Success is in the air at Altex

Altex Engineering, a precision subcontractor based in Calne, has invested in a new Salvagnini L5 CNC fibre laser cutter to increase capacity and meet growing demand. The 6 kW machine is notable for its 50 µm beam which, in combination with its proprietary Air Pressure Multiplier (APM), means it is possible to cut mild steel, aluminium and stainless steel up to 10 mm thick using nothing more than a standard compressed air supply.

Established over 30 years ago by current owner John Jackett, Altex Engineering has grown into a 30-employee business with UK-wide customers in sectors such as medical, telecommunications, defence and office furniture. The company, which undertakes fabrication, machining and finishing operations, extended its Wiltshire premises in 2014 and today commands space of circa 20,000 sq m.

Altex is committed to an ongoing programme of investment in plant, software and processes, key among which is laser cutting.

“Due to rising orders, we recently ran out of capacity on our existing Salvagnini L1Xe laser cutter,” explains Jackett. “We therefore took the decision to invest in another machine – the L5 – and take advantage of the progression in technology. The two machines are now running side-by-side.”

He recalls the time 10 years ago when he invested in his first Salvagnini, the aforementioned L1Xe. When installed in 2010, it was thought to be the first fibre laser cutter in the UK from any manufacturer.

“So many people were sceptical,” he states. “CO2 laser-cutting technology was dominant and hardly anyone had heard of fibre lasers – it took a real leap of faith. I even visited Salvagnini’s headquarters in Italy to see a demonstration. Although everyone thought I was crazy to consider a fibre laser, we went ahead and bought the L1Xe. Over the years it’s been a fantastic performer and is still going strong today. We simply ran out of capacity.”

The arrival of significant new contracts from the telecommunications sector proved to be the tipping point. It was clear that alongside extra capacity, Altex would need to seek out a new machine with even greater speed and efficiency.

“I looked at several machines but the L5 was best,” states Jackett. “Speed was certainly a factor.”

The L5’s highly dynamic laser cutting system has no optical path and is equipped with a patented compass that comprises two carbon arms. A pair of rotary motors drive these arms to move the laser head dynamically in the XY plane in small steps, reducing the movements of the whole carriage. A specially developed algorithm in the control provides the greatest acceleration to the axis with least inertia, thus ensuring highly dynamic performance of both the cutting movement and rapid traverse motion.

In combination with the new 6 kW high power density source, the L5 is notably faster than previous-generation models. For instance, in tests against the company’s L3 with a conventional 6 kW source, cutting times were 30-40% quicker on materials up to 3 mm thick, and 10% quicker on 4 mm thick material. From 6-10 mm, the performance was the same.

These elevated performance levels also help from a quality perspective. The quality gap that historically differentiated between cutting with nitrogen and air has now narrowed to negligible levels. Higher power density and ultra-fast cutting speed help to reduce the opportunity for oxidation at the cutting edge, vastly improving its quality.

A further influencer for Altex in favour of the L5 was low running costs, as Jackett explains: “Unlike our L1Xe, which uses nitrogen, we can cut with standard compressed air on the L5, which provides a significant reduction in operating costs and a more competitive way of cutting. The L5’s APM will clean, dry and boost the pressure to ensure we can cut much thicker plate using compressed air than anyone else.”

Profiling with compressed air is considerably cheaper than using nitrogen. The level of savings vary but, in simple terms, the higher the cost of nitrogen, the more cost-effective it becomes to cut with air. Using Salvagnini’s APM, the cost savings grow even further as there are no costs for dedicated compressors: the compact, turnkey APM connects directly to the shop’s pneumatic supply. APM normalises the pressure, and filters and dries the compressed air to ensure cutting optimisation.

Another factor in the Altex purchase decision was accessibility, with Jackett impressed by having access to the full length of the table via an up and over door.

“The machine’s versatility is also beneficial,” he adds. “If I want to stop mid-cut due to an urgent request for a 1-off, we can do this easily with the L5, which is very user-friendly. However, possibly the biggest reason for buying the L5 was our personal experience of Salvagnini machinery and the excellent service back-up we receive.”

Installation of the Salvagnini L5 took place in July 2020. Although the machine cuts material up to 10 mm thick, on a day-to-day basis the L5 at Altex processes parts made from zintec up to 3 mm thick, as well as various gauges of stainless steel and aluminium. Batch sizes extend from 1-off up to 10,000.

