R E Thompson: leading the charge in engineering innovation

The new Grob G750T universal 5-axis machining centre will enable R E Thompson to machine large components extremely accurately
The new Grob G750T universal 5-axis machining centre will enable R E Thompson to machine large components extremely accurately

The undeniably strong correlation between successful manufacturing companies and their willingness to invest in people and technology has been proven time and time again. On the back of a recent £2.2m+ investment in its manufacturing capabilities, this philosophy is at the very core of Hampshire-based precision subcontractor R E Thompson’s modus operandi. Dave Tudor reports.

In the September 2023 issue of PES, we reported how R E Thompson had recently invested around £1.3m in a new Grob G750T (‘T’ denotes turning capability) 37-ton universal 5-axis machining centre.

According to R E Thompson’s managing director Michael Thompson, the main driver behind this purchase was to enable the company to process large components accurately. With its 1,280mm diameter table, 1,000 x 1,100 x 1,175mm travels (XYZ) and 0.006mm positional accuracy on all axes, the G750T ticked all the right boxes. 

“We chose Grob not only because they make technically advanced, highly accurate machine tools but also because of their longstanding pedigree in the automotive sector,” Mr Thompson explains. “Automotive is a demanding industry that’s all about maximising machine uptime, taking advantage of automation – in our case the Fastems FMS – and 24/7 operation, all of which mirror our objectives.

“We’ve had great support from Grob from day one. We visited the company’s main manufacturing site in Mindelheim, Germany and worked with the team to nail down the right specification. It’s been a really positive experience.”   

The Grob machine is only part of the story however. The whole investment package undertaken by R E Thompson was in excess of £2.2m and also included a Fastems automated pallet system, new tooling, a Keyence laser marking machine, a Zoller presetter, Cribwise tool management software, and Open Mind (hyperMILL) CAM software. Investment on this scale certainly isn’t for the faint hearted.

Automated manufacturing: the Fastems FMS One flexible manufacturing system and Grob G750T are key elements of R E Thompson’s recent £2.2m+ investment
Automated manufacturing: the Fastems FMS One flexible manufacturing system and Grob G750T are key elements of R E Thompson’s recent £2.2m+ investment

Lifelong passions

Family-run businesses are not uncommon in subcontract engineering and R E Thompson is such an organisation. In terms of timelines, we’re now up to its third generation. Michael Thompson’s father Frank and his grandfather started the company in 1948 making parts predominantly for the railway industry and then in 1999, Michael and brother David purchased the business from their parents. Then in 2004, Michael bought out David’s share to become the sole owner.

“The company has always been technology driven,” Michael Thompson recalls. “Some years after the company was formed, my father started to win business working with the Admiralty which demanded a far higher standard of work and required investment in better machines. In fact, he bought his first NC machine, which ran on tape programs, back in 1968. By then, he had three factories.”

At the ripe old age of 16, Michael was already showing signs of a lifelong passion for making things and found himself working at the company on weekends and in his spare time. His other passion was computers, computer systems and programming – a career path he pursued immediately after leaving school.

Better by design

Even at that early age in the early to mid-1970s he was programming and coding post-processors for NC and early CNC machines and could see the potential of computers and software in engineering. He designed and installed R E Thompson’s first computer system (for offline CAM programming) when he was just 18 years old.

“Before joining the company I worked for two excellent, very pioneering Cambridge professors,” Mr Thompson affirms. “They taught me that with good design and a positive attitude, you can code just about anything – it’s only the human mind that throws up barriers and obstacles.

“This is a mindset that I still have today. When deciding on manufacturing methodologies, our engineers focus on optimising the process at the front end to make sure that each part runs smoothly from start to finish. This minimises errors, ensures high quality standards, reduces lead-times and maximises efficiency. 

“By laying these foundations, you have a much greater chance of success further down the line. The next part of the equation is to continually improve things going forward. You can never stand still.”

