Whether you’re using a vice, tombstone, fixture, three-jaw chuck or collet, the ability to hold a workpiece securely and, in the case of batch work, repeatedly to micron accuracy is a fundamentally essential aspect of any successful machining process. Fortunately help is at hand. Grip-Tec is a new workholding company whose products will be reassuringly familiar. Dave Tudor reports.
Jason and Kate Short are directors of Yeovil-based Grip-Tec, a company formed just eight months ago with two clear business objectives in mind: to offer top-quality, competitively priced workholding products backed by exemplary levels of customer service.
After 30+ years in the business, Jason Short will be a familiar face to many readers. He understands that to be successful in the manufacturing space, you need to offer complete solutions rather than simply products.
It’s certainly early days for Grip-Tec, but both Jason and Kate Short are in high spirits following a very successful MACH show in April. Based on enquiry levels from visitors to the stand, things are going to be pretty busy over the coming months following up on a significant number of promising prospects.
As a highly focused business, Grip-Tec’s modus operandi certainly isn’t to stock shedloads of products from hundreds of different suppliers – preferring instead to work closely with a select group of manufacturers.
With this in mind, the company will represent Taiwanese toolholding specialist Kojex and workholding expert Hainbuch as an official southern agent in the UK – but it’s main principal will be California-based 5th Axis – a designer and manufacturer of high quality, flexible, modular workholding and automation systems.
Growing the business
Via an extensive global distributor network, 5th Axis products can be found in engineering businesses all around the world. In the UK, Grip-Tec has exclusive distribution rights for its comprehensive range of RockLock bases, tombstones and pyramids, fixtures, vices, alignment pallets, jaws, and accessories.
“I’ve been working closely with 5th Axis for more than 10 years so to represent them exclusively in the UK is a fantastic opportunity,” enthuses Jason Short.
“The foundation for the partnership was that 5th Axis wanted a dedicated representative in the UK and for all intents and purposes that’s exactly what we are – a UK extension of their business. I’m already very familiar with their products so my brief is to support existing customers even better, build the customer base and expand into new markets.
“The support I’ve received directly from 5th Axis over the years – and particularly recently – has been excellent,” he adds. “They’re flexible, highly approachable, great to work with, technically very knowledgeable, and, importantly from our perspective, very much open to suggestions for potential new products and technologies.
“I know for a fact they’re as excited about this new partnership as we are. Testament to their commitment is the fact that Eric Nekich, 5th Axis’ sales manager flew over from the US specially to help out on the stand at MACH. Kate and I really appreciated his expertise at the show and we’re grateful for his ongoing support.”
It’s clear that Mr Short values the personal touch in business, resisting the temptation to dilute his product offering by representing too many principals. He’s as personable as he is knowledgeable about his subject; his approach is to work closely with customers, calling on his expertise to help solve their manufacturing workholding conundrums. At the moment, operating from an office in Yeovil, the company is very much in its infancy, but there are facilities for product training and the company holds around £100,000 worth of stock ready to ship to customers.
No doubt Mr Short will be kept busy with an expanding customer base – which already includes clients in F1, aerospace, oil and gas and medical – but he can’t do everything himself. For that reason, plans are in place to develop a UK-based distributor network to spread the word and cast the 5th Axis net even wider.
Grip-Tec may be a new kid on the block but 5th Axis certainly isn’t. Headquartered in San Diego, the company began life back in 2004 as a subcontract jobbing shop. Its first ventures into workholding evolved from manufacturing dovetail fixtures for its own internal use. Essentially, these were mini vices incorporating a 45° dovetail clamping system for mounting on a machine tool bed for example.
Today, all 5th Axis vices still retain the 45° angle to ensure optimum clamping capability. “It’s a tried and trusted method,” Mr Short explains. “You can put a 45° prep pre-op on a billet and get a really robust, secure joint. I’ve yet to find anything better.”
Vices, in a number of variants including self-centring, double-station and pin (shown in the UK for the first time at MACH), are an important mainstay of the 5th Axis portfolio, but they’re only part of the story. Another hugely successful product, particularly in the US, is RockLock – an entire quick-change workholding system centred around a myriad of low profile and multi-position bases, pyramids, tombstones and risers in various shapes and sizes.
By definition, these can be mounted and configured in a variety of different ways: horizontally (machine bed), vertically (perhaps a tombstone arrangement in a fourth or fifth axis configuration) or angled.
Four pin location holes – at 96 or 52mm square pitch – form the foundation of the RockLock concept. RockLock compatible mating parts, complete with pins, locate into these holes to form a totally modular, expandable system with 8µm or better repeatability. You could even attach four studs to a billet, locate into a RockLock base and machine a finished part complete from raw material if this is how you roll.
The modular aspect of RockLock system parts means they’re supremely interchangeable and flexible, a fact that Mr Short believes is a true differentiator from the competition. In theory, anything that contains the four locating pins – even non-5th Axis products – could be mounted on a RockLock base, tombstone, riser or pyramid accurately and repeatably.
Not surprisingly, many 5th Axis products – including vices – are RockLock compatible. The clamping method is largely mechanical although the company has recently introduced pneumatic variants for more automated setups that perhaps use robotic loading/unloading.
RockLock products not only excel in the performance stakes, they look the part as well. They’re manufactured largely from aerospace grade aluminium which is different from many of its competitors, but there’s a good reason for this as Mr Short reveals: “5th Axis bases are available in aluminium and steel, but for many applications we choose aluminium simply because it’s lighter,” he says.
“It’s important to note that the internal mechanisms – the gold parts – are manufactured from hardened steel and then tin coated, but to keep weight down, the bases themselves are aluminium.
“That’s because often these modular assemblies are used on pallet type machines like the Mazak i300 or Matsuura MX330 PC10. These pallets have weight restrictions so it’s crucial to keep things to a minimum while still maintaining optimum rigidity. Ultimately this means more – or heavier – components can be processed while still adhering to pallet weight limitations. Another benefit of course is that they’re easier to handle and move around.”
Customers, current and prospective will be pleased to hear that due for launch in the next month or two is a web shop where customers will be able to order popular, off the shelf products directly from the Grip-Tec website. For stocked products, delivery is next day, but for other items shipped from the US, Jason Short is working to a lead-time of approximately one week.
The power of partnerships
Both 5th Axis and Grip-Tec are looking forward to a longstanding, profitable partnership moving forward: “I’m grateful to 5th Axis’ support in this venture and I believe that by continuing to work closely together we can achieve great things,” Mr Short concludes. “Both companies share the same core values – providing great products backed by great customer support.”
Mat Evans, VP workholding at 5th Axis echoes the sentiment: “We are delighted to announce that we have entered a strategic agreement with Grip-Tec in the UK,” he enthuses. “We’re confident that the agreement will provide our customers with outstanding quality and exceptional customer service. The partnership will allow for an expanded line of products, expertise, and local stock for quicker deliveries
“Jason brings years of product knowledge, technical acumen and market awareness to the table and is a strong addition to our international sales force. We believe he can strengthen manufacturing in the UK with our solutions. We’re very lucky to have him on our team.”