“With Salvagnini’s help our team learnt how to run the machine within a couple of days,” says Jackett. “We’ve had nothing but excellent support from Salvagnini across the entire decade of our association.”

The L5 is currently running continuously over an 8-hour shift, with plans to extend its use to a second shift in the near future.
“Our operators love it, not just because it’s such an exciting machine, but because it gets through work quicker, which makes them look good,” says Jackett with a smile.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but at Altex we’ve seen strong demand from certain sectors, notably telecommunications and healthcare,” he adds. “We’re also starting to see a certain amount of our more traditional work return, which is encouraging. For these reasons we felt that now was the right time to invest and stay ahead of our competitors, who may be thinking the opposite. We’re trying to look at the long-term, as investments like the L5 will put us in a really strong position when the economy really gets moving again. We will have the best technology in place and can easily add shifts in response to demand.”

Business at ISO9001-accredited Altex is all about meeting the exact requirements of the customer in a cost- and delivery-optimised way.
“We’re not just another subcontractor, we’re a full service provider and can offer design advice to help reduce manufacturing costs,” concludes Jackett. “If there are savings to be made because of the technology we use, these will be made apparent to the customer at enquiry stage – I built the business on this very ethos.”

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Robot-based system for LMD coating and repair

The installation of advanced technology supplied by CNC Robotics at ASCO Engineering and Surface Technology means the company can now offer a wider range of machining, coating and repair processes. By adding a robot-based system for laser-metal deposition and hard-facing cladding, CNC Robotics has extended the range of manufacturing techniques used at ASCO.

Andy Deegan, the company’s chairman, believes that the system has made ASCO more versatile than any equivalent supplier in Europe, creating the ultimate one-stop-shop.
Based in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, and with a second site in Dubai, ASCO offers a comprehensive service incorporating CNC precision machining, fabrication, surface coating, diamond grinding and superfinishing repair technologies. Alongside an extensive machine shop equipped with CNC lathes and machining centres, the site houses specialist coating equipment, including proprietary systems specifically designed for the company’s processes. To support manufacturing operations, ASCO’s in-house metallurgical laboratory offers the testing of coatings to international standards and CNC co-ordinate measuring machines for dimensional inspection, ensuring the certification of precision components to within microns.

Laser-metal deposition and hard-facing cladding allow the deposition of coatings such as tungsten carbide, Stellite and Inconel with a significantly lower and more localised heat-affected zone (HAZ), even when using materials that are difficult to weld. This capability means that the process has a minimal impact on the mechanical properties of the substrate material, and reduced potential for distortion and damage to the chemistry and structure of the base core material. In addition, the small melt pool enables the processing of very complex geometries in a single set-up, when depositing protective surfaces, undertaking repairs or creating near-net shapes.

The flexibility of the robot cell supports the ability to work with very complex shapes. Offering six-axis movement, the robot is fitted with specially designed work holding that adds a further three axes, giving the potential for nine-axis operation. In addition, an optional special head allows the internal cladding of bores up to 2 m in length and down to 55 mm bore size.
Deegan had used robots in the company’s thermal spray booths for several years and recognised their advantages in repeatability and consistent quality. With high levels of dust and noise in the booths, they also provide health and safety benefits. However, he felt extra support would prove beneficial in developing the new process.

By chance, Deegan met Jason Barker, chief technical officer at CNC Robotics, at a classic car show.
“We started talking about Jason’s car and things developed from there,” recalls Deegan. “I explained my idea for a robot-based laser deposition system to Jason and it soon became clear that he was the right man to make it all work.”

The main challenge for the system resulted from the variety and complexity of the shapes processed at ASCO Engineering, since the laser has to be as near as possible to 90° to the surface of the part. To overcome this obstacle, CNC Robotics proposed a Kuka robot that includes very few restrictions on its range of movements.

Head of the laser department at ASCO, Andrew Mawsley, worked with Barker and the CNC Robotics team to install and test the new process.

“It seemed quite complicated at first but, once Jason had helped me to get familiar with the system, it became much easier, even for the more complex jobs,” he says.

Mawsley had a basic knowledge of C++ programming from his university course and also uses Orange Editor software on a laptop to create programs for the robot.

“Using the laptop, rather than the robot control, means that I can start one process running and begin programming the next job,” he explains.

While the new system is predominately for adding coatings to new parts, it has also proved valuable in component repair. For these projects, repair material is applied in layers of up to 1 mm per pass and then ground back to give the final surface. Dependant on client requirements ASCO is, in reality, able to clad to any thickness.

