New software interfaces lighten the learning curve

The introduction of new interfaces for Autodesk’s PowerShape, PowerMill and PowerInspect manufacturing software proved very timely for Eccles Tooling Systems as it met the challenges brought about by an aging workforce head on. PES reports.

Eccles Tooling Systems is the trading name of H Eccles (Patternmakers) Ltd, which was founded in Oldbury, West Midlands, in 1945. Eccles is now located in Halesowen, near Birmingham, and faced similar problems to many established engineering companies. Older staff were reaching retirement age and it was difficult to find skilled replacements. The company met the challenge by recruiting apprentices and by introducing improvement programmes for the older staff it was able to recruit.

With the Autodesk software being central to the company’s operations, training in the programs was an important part of the introduction of the new staff and the benefits of the new interfaces soon became apparent.

“The new interface style is easier to learn so we were able to get people up to speed more quickly,” explains Neil Gerrard, works/production director at Eccles. “It also makes the software faster to use, especially for new users. It leads you through the process, whereas previously you often needed to be an experienced user to find the right commands.”

Eccles introduced CAD/CAM during the early 1990s and now runs six seats of the PowerShape design solution, five of the PowerMill CAM programming software and three of the PowerInspect inspection program, one for a Faro arm and two for static CMMs.

The combination of software allows Eccles to provide a full service, comprising design, machining and inspection, plus reverse engineering if required. The company has also maintained its hand-working skills, with Mr Gerrard claiming that “it will never go away completely.”

A steady expansion of its capabilities has seen the arrival of ten CNC machines, all Correas, with the largest having a bed size of 8m x 2m. Two of the machines have full 5-axis capabilities, with a further four able to undertake positional 5-axis operations.

Productive combination

Eccles began as a patternmaker to the automotive industry but over the years expanded into supplying other types of tooling, including moulds, casting equipment, and jigs and fixtures, as well as prototypes and machined components. Similarly, the company has expanded its customer base, mainly in the aerospace industry and, to a lesser extent, in the marine and rail sectors.

Over the last five years, Eccles has placed an emphasis on increasing its number of customers, often by taking on projects where other suppliers have claimed that they can’t be done.

“Our combination of machines and software allow us to undertake more difficult jobs,” says Mr Gerrard. “We like to take on a challenge, plus, when we are successful, the customer will often return with more routine work. Shorter lead-times and consistent quality make us more competitive and ensure that we keep customers that need the higher-level service we provide.”

In addition to introducing the new interfaces across its manufacturing software, Autodesk has continued to develop the capabilities of the individual programs. Mr Gerrard highlighted how PowerShape has become more capable in dealing with data from other CAD systems used by his customers. In particular, it has become much easier to interrogate modified models of parts sent by customers to find the changes and update the tooling designs accordingly.

Efficiency enhancements

Eccles was an early adopter of programming on the shopfloor and can program all ten machines with its five PowerMill seats simultaneously by running multiple sessions of the software.

“Having PowerMill on the shopfloor makes it easier to edit programs to reflect the cutters that are available and other changes,” Mr Gerrard observes. “In addition, the shopfloor operators can make small CAD changes, such as adding run-off surfaces or capping holes, without having to go back and forth from the design office.”

Enhancements in PowerMill allow Eccles to work more efficiently, in particular to get closer to a finished part on the machine, so reducing hand work and achieving more accurate and more consistent results. “With our big machines, we are often making large components that used to need a lot of finishing,” Mr Gerrard explains. “Now, they frequently come off the machine ready for delivery.”

Like most subcontractors, Eccles sees increasing demand from its customers for comprehensive inspection reports. Reports from PowerInspect now need to be supplied with 99% of the jobs, with inspection often required both against the original CAD data of the customer’s part and against Eccles’ tooling design. Some clients even ask to be present while the inspection is taking place.

Inspection also forms an important part of the ongoing support provided by Eccles to its customers. The portability of the Faro arm means that worn tooling can be checked onsite to confirm whether or not it is still within tolerance, and to estimate the cost of any repair that might be necessary.

The future looks bright for Eccles with the new team built up by the directors. The company has projects going into next year and continues to recruit new apprentices attracted by the diversity of the work and the advanced level of the technology involved. Further investments in machine tools are also planned.

Business challenges

The retirement of older staff and difficulty in recruiting skilled replacements meant that Eccles had to get new users up to speed in its range of Autodesk software quickly without affecting the company’s reputation for high quality and short lead-times.

The new interfaces introduced by Autodesk made it much easier to train new users on the software. In addition, the new style made programming faster, while other enhancements included easier data transfer and more efficient machining.

With its new staff and investment in Autodesk software, Eccles has continued to diversify away from its origins as a patternmaker to the automotive industry. The company is still growing its customer base, supplying different types of tooling and finished parts to a variety of industries.


Eccles Tooling Systems



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