Mills CNC: driving up productivity through advanced machining and automation

Mills CNC group CEO Tony Dale
Mills CNC group CEO Tony Dale

Life really isn’t easy for anyone at the moment but as is often the case, when the going gets tough, the manufacturing industry gets going. There’s certainly demand out there, but stretched supply chains and skills shortages remain challenging at best and paralysing at worst. However some companies are not only surviving but positively thriving despite the tornado strength headwinds. One such business is Mills CNC as Dave Tudor discovered when he caught up with group CEO Tony Dale.  

Mills CNC has never been a company that does things by halves. Cast your mind back to MACH 2022 in April. The world was coming out of a global pandemic and many people were understandably very nervous about attending shows and exhibitions. MACH 2022, especially after a number of cancellations and a subsequent four-year absence could have easily been a disaster – but it wasn’t. In fact it was an unquestionable success.

And what did Mills CNC do to combat the nervousness and uncertainty? Well it raised a rather defiant middle finger to COVID, and promptly took its biggest ever MACH stand, hosting 16 machines (including seven new models), SYNERGi automated manufacturing cells and a dedicated Cobot Zone.

One of the exhibits on the stand, weighing in at a foundation wobbling 40 tons was the new SMX 5100LB (long bed) multitasking machine – reported to the be the heaviest lift ever at any MACH show. Sold to Coventry-based precision subcontractor MNB Precision, the machine can handle workpiece lengths up to 3m and 830mm diameter.  

But Mills always tries to go the extra mile. For me, and many others I’ve spoken to, the lasting impression and the real icing on the cake was the stand theme with its Broadway feel, theatrical art deco vibe and movie style billboard posters.

Visually, the stand was stunning, but appearances are meaningless if they don’t translate into sales and leads. Fortunately, Mills ticked all the boxes here too. With 22 machines sold along with a ton of strong enquiries and leads, CEO Tony Dale described MACH 2022 as ‘the best in the company’s history’.

Mills CNC’s stand at MACH 2022
Mills CNC’s stand at MACH 2022

Merger matters  

In June this year, Mills announced the news of a merger between Doosan Machine Tools and another South Korean company DN Automotive (formerly DTR Automotive).

The result of the merger was the formation of a new company DN Solutions which by default, makes Mills CNC the exclusive distributor of DN Solutions machine tools in the UK. While the name and machine decal has changed, absolutely nothing else has.

“It was simply a case of ‘big company buys big company’,” explains Tony Dale. “I’ve met the new owners and am genuinely enthused by their vision for the future. The major difference in terms of ownership is that Doosan was owned by a private equity business whereas DN Automotive is a true, family-owned manufacturing company with big plans for growth and investment.

“As far as our customers are concerned, nothing has changed apart from the decal on the machines: it’s the same engineers designing the machines; the same engineers building them and the same R&D people behind development and innovation. The machines even look the same except now they’re branded DN Solutions rather than Doosan.”

Internal restructuring

In addition to the ownership changes at the top of the tree, Mills has also instigated some internal reshuffling in terms of its own management structure.

Former managing director Kevin Gilbert, after years of sterling service at the coal face has now become decidedly more hands-off and taken on the role of chairman. Tony Dale now becomes CEO and Heath Redman, in addition to his existing operations director position, now assumes technical director duties as well. CFO Andy Knight’s position remains unchanged.

Taking stock

It's highly unlikely that there’s a manufacturing company on the planet that hasn’t been affected by multi-faceted supply chain disruptions and in the machine tool world, with so many component parts making up the final product, it’s been particularly problematic.

But because of Mills’ capacity to hold large quantities of completed machines at its Leamington-Spa-based Technology Campus, the company has a marked advantage in the marketplace. Despite this, Mr Dale says things have changed regarding the company’s stocking profile.

“Typically, at any one time, we have around 150 machines in stock,” he says. “Pre-COVID this would comprise approximately 50 machines sold and ready to be shipped to customers, and 100 machines available for sale in stock.

“Now that’s flipped on its head. We still have 150 machines in stock, but of that number, now 100 are sold before they’re even delivered, and only 50 are available as stock machines. This is a reflection of the logistical and supply chain challenges that everyone is facing, but I’m happy to report that by being upfront with clients and managing expectations sensibly, it’s been pretty much, with a few exceptions, business as usual.

“We still have 30+ machines being delivered every month for stock and that’s a real advantage in the current economic situation.”