The main benefit of the new system is the consistency of results. Many of the coating materials used at ASCO Engineering are very expensive blends that are necessary to provide the required corrosion resistance and wear resistance. Many of the parts made by the company find their way into demanding applications, such as those in the oil and gas, power generation, mining, and aircraft industries, where any failures can lead to costly losses in production.

“The robot system is at its best when we are working with batches of parts,” states Deegan. “We can process the first part, confirm that it’s dimensionally accurate and carry out full laboratory checks on the surface integrity. Once we know that we’ve set the correct parameters for the first part, we can rely on the repeatability of the robot to ensure the rest of the batch will be equally good.

“The repeatability also helps us to meet on-time delivery requirements,” he adds. “After the first part has been completed, the time the robot will take to repeat any task is very predictable, which makes scheduling easy. If we can guarantee high quality and offer on-time delivery, clients won’t have any need to go elsewhere.”

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EV demands INCREASED reliance on Radan software

A company specialising in renewable energy is seeing major changes in the components it is being asked to produce for electric vehicles.

HV Wooding Ltd works at the high end of the electric vehicle (EV) market, manufacturing parts for two technologies in the powertrain, involving the battery and the motors. Customers include companies across the spectrum of electric vehicles: tier-one and tier-two suppliers of big name car marques; supercar manufacturers; supercar e-racing; electric motorbike GP racing throughout Europe; railways; aerospace; and (increasingly) electric buses, construction and agricultural vehicles.

For the battery, the Kent-based company makes a wide range of customer-specified busbars, forming part of the electrical connection, along with modular busbars that connect the battery to the rest of the vehicle’s configuration.

The other key area for HV Wooding is around the electric motor itself, producing specialist products both for the drivetrain and in-wheel. While most of the company’s parts, both for busbars and motor laminations, are cut from sheet material on a Trumpf CNC laser cutter programmed with Radan CADCAM software, HV Wooding also uses wire erosion, mainly for prototyping and developing small series production.

Sales director Paul Allen says Radan is also used as part of the process of quoting for jobs: “For example, most busbars are made from copper or aluminium, so we’d input the relevant material, such as 4 mm copper, and lay the proposed parts out in a Radan nest. This calculates accurate material usage and prices, in order for us to present the most commercial and cost-effective solution to the customer. Then, when we’re ready to go into production, we’ve got a finished nest already in a file.”

Allen says that as every busbar is different, Radan is proving vital for nesting a wide variety of shapes and sizes of the same thickness.

“If we were to do all this manually, the quotation process would take much longer and may not be accurate,” he states. “And we’d need to carry out a lot of manual work before manufacturing to get the best material usage. So Radan is essential in that it speeds up both our quotation and manufacturing processes.”

Notably, the Radbend module is used to calculate bend angles, and the order of bends for forming the busbars into a variety of configurations.

Radan also plays a major role in manufacturing motor laminations – several thin pieces or sheets of electrical steel or cobalt iron cut on the laser and bonded together to form the core pack.

“It’s vital that these parts are high precision,” states Allen. “The busbars and laminations are all required to be cut to tight dimensional tolerances, sometimes down to 50 µm for laminations.”

Higher end electric motors increasingly need thinner electrical steel, meaning the amount of adhesive applied becomes more significant, with as much metal as possible in the motor, and not so much adhesive.

HV Wooding has identified gaps in that market and is now actively seeking ways of making a breakthrough to provide a specialist solution. To this end, the company is working to develop a process for accurately applying a bonding agent to the electrical steel. Some types of material are available that come pre-coated with adhesive, but not the very thin grades in low volume and cobalt iron, which are becoming more prevalent.

“With this in mind, we’re working closely with a university and industry on a bonding process that will enable us to design motors, produce and test a prototype using Radan, and get them to market much quicker,” explains Allen.

Many of the company’s customers are working on projects involving battery technology, looking at battery life to improve the distance a vehicle can travel on a single charge.

“A lot of new designs using different grades of copper and aluminium are coming through to us, and they’re also looking closely at the insulation of the busbars,” says Allen. He goes on to says that the change is being driven by the need to gain more power from the motors, with electrical steels becoming increasingly more important for motor performance.

In conclusion, Allen says the market is extremely dynamic, which is why the company continually invests in line with current demands.
HV Wooding offers a wealth of engineering resources, skills and experience with a team of 100 people over multi-sited facilities totalling 53,000 sq ft. The company’s operation is approved to ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001.

