion.
Machining them on the 3-axis FMS often meant several parts at a time had to be clamped multiple times in staged fixtures to complete several separate machining operations.
They parts were machined at a rate of 4,000 per month per part number in the FMS, but were ideal candidates for transfer to the first Brother cell. It was therefore supplied with a turnover station so that one Speedio can carry out Op 10 while the other completes Op 20 after the component has been rotated, all fully automatically.
The cells produce the parts much more cost effectively in two operations, 24/7, without operator intervention apart from placing raw material onto the input conveyor and unloading finished parts from the output conveyor.
In contrast, unattended and lights-out running was impossible on the FMS due to the constant loading and unloading, so in practice the system was only capable of one-quarter of the output of these components compared with the Brother cell.
Within one month of the start of the pandemic, the customer quadrupled the order quantity to 16,000 per month per part. Mr Martello said it would not have been feasible to achieve even half that amount using the other plant in the factory, which would have meant turning away business. As it was, the Brother cell was able to cope. It started paying for itself and making a profit from the first day it was installed, as the operator only needs to load and unload the conveyors and keep an eye on production, so is free to run other machines.
By the middle of 2020, due to the success of the cell, the decision was taken to transfer all the remaining work from the FMS and plan for its removal. As the Brother cell was working flat out, this work was initially put onto 40-taper machining centres, but to add more high-speed capacity, a third Speedio M140X2 was hired from Whitehouse Machine Tools and operated as a manually-loaded machine.
Mr Martello continued, "It really focused the mind, seeing the operator having to attend the machine virtually continuously during the relatively short Op 10 and Op 20 cycles. So we decided to purchase a second fully automated Brother cell, exactly like the first.”