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CONTRACT MACHINIST RE-PURPOSES THREE-QUARTERS OF ITS CAPACITY FOR VENTILATOR COMPONENT PRODUCTION

Subcontractor Unicut Precision, Welwyn Garden City, is no stranger to producing large quantities of components, one million items being shipped to customers in the UK and overseas in a typical month. The company operates 22 Cincom sliding-head lathes and eight Miyano fixed-head turning centres from one supplier, Citizen Machinery UK, in addition to other metalcutting plant.

Three-quarters of this capacity was changed over in early April 2020 to manufacture medical components for the government’s Ventilator Challenge UK following a call from a member of the supply chain management team, McLaren, to Unicut’s owner Jason Nicholson.

He said, “Drawings started coming in on a Thursday and we quoted straight away. The first orders for a dozen different part numbers were received on the Friday and Saturday and we started producing them immediately. Within a week the workload had increased to 780,000 components across 31 varieties, which we are currently producing 24/7.”

Less than 20 per cent of this throughput is being machined in Welwyn Garden City using multi-pallet 5-axis machining centres and lathes not supplied by Citizen, with the remainder allocated to the latter machines, mainly sliders but also fixed-head lathes. The supplier’s applications engineers helped by providing optimised cycles for producing a couple of the medical components but the remainder of the new parts were programmed on-site by Unicut’s experienced CAD/CAM team.

Mr Nicholson continued, “It is testament to the flexibility of modern CNC plant that it can be converted so quickly to produce entirely different components. Only around two per cent of a typical year’s output from here goes to the medical sector, whereas at the moment it is the vast majority.”

Unicut’s employees were keen to meet the ventilator challenge and it has not been necessary to furlough any staff, although a few are self-isolating due to underlying health conditions or through having a vulnerable family member at home. Employees willingly worked throughout the whole of the Easter long weekend and discussion is being postponed to a quieter time as to whether the overtime will be paid or added to an individual’s annual holiday entitlement.

Social distancing on the shop floor and in the offices is working well, staggered arrival times help to minimise the number of people in any given working area at one time, and the ubiquitous hand sanitising gel can be found hanging from every operator’s belt.

Mr Nicholson concluded, “It has been a surreal time, but everyone here is helping out, as they are in machine shops all around the country, to make much-needed ventilator components.

“We have already produced big quantities of the smaller diameter parts, so we have now been able to reallocate many of the Cincom sliders.

“The latest L12 model with Citizen’s LFV chipbreaking software has been useful when machining plastics and certain grades of aluminium for medical parts by breaking the stringy swarf into smaller chips, so we do not keep having to stop the machine to clear it.

“Overall I estimate that around half of our capacity across the lathes and machining centres is still running around the clock on work for Ventilator Challenge UK and will be for some time to come.”

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