“HV Wooding has been established for 50 years, diversifying from traditional switchgear, through renewables and data centres, and now to electric vehicles and drivetrain,” he says. “As a result, we now need different technologies and processes to take full advantage of the new opportunities relating to our core activity, particularly around assemblies. Radan is a key part of the processes we have in place to make a one-off component, right up to
high-volume production.”

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3D-printing boost for large rail parts

The Intercity Express of the German state railway Deutsche Bahn (DB) is a continental European system of high-speed trains renowned for their comfort and reliability. Occasionally things go wrong, however, as happened last year when two rail carriages needed repair.

Both required a new secondary roll stop, a heavy steel component bolted to the underside of each passenger car that limits lateral play on tight curves to ensure safe cornering.

Secondary roll stops are safety-critical parts with a method of manufacture which rail engineers are reluctant to change. Nevertheless, DB was forced to do just that, as the component is not a regular service item but an accident repair part and therefore not normally held in stock. Two were needed quickly, although the usual supplier was quoting 10 months to deliver the castings, after which they still had to be machined by the usual subtractive process. Moreover, the quote was for a minimum order quantity of four castings.

Florens Lichte, DB’s head of additive manufacturing, says: “Apart from the extended lead-time for delivery, we would also have had to pay serious money for the initial tooling. None of this was an option for us. We needed to reduce the downtime of the railcars drastically to get them back into service quickly and economically. So we decided to 3D print the components using the WAAM process.

“A co-operation was set up with Gefertec, which manufactured the parts at its headquarters near Berlin,” he continues. “We were able to reduce the lead-time by five months, added to which the overall cost was 30% lower.”

Tobias Kruemberg, CEO of Gefertec, which is represented in the UK by Kingsbury, adds: “Our company produces WAAM three- and five-axis CNC metal 3D-printing systems, alongside a subcontract manufacturing service. The benefit of our technology is that many kilograms of metal can be deposited in a relatively short time. When DB came to us, we saw the additive manufacture of their secondary roll stops as ideal for our technology. It’s perfect for the rapid production of high-value metal parts in small quantities at reduced cost, so this application amounted to a sound business case.”

The two components were duly produced on an arc405 five-axis WAAM machine in a cycle time of 36 hours each. The raw material is standard welding coil that does not require the safety precautions associated with powder-bed layer-by-layer fusion technology. In this case, 1.2 mm diameter SW 100S NiMoCr wire was used to produce two high-tensile, fine-grain structures each measuring 250 x 216 x 312 mm and weighing 36.3 kg.

It is at this point that detail on the finalisation of the original project is lacking. So Richard Kingsbury, managing director of Kingsbury, decided to produce a video recreating the manufacturing process in its entirety, including interviews with the decision-makers involved.

He says: “When Gefertec described this application to me I found it so compelling that I wanted to document the project. It brought home to me how additive manufacturing is progressing year-on-year into an ever more practical, low-cost alternative to subtractive machining. So, on behalf of Gefertec, and in co-operation with another of our principals, machining centre manufacturer Hermle, as well as 3D metrology equipment supplier GOM UK, we’ve produced a video detailing the whole process.”

Kevin Hawley, director of GOM UK says: “We became involved in this reconstruction when a 3D-printed sample component identical to the DB secondary roll stop arrived from Gefertec. So that the subsequent machining could be optimised, we created scan data from the part by first taking the CAD model and putting it into our virtual measuring room software.”

The part was scanned in about one hour on the rotary table of a GOM ATOS ScanBox optical 3D measuring machine. When complete, it was possible to understand the part geometry and compare it with the CAD model to detect if there were any deviations. It was then an easy matter to ensure that the 3D-welded, near-net-shape component could be cleaned up satisfactorily when machined.

Dan Castles, business development manager – automated solutions at Kingsbury, says: “We took delivery of the 3D-printed component and the STL data file from GOM. The file was loaded into our CAM system to help us prepare a program for the machining process, which was completed on a Hermle C 650 five-axis vertical machining centre. It was more accurate to do it this way, using actual scan data rather than the theoretical CAD model, as the tool paths could be optimised to the exact form of the welded part.”

The procedure avoided air cuts and no safety passes were needed, as there was no chance of overloading the spindle by taking a heavy cut. It ensured that the part was machined back to net shape in one hit, in a cycle time of around seven hours. The machining time was considerably shorter than would have been required on the original casting and vastly less than trying to mill the part from billet.

