Getting serious with plasma

A selection of Serious Stages fixings cut on the Kerf machine
A selection of Serious Stages fixings cut on the Kerf machine

After a substantial increase in demand, festival stage manufacturer Serious Stages has installed a Kerf RUR2500 UltraSharp plasma cutting machine at its factory in Wells. The new machine has not only brought component cutting in-house, but has also streamlined design and production and substantially reduced delivery times. PES finds out more.

Serious Stages is a manufacturer of festival stages, temporary buildings, towers, arches, sports ramps and bespoke structures for the entertainment industry – an industry that was all but decimated by the COVID pandemic.

Fortunately, however, the Wells-based business found a new market that has trebled growth and increased manufacturing demand. To fulfil this exponential rise in demand, the Somerset manufacturer has invested in an UltraSharp plasma cutting machine from Kerf Developments.

It was when the Glastonbury Pyramid stage tragically burnt down in 1984 that Steven Corfield, a former employee of Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis, spotted an opportunity to manufacture high-quality and safe structures and stages for festivals. From the ashes rose a business that has flourished ever since, becoming the UK’s leading manufacturer of festival and concert structures and the second largest in the world.

However, Glastonbury and its iconic Pyramid stage are just one festival on the long list of more than 500 annual events covered by Serious Stages with the Download festival, BBC’s Big Weekend, and Knebworth amongst others. The company also exports structures to countries around the world.

The Kerf machine in operation at Serious Stages
The Kerf machine in operation at Serious Stages

Seeking cutting capability

Unfortunately, COVID restricted business and the company served the cause by producing morgues for the NHS Nightingale hospitals. Simultaneously, it had a couple of structures out on lease with film studios, and as the pandemic began to end, the movie industry picked back up and the phones didn’t stop ringing.

“Before the pandemic, we were considering a laser or plasma machine, as we were subbing-out over £500,000 of laser cutting each year,” Serious Stages’ fabrication workshop manager, Rob Watts begins. “The pandemic halted the decision process, but back in March 2021 the movie industry got back to production and we won a substantial order for the next Mission Impossible movie.

“This gave us the confidence to move forward. We looked at several options and then an industry contact suggested we spoke to Kerf. As a company with a complete range of plasma, waterjet and oxy-fuel cutting machines, Kerf recommended its RUR2500 UltraSharp plasma cutting machine with a Lincoln Electric Fineline 170, 170 amp plasma cutting system.”

At that time, Serious Stages was sending more than £500,000 of work out for laser cutting and the lead-time was typically three to five weeks. With the 500+ annual structures requiring thousands of parts to be manufactured and shipped around the UK, the process is a logistical minefield. Serious Stages wanted to manage its inventory, reduce costs and cut lead-times to less than a week while also having full control over the process.

Parts cut on the Kerf machine and welded to a structure
Parts cut on the Kerf machine and welded to a structure

“We produce tens of thousands of cleats, fixtures, clamps and other components for our structures and they are all made from 3 to 20mm thick mild steel with a typical tolerance band of ±0.5mm,” Mr Watts explains.

“Taking these factors into account, Craig Walsh from Kerf recommended the UltraSharp plasma machine over a laser and it is perfect for our business. It’s running 10-11 hours a day and six hours a day on weekends. The surface and edge finish are comparable to laser-cut parts but more importantly, we have wiped out the long lead-times and we can make parts immediately for our fabricating team to weld.”

He continues: “The Fineline 170HD, 170-amp plasma unit gives us exceptional cut quality and we can comfortably cut material up to 50mm thick, even though we rarely go above 20mm. The cutting head is extremely efficient and we can conduct more than 3,000 piercings before we have to change the nozzle heads. Additionally, the Burny 10LCD control system is a breeze to operate and if we have any issues, the Kerf engineers can remotely log into the machine to investigate.”

Design flexibility

With the installation of the Kerf RUR2500, Serious Stages has greater design freedom to develop new parts, enhance its existing portfolio of products and design parts for both manufacture and assembly.

“When we were subcontracting out laser cutting, our design freedom was limited,” Mr Watts adds. “If our designers wanted to change a drawing, alter dimensions or move features we would have to create a new drawing, send it to the subcontract supplier and wait for them to produce the part and send it to us.

“We could be waiting weeks and if the design change wasn’t feasible, we would have to start again. Now, a designer can create a new CAD file, use Lantek software to convert the DXF file to a CAM file and then fire it straight to the Kerf RUR2500.”

With the company winning an order from the Mission Impossible franchise and orders rapidly coming in from other film studios the decision to invest in the Kerf machine become more pertinent.

“As soon as studios realised that we could design, manufacture, deliver and construct a temporary building in a matter of weeks and not months and then remove the structure upon completion of filming, the movie studios were intent on securing our services. We have just delivered a 20,000ft² Netflix building in less than 10 weeks. This is the speed of delivery we can now offer with the help of the Kerf RUR2500.

One of the hundreds of Serious Stages’ set ups seen at festivals around the world
One of the hundreds of Serious Stages’ set ups seen at festivals around the world

“This industry was a very small percentage of our business and it has rapidly exploded to almost 80% of our turnover. We have rapidly gone from four fabricators to 18 and we are using more than 20 tonnes of welding wire a year. Without the Kerf RUR2500 plasma machine and a small bending machine we acquired, we wouldn’t be able to cope with the workload.

“With previous subcontract laser cut parts, there was always an issue and this could be anything from burrs and sharp edges on components, missing parts and incorrect batch supply, varying quality and precision of parts and more – now we have complete control of the process.

“Previously, our supplier would charge us £3 to cut and bend a steel cleat. Now, we can put a steel sheet on the Kerf and cut hundreds of cleats in a few hours and then bend them on our bending machine – the cost saving is huge and there is no three to five week lead-time. If we are short of parts, need spares or extras, we can cut them in minutes.”

Superior service

Concluding on the performance of the RUR2500 machine, Mr Watts says: “We are delighted with Kerf. From day one, the sales engineers were knowledgeable and interested in our business and applications and it wasn’t just about the sale. This duty-of-care has been carried through every step of the process and now the machine is installed, the service is unparalleled.

“From a production standpoint, the machine will pay back in less than two years and it will save us upward of £750,000 in subcontracting costs, It provides design freedom and efficiency, reduces our turnaround times and creates a synergy between the design office and production. It really is a great machine.”

Kerf Developments

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