Market share and trends

Offering a wide range of products and machines plus the ability to supply from stock has, according to Mr Dale, increased market share, but he has also noticed the emergence of certain trends in the marketplace.

“Based on the statistical data we have, our market share has definitely grown across the board but also, in terms of the actual equipment we’ve sold, the average value of those machines has also increased,” he affirms.

“Because of the skill shortages blighting the industry and an inherent need to become more productive, our customers, large and small, are turning towards advanced machines and automation to ensure they remain competitive. The significant shift here for us is the fact that this is across our entire customer base. Before, this tended to be the domain of larger businesses; now smaller subcontractors are realising the benefits and getting on board.

“The key driver here is doing more with less, and for us that means increased interest in sub-spindle machines, Y-axis machines, 5-axis machines and multitasking machines,” he continues. “In addition, there’s a clear trend towards customers looking to reduce the number of operations to produce parts and incorporating robotics and automation to enable more efficient production. We’re also helping clients set up entire end to end machining cells. Turnkey projects are also on the rise.”

Mr Dale advises that many Mills customers have also taken advantage of the Super Deduction scheme, introduced by the Government in April 2021 for capital equipment purchases, often part exchanging older machines for brand new technology. Be warned however, the scheme is due to end at the end of March 2023.

In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, the problems in the world today are probably fuelling – at least partially – the increase in demand for UK produced parts and components. “There’s definitely work out there and rising material and transportation costs coupled with impractically long lead-times is driving something of a renaissance in reshoring,” Mr Dale adds. “It pays to get parts manufactured closer to home at the moment and that means more demand for the services of UK manufacturers.”

ASG Arrowsmith invests in automation

The rise in demand for Mills’ advanced machine technology is across a number of sectors: aerospace, medical, power generation and defence for example, but there’s nothing like a real-life example is there?

The shopfloor at ASG Arrowsmith. DVF 5000 simultaneous 5-axis machining centre integrated with an eight-station automatic workpiece pallet changer on the left; cobot cell on the right
The shopfloor at ASG Arrowsmith. DVF 5000 simultaneous 5-axis machining centre integrated with an eight-station automatic workpiece pallet changer on the left; cobot cell on the right

Leading aerospace subcontract specialist ASG Arrowsmith, a strategic supplier to Rolls-Royce and a long-term Mills customer, recently invested in a flexible, high-productivity automated manufacturing cell comprising a DVF 5000 simultaneous 5-axis machining centre integrated with an eight-station automatic workpiece pallet changer.

The cell is currently being used to machine a range of pre-production, high accuracy aero-engine parts for the new, ultra-efficient Rolls-Royce Pearl 700 business aviation engine.

Jason Aldridge, ASG Arrowsmith’s managing director comments: “From discussing the project requirements with Mills, we were able to identify the scope and scale of the new technology investment package.

“Issues that included part profiles (including size, weight, features, accuracies and finishes), production volumes, customer deadlines, cost-per-part considerations and floorspace limitations were all factored in and contributed to the selection of the DVF 5000, our first simultaneous 5-axis machining centre, and the compact eight-station pallet changer.”

The flexible manufacturing cell is currently operating in pre-production mode with machining processes for the engine parts being standardised and optimised to ensure quality, consistency and repeatability.

Once the processes have been proved-out and PPAP (Production Part Approval Process) has been achieved, production will start in earnest. The cell may well be the company’s latest investment in automation but, according to Jason Aldridge, “it won’t be last.”

Bespoke solutions  

Mills CNC has an undisputed and longstanding pedigree in developing turnkey solutions for customers, but these days Mr Dale says projects of this nature almost always include some form of automation. Here we’re talking 6-axis industrial robots via Mills’ SYNERGi (Premier and Sprint) automation cells. Not surprising then that Mills is one of the UK’s largest users of FANUC robots.

“Where we differ from some of our competitors is that we have all our technology expertise, including programming and software development, in-house and don’t need to involve any third-party system integrators,” he explains.  

“Almost invariably, the conversation with a customer starts with a simple machine loading/unloading process via a robot, but then it evolves into incorporating additional machines and processes into the equation. That could be second operations, stacking systems, inspection/quality control process or perhaps parts cleaning and washing stages. We can design and install bespoke, tailored solutions to suit the customer’s application and importantly, available floor space.

“In these cases, both from a financial and productivity viewpoint, automation becomes a no-brainer leading to a relatively short ROI,” he concludes.

Mills CNCwww.millscnc.co.uk

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