In response to an upturn in business over the past few years, Merseyside subcontract machining company Wealdpark is to treble the size of its factory. The first phase of expansion, due to begin immediately, will add an extension a little larger than the 6,000 sq ft unit it presently operates in Sutton Road, St Helens. By the end of 2023, another 5,000 sq ft unit is scheduled for completion on an adjacent plot that was purchased recently.
Mainly a precision turned parts subcontractor, the family owned and run firm operates two vertical machining centres and 15 sliding-head lathes on the shop floor, alongside six Miyano fixed-head turning centres from Citizen Machinery UK.
The latest to arrive, in April 2022, was a Miyano ABX-64SYY, bringing to four the number of these 65 mm diameter bar capacity machines purchased since 2014. In use also are 51 mm and 42 mm capacity models. All have twin spindles and twin 12-station, Y-axis turrets with driven tooling for efficient, one-hit production. Despite the machines being bar fed, 40 percent of the time they are employed for turning billet in 6-inch and even 8-inch chucks, enabling the production of much larger diameter parts with an operator in attendance.
Together with father Jim and brother Steve, Phil Smith is a director and joint owner of Wealdpark. He said, “We have increased turnover by a quarter in the two years since the start of the pandemic and sales during each of the first five months of 2022 were at a record level compared with previous years.
“Production of parts for the hydraulic, pneumatic and yellow goods industries is particularly strong at the moment. We are also active in the aerospace, automotive, electrical fastener, fire-fighting, military and temperature measurement sectors.
“Manufacture of parts for ventilators has been an established part of our business for many years and it of course continued through 2020 and 2021. We have been able to turn this into a growth area by supplying similar components to Europe and North America.
“Admittedly part of the rising sales figures is down to an increase in material costs but the underlying growth is undeniable, due in part I believe to the trend towards re-shoring.
“It has given us the confidence to invest in new infrastructure and capacity to develop our business and part of that strategy will be the continuing purchase of top quality plant like Miyano lathes, which we have used since 2007.”
There are no other makes of fixed-head turning/milling centres in the factory. It is because once Wealdpark’s directors had satisfied themselves that the Japanese-built machines are of good quality and value, reliable and accurate, the acquisition of further similar lathes provides the flexibility to be able to swap tools and programs easily across the shop floor.
In fact it was other members of the British Turned Parts Manufacturers Association (BTMA) that recommended the Miyano brand in the early days when the subcontractor was transitioning from a cam auto shop with 53 machines to a fully CNC-equipped company. The process started in 2001 and was complete within a decade.
Both Phil and production manager Neil Ireland are waiting for Citizen to introduce its LFV (low frequency vibration) chipbreaking software, which is already available on a pair of 42 mm bar capacity Miyano models, to larger machines in the series. It will certainly be adopted in the St Helens factory, as it will be ideal for automatically breaking up stringy swarf into manageable chips when machining certain materials.
They include highly ductile C101 copper, much of which is turned, milled and drilled in the St Helens factory for producing electrical components, and AMS5629, a martensitic, precipitation-hardening stainless steel used widely by the aerospace industry. Both are problematic in their tendency to birds-nest when machined, as are aluminium and a number of plastics. Even EN3B mild steel, which is supposed to have good machinability, is proving difficult to turn without swarf clogging the working area, due perhaps to the current shortage of good quality material.
Another issue that occupies Neil’s thoughts is whether to continue using twin-turret fixed-head lathes or progress to triple-turret models. For example, instead of the latest ABX-64SYY 9-axis CNC lathe with upper and lower turrets, Citizen Machinery could have supplied a 12-axis Miyano ABX-64THY with a third Y-axis turret positioned above the spindle centreline. All three tool carriers can be in cut simultaneously to achieve very high levels of productivity.
Neil’s view for the time being is that the extra time required for setting such a lathe and then programming it to incorporate the movements of a third turret cannot be justified for Wealdpark’s relatively small batch sizes of typically between 1,000- and 3,000-off. Additionally, the upper turret of the Miyanos on the shop floor often holds a U-Drill of large diameter for reverse-end axial machining and a third turret would restrict its movement. Nevertheless, the potential offered by a three-turret solution is constantly under review.
Notable also regarding the fixed-head lathes is their speed of production, despite their large size. Occasionally, when the sliding-head lathes are particularly busy, a production run is transferred to a fixed-head lathe with very little increase in cycle time. One component machined from 20 mm hexagonal bar, for example, takes 28 seconds to produce on a sliding-head lathe with gang tooling and only 32 seconds using a 65 mm capacity Miyano with turret tooling.
Generally, Wealdpark operates a 37-hour week and sets up all lathes at the end of the day for a considerable amount of unattended machining of free-cutting materials overnight and into the weekend. However, the recent increase in workload has necessitated occasional three-shift attendance and 24/7 operation.
Reliable autonomous operation of the Miyanos is ensured by comprehensive load monitoring of both spindles and of the three linear axes of both turrets, as well as of the live rotary tools. The parameters of each channel can be set separately according to the job to ensure safe operation combined with minimal disruption to production.
Programming is carried out mainly at the Fanuc Series 30i-B control on the shop floor, although offline-created content is sometimes added including engraving and deburring routines generated using the Alkart Wizard programming software provided by Citizen Machinery.
In preparation for the impending expansion, at the start of 2022 Wealdpark took on three extra staff, an experienced setter-operator and two apprentices who in September this year will start a four-year NVQ level 2 diploma course on day release to St Helens College. Further new appointments will follow to increase the company’s headcount over the next couple of years.