Kingsbury concludes: “At the outset, because this is a safety-critical component, there was a lot of investigation, development and design of processes at DB before they could realise the completed part. What was originally a 10-month lead-time for castings was halved once the WAAM route was taken, but in reality we showed during our reconstruction that the process can be condensed into a matter of days, despite having to work with COVID-19 restrictions.

“If a current manufacturing process involves a lengthy lead-time of hard-to-machine material, be it cast, forged or billet, an economical Gefertec solution may be a viable commercial alternative to subtractive machining.”

The video is available at

MES solution suits aerospace tool maker

An engineer-to-order specialist, producing high-end tooling for the aerospace industry, has switched from its former parent company’s made-to-stock business management system, to the WorkPlan MES solution, describing it as the “perfect fit”.

API Design & Build is the new trading name of a company recently acquired by the Ansuka Ltd Group. All employees of the former company, KTL Tooling, have transferred to API, along with its assets and order book, and will be working from the same premises in Burnley, with the same processes and protocols.

Originally, KTL Tooling was part of a US-owned composites manufacturing corporation, and had to use the group-wide ERP system, which general manager Danny Hough says was far from ideal for its bespoke work: “It was a made-to-stock system, highly customised for the composites business, and as we’re a bespoke tooling company it was never a good fit.”

The bulk of the company’s production is high-end aerospace tooling, composite mould tools, assembly fixtures and drill templates, for both military and commercial applications. Customers include BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Airbus and Boeing.

A lot of KTL’s history involves tooling for exterior panels – what Hough describes as the skin of the aircraft, and structural components such as ribs and wing spars.

“Historically these have been produced from aluminium alloys, but much progress has been made in converting these types of parts into composites,” he says.

The company uses a large Hexagon CMM, operating in an XYZ envelope of 6 x 3 x 2 m, which ensures that the process of guaranteeing a completely accurate final mould tool, is kept in-house.

“We’d never release a tool without a full report to the customer generated by a CMM,” says Hough. “So, if we didn’t have it, we’d have to subcontract the metrology operation out, and there’d be a cost implication. It makes us more competitive to have the CMM in-house; it’s more efficient, cost-effective, and provides full control.”

The CMM is installed on a purpose-built concrete base to reduce vibrations, in a temperature-controlled booth, and is listed on WorkPlan as a resource for capacity planning scheduling. Process times vary depending on the number of points being measured, and Hough says there is often a queue of parts waiting to go into the inspection booth: “WorkPlan gives us full visibility of the work going through the CMM, meaning we can make informed decisions on the implications of certain items queueing.”

A number of API Design & Build’s tools are particularly complex, or large – the company recently tendered on a single carbon component that was almost the full-wing structure for a small aircraft, 13 m long by 1.5 m wide. Many other jobs can involve up to 300 sub-assemblies, so Hough says it is no wonder the company’s old ERP system was causing issues, simply because of the number of processes required to load jobs, and in the way it operated.

“Everything had to be made and transacted through stock, and there was no link between the purchase order we’d placed, which was ultimately going into stock and then being called off by the job,” he explains. “It meant we couldn’t keep track of costs on a project until many of the sub-levels were transacted towards the end. So we genuinely didn’t know if we were making money on a job or not.”

All this changed when API Design & Build invested in WorkPlan.

“As we’re now placing those purchase orders directly against the job, even before the order is committed or delivered to us, we see the cost,” says Hough. “From day one of an order going into WorkPlan we start the manufacturing plan around it. It shows times and operations, which are then multiplied by our rates for each section. We constantly see the cost building up, and it creates a budget for us to work to.”

He describes the software’s purchase-to-order aspect as being “absolutely vital” by providing full control over processing the company’s large tools and sub-assemblies through the shop floor. Each job is entered by the commercial team as an order and, once approved, the planning department adds materials and operations before it goes to production.

The ‘Purchasing and Stock Management’ function is another major benefit, meaning the company’s buyer can easily bring up the material list for a job, then group materials together. He or she can then send everything to the supplier as one purchase order, or a multiple line PO, instead of requiring individual purchase orders.

Hough concludes by saying: “WorkPlan’s flexibility means API Design & Build now has a complete overview of where each project is in real time. Previously we had to draw up project and costing reports on Excel and presentation files.”

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