Michael Thompson and his team apply this systematic approach to everything the company does, whether it’s a machining process, introducing automation, or investing in new equipment. His motivation is refreshingly simple: to drive efficiency and make things easier for people to use – and it all starts with a solid methodology. “Of course it’s equally important to be prepared to take a few calculated risks along the way to enable constant improvements,” he’s keen to add. 

R E Thompson managing director Michael Thompson
R E Thompson managing director Michael Thompson

Keep the spindles turning

AS 9100, ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 45001 approved R E Thompson operates from two sites in Hampshire about seven miles apart (one in Andover; the other in Whitchurch) occupying a total of 30,000ft². With 40 members of staff on the payroll, it’s a sizeable enterprise. 

Machining a wide variety of small and large components is a speciality – with a raft of 3-, 4- and 5-axis technology from Mori Seiki, Okuma and Grob at its disposal. The scope also takes in power skiving and hobbing – courtesy of an Okuma Multus U4000 and the new Grob G750T for the manufacture of gears and splines.

Generally, it’s standard practice at R E Thompson to try and machine parts as complete as possible in one hit, on one machine, keeping the spindles turning uninterrupted for as long as possible – an approach that works well with automated flexible manufacturing and pallet systems that have formed a significant part of the company’s investment activities. A case in point is indeed power skiving – the Okuma and Grob machines enable turning, milling and power skiving to be ‘done in one’ and on the same machine.

FANUC LINKi software provides a common platform to link machines for true connected manufacturing and Industry 4.0 driven operations, and Vericut software from CGTech ensures toolpaths are fully optimised and machining collisions are avoided.

It’s certainly worthy of note that in 2018, R E Thompson established an in-house data analytics and technology team to ensure that all data emanating from the company’s manufacturing processes is used effectively to drive continuous improvement.    

Flexible manufacturing

Michael Thompson’s passion for efficiency and optimising productivity is clearly visible when it comes to automation supporting machining processes. Advanced loading/unloading/storage systems with more than 500 pallets available allow the business to respond rapidly to job changes, facilitating 24/7 lights out operations. Using pallet-based automation is nothing new for the business – it installed its first Fastems FPC (flexible pallet container) system back in 2008 as part of a £2.8m investment. 

There are two Fastems flexible manufacturing systems (FMS’) at the site in Whitchurch and two in Andover – one of which (FMS One) is brand new and part of the company’s recent large investment. This multi-level system was customised by Fastems to suit R E Thompson’s requirements and is ideal for the integration of multiple machine tools while offering space saving benefits for pallets and materials.

A machine pallet being delivered from storage to one of the loading stations using the Fastems system
A machine pallet being delivered from storage to one of the loading stations using the Fastems system

At the heart of the system is the Fastems MMS software which handles production planning, scheduling and forecasting, taking data from R E Thompson’s Epicor ERP system. It’s also very compact and modular so there’s scope for expansion in the future if required. 

“We are essentially an end-to-end business,” Mr Thompson reveals. “At the front end, we liaise closely with customers on design for manufacturing and value engineering, ensuring parts are made in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.

“At the back end, if required, we offer extensive assembly and sub-assembly services. In between are highly advanced machining capabilities complemented by ancillary processes such as anodising and heat treatment, plating, material stockholding and laser marking. Of course this is all backed by rigorous quality control equipment and processes.”

Sustained growth

As we’ve seen, investing in new technology is ingrained in R E Thompson’s DNA so what’s next on the agenda in terms of future plans? “Although it’s impossible to undertake everything in-house, we always try to do as much as we can to ensure we have control over quality and lead-times,” Mr Thompson concludes.

“We’re certainly looking at another Grob – in fact we’re at the quotation stage now – but also possibly at grinding and large capacity wire-cut EDM for components around 600 x 600 x300mm.

“That aside, our plans are all focused on sustained growth. There will be more investment and we’ll be using all the data we produce to improve and streamline the business in all aspects, but particularly manufacturing.”

R E Thompson

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