The aerospace industry has certainly encountered a turbulent period throughout the pandemic. For Tier 1 aerospace suppliers that have invested in flexible multi-tasking machine tools that set the benchmark for others to follow, the hiatus has had less of an impact on business. This is certainly the case for Merc Aerospace – its pre- and post-pandemic investment in Nakamura-Tome turning centres from the Engineering Technology Group (ETG) is a testament to why more companies should be investing in this technology.
Prior to the pandemic, Merc Aerospace in Barrowford made a conscious effort to incorporate more ‘one-hit’ machining technology into its facility. The company initially replaced five older machine tools with two Nakamura WT150IIs as part of its commitment to lean manufacturing, reducing lead times for customers that include Airbus, AgustaWestland, BAE Systems and Bombardier. The sustained investment drive increased orders and subsequently turnover with the 50-employee company reducing costs, set-ups, lead times and improved throughput with the Nakamura machines.
Merc Aerospace took delivery of its first Nakamura-Tome WT150 IIF twin-spindle twin turret turning centre in October 2017 and it immediately replaced two existing machines whilst drastically improving productivity. This model was once again adopted when the second WT150 IIF arrived in March 2018.
Like any diligent business that recognises it had hit a ‘sweet spot’ with its machine tool investment strategy – the next step was to build on that strategy. The company then took delivery of a twin spindle triple turret Nakamura NTY3-150 multi-axis turning centre in April 2019. With the aerospace industry returning to pre-pandemic levels and Merc being well positioned to support its customers, the company took delivery of a Nakamura AS200LMSY sub-spindle turning centre in 2021 – and another in May 2022.
Discussing the investment strategy, Merc Aerospace Managing Director, Mr Richard Meade says: “Historically, we had invested ad hoc in our machine shop and the turning centres on our shop floor were a representation of numerous high-end brands. We developed a strategy for investment and we knew the Nakamura brand had an outstanding reputation and are installed at a lot of prestigious businesses. We looked at several Nakamura machines and the WT150 IIF was the perfect fit. Typically, we machine relatively complex parts from exotic materials that range from 5-off to 100s and our set-ups could be an hour to days. The WT150 IIF machines changed all this.”
Describing the WT150 IIF as ‘the perfect utility’ machine, Richard adds: “The twin-spindle, twin-turret configuration has been a game changer. It has increased flexibility and throughput and one Nakamura proved 30% more productive than the two machines that it replaced. Additionally, we had a range of sliding head machines that are better suited to higher production runs rather than the batches we run in the hundreds. The Nakamura’s wiped out our sliding head machines as the sliders were restricted to diameters well below 50mm and the set-up and changeover times were excessive for our batch sizes.”
With the WT150 IIF machines making such an impact at Merc, the company took the next step and opted for the Nakamura NTY3-150 – a twin spindle machine with three tooling turrets that can all be engaged simultaneously. Primarily machining fuel injection and gas turbine components, the ability to engage three tool turrets simultaneously has made a tremendous impact. In one of many instances, the NTY3-150 has reduced cycle times from 1 hour 10 minutes on a previous twin-spindle machine to just 35 minutes. Commenting upon the NTY3-150, Richard adds: “With the NTY3-150 machine you do need the right type of work to justify the investment, but providing the right type of work – we’d buy a second machine straight away. It really is an excellent machine.”
With the passing of the pandemic, the business has rapidly picked up at Merc Aerospace with turnover and workload increasing significantly in a short period. With both twin-spindle twin turret and twin-spindle triple turret technology on the shop floor and a swelling order book, Merc needed to invest in more machines. As Richard continues: “With the WT150 IIF and NTY3-150 making such a huge impact in our turning department, we naturally turned to ETG and the Nakamura machines once again when we needed more machines to fulfil our growing order book. Already having a great blend of extremely capable Nakamura machines, we needed machines with even shorter set-ups that could react to the fluctuation in workload and the type of work that every business encounters. The AS200-LMSY is an extremely nimble machine that can react quickly to our diverse demands. We do a lot of in-service spares work for BAE Systems, producing low volume fast turnaround parts for the Hawk, Harrier and Tornado – the AS200 is perfect for this work. So perfect, we followed the first machine with a second earlier this year. The AS200 provides one-hit machining capability with fast set-ups, which is ideal for short-run work that is required on short lead times.”
Providing an overview of the Nakamura machines, Richard says: “The guys on the shop floor say the Nakamura’s are the best machines that they have ever worked with – that in itself is a testament to the user-friendly and intuitive user interface and construction of the machine. From a build quality perspective, there is virtually no warm-up cycle, unlike our other machine tools. The rigidity and build quality is far superior to other brands on our shop floor and this is also reflected in the Nakamura’s requiring less preventative maintenance than other machines and the fact that we rarely need to call out ETG engineers.”
Looking at the technology behind the Nakamura machines, the Smart X CNC control panel and software technology is making a considerable impact at Merc Aerospace. The system incorporates features like the 3D Smart Pro AI to analyse tool paths and cutting conditions, the Thermo Navigator for thermal growth compensation, the NT Machine Simulation and Collision Guard – just a few features that contribute to speeding up the set-up and changeover process. Additionally, the interface incorporates Industry 4.0 technology with factory visualisation, layout, a list of connected machines and machine status.
Looking toward the future, Richard says: “The Nakamura machines have an outstanding build-quality, the flexibility and capability are second to none and our shop floor team believe they are the best turning centres they have worked with. Additionally, the Smart X interface has a complete Industry 4.0 suite, so we can adopt numerous technologies as the business evolves. We are looking at retrofitting the oscillating cutting cycles on the machines to break chips and prevent swarf from wrapping around the tools or re-cutting, as this will extend our unattended running times. We have also adopted Renishaw in-process probing on the NTY3-150 and both AS200 machines. This is giving our operators more confidence to leave the machines run for long periods unattended. With technology like in-process probingand IoT technology, we can further extend the potential of the Nakamura machines in the future.”