Computers cut manufacturing time and improve order books

British firms have pioneered the application of high-tech computer aided manufacturing and lead the world, as Lindsay Clark reports

The London 2012 Paralympic Games closing ceremony was a race for artist Moritz Waldemeyer. Stuck for London firms to cut 2,000 plastic shapes for his fish-themed light extravaganza, he hurried to seek alternatives.

A Barnsley firm stepped in, able to fulfil the order with its 24-hour laser-cutting operation. But Cutting Technologies does not only use its six laser machines to shape artistic plastic. Steel engineering components, architectural wood, commercial signage and costume jewellery also form part of its repertoire.

Such versatility in manufacturing is viable because laser cutters require no new tooling for each batch. Computer aided manufacturing (CAM) ensures the firm can process each order rapidly by the efficient use of raw materials and drawing directly from design files.

Barry Proctor, co-founder and director of Cutting Technologies, says: “When I started as an engineer, if someone wanted to redesign a component they would need to get new tooling made, which is a ten-week process. With CAM and laser cutting, these changes are rapid and there is no extra cost.”

The UK retains excellence in design and production engineering which CAM technologies can help manufacturers exploit

The common perception that British manufacturing has been slow to modernise is accurate only in terms of organisational processes, such as just-in-time delivery, says analyst Mike Evans, research director at Cambashi and a 30-year veteran of the UK CAM sector. In fact, British firms pioneered the application of CAM and two of the top-five package developers remain British.

The UK retains excellence in design and production engineering which CAM technologies can help manufacturers exploit. “That is the UK’s special edge,” says Mr Evans. “CAM packages now allow you to simulate the whole machining process, from the original billet to the finished product. The simulation helps make sure it is not just the right results, but also optimises the process.” The software also insures minimal waste of what can be very expensive raw materials.

The link between design and production has also benefited the UK’s development of CAM software. Birmingham-based DelCam, which achieved record sales in the first half of the year, runs a machine plant in its software development centre. “These are dirty-hands software developers, not people doing design in some silicon roundabout,” says Mr Evans.

For some manufacturers, exploiting CAM technologies has been essential in a strategic shift to find longer-term revenue streams. “Technology is a key to us winning business,” says Craig Pearson, managing director of Cheltenham-based Future Advanced Manufacture, which makes high-value components, from miniature inserts for medical instruments to parts for the aerospace industry.

Before 2008, the company specialised in research and development, but the business model only supported an order book of around three months. Following a management buyout, Future Advanced Manufacture moved to contract manufacturing components, which might be complex or made from specialist materials, or both.

“The CAM software simulates the production process so that the price estimate, and hence the margin, is accurate and quality issues can be identified,” says Mr Pearson. “When selling to buyers of repeat contract manufacturing, we provide a technical report with the quote to add further weight to our bid. Otherwise one is simply competing on price.” When the order comes in these process plans can be refined to be used in production and help exceed customer expectations, he adds.

Cambashi’s Mr Evans says using CAM in this way can help manufacturers get into new markets. “It has created a renaissance where companies like Future Advanced Manufacture are able to get into repeat contract manufacturing,” he says. “That has got order books of two to three years, which are much more visible than simply doing design work.” This greater certainty of revenue is helping firms overcome the shortage of investment which has long plagued this talented industry, he says.