In the first of a series of articles about members of the British Turned Parts Manufacturers Association (BTMA), Ed Hill discovers why Luton-based Sub-CNC Precision has prospered so well since its start-up only 12 years ago.
The subcontracting machining sector can be pretty tough in the UK. Not only do companies face the ever-present threat from foreign ‘supposedly’ low-cost competitors, but like any business they have to contend with sudden unforeseen economic disruptions such as those created by the Ukrainian war, COVID pandemic, employee availability and higher material prices – let alone the constant demand from customers to lower part costs.
In these circumstances long-term planning can be difficult. There are very few business certainties in this uncertain world, so subcontractors need to be agile and adaptable.
Adaptability seems to sum up the approach of Luton-based Sub-CNC Precision. Just take recent developments. Due to rising energy costs the company decided to fit solar panels to its new building at Cradock Road.
Managing director and business co-founder Yian Stavrou explains: “Our electricity bill doubled overnight so we decided to fit a solar power system to the site. It’s able to generate 45kW per hour of sunlight. We also added 23kW of batteries that are able to store the additional power which is consumed on start up each day. This system will help us considerably over the summer period.”
It should be noted that much of the adaptation that has happened at the company during its 12 years of operation is due to its success.
Small start-up steps
Started in 2008 by Mr Stavrou and his fellow apprenticeship trained colleague George Dingley, the company began by operating one second-hand sliding head lathe in a converted barn to offer an overspill capability for other engineering subcontractors in the area.
By 2011 the company had gained so much business that it had to move to a new larger site in Dunstable, acquiring more sliding head machines and gaining ISO 9001 accreditation, as well as taking on its first apprentice.
“Within 18 months we had purchased two additional machines, one fixed head lathe and a larger diameter sliding head machine,” Mr Stavrou continues. “After expanding our original unit several times, and with a new sliding head machine on the way we relocated to a unit which was three times the size.”
Over the next ten years the company continued to expand adding more machines and another site. By then it had 12 machines – a combination of Citizen sliding head and Miyano fixed head machines. In fact, the company solely uses machines from the Citizen stable and was one of the first in the country to order an L32 machine with Citizen’s LFV chip control technology.
“We are 100% Citizen/Miyano CNC machine users,” Mr Stavrou affirms. “Both myself and George used these machines as apprentices and throughout our shopfloor careers. We have a good relationship with Citizen as a supplier and a thorough understanding about the capabilities of their machines so it made perfect sense for us to purchase them when starting Sub-CNC Precision.”
In 2019 the company had the chance to expand further by acquiring another long-established precision engineering company nearby, in fact the same company where Mr Stavrou had undertaken his apprenticeship.
By now the company had built an excellent reputation for suppling multi-axis turned parts to the automotive, aerospace, medical, scientific instrument, oil and gas, connectors and electronics sectors. It machines a wide variety of metals and metal alloys as well as plastics for its customers.
It has also invested heavily in quality and inspection systems, including an Aberlink Xtreme 350 CMM, a ViciVision M1 automated optical measuring machine for turned parts, as well as microscope systems from Vision Engineering for visual inspection to carry out first-off, in-process and last-off inspection prior to despatch.
Up for a challenge
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sub-CNC Precision was approached to produce plastic shaft type components for ventilators. It managed to produce 9,000 parts in five days from the initial enquiry to delivery. In fact, by the end of the pandemic the company had produced more than 70,000 components for the medical sector tackling the virus.
However, by 2020 running the company across three sites was becoming a strain on resources so the directors began looking for another site where it could house all of its machines under one roof.
“We purchased the 15,000ft² building in Cradock Road in November 2020. We had to fully refurbish the buildings, including upgrading the power, and installing a new roof and floor,” Mr Stavrou adds. “We began to move machines in by January 2021 and over the next three months we moved the entire operation over to the new site and become fully operational.
“The move to the new site has really paid dividends with our output and efficiencies both rising. The building has been laid out as a perfect engineering environment. The staff love it and the workflow is much improved. In fact, we are now winning clients on the quality of the facility alone. We recently won an aerospace contract after the customer visited and saw the workshop as they signed in. They later admitted that we had already won the work from that point on.”
Mr Stavrou says that output has significantly increased since the move to the new workshop and turnover is up by 25%. Perhaps not surprising with a company outlook that is always looking to invest in the latest manufacturing technology.
Sub-CNC Precision now has 18 lathes all of them automated with magazine bar feeders and machines with part handling systems to enable unmanned operation during nightshifts.
Of course, state-of-the-art machinery is all well and good but like most engineering companies finding and recruiting good people to operate it is a constant challenge. From its early days, Sub-CNC has addressed the problem by creating its own training path for new employees.
“We aim to train staff in-house to the highest possible standards. Some of our longest serving employees have been apprentice trained by us and have been with the business for many years and we continue to do this. We take on a new trainee each year. In most circumstances they are able to set a basic part on a sliding head lathe within six months. Programming training then follows. We hope by 8-10 months a trainee will be programming and setting a simple part from scratch.”
Joining the network
Mr Stavrou also values the benefits the company gets by being a member of the BTMA.
“We have been a member of the BTMA since the company started. As a start-up company the networking and advice given by the members to us was invaluable. We always find the meetings informative, and we enjoy the social aspect and mixing with other like-minded people.”
So how does Mr Stavrou see the future for the company and what it has to offer?
“We will always invest in the very latest equipment; this helps us stay efficient and offer our customers the most cost-effective components. Last year we purchased a Miyano BNE 51 MSY and a Miyano BNE 65 MYY. The 65 MYY increased our bar capacity to 65mm allowing us to offer greater flexibility to our customer base. We also have an additional 6,000ft² within the building which we are planning to add machines to.
“When it comes to our machining capability, we can produce parts from all metals and plastics in bar form of all complexities, specialising in stainless steel machining of multi-axis components. We can cater from small batch work to mass production and we use CAD/CAM to produce more complex components. We can offer a FastTrack service if required, hold stock for next day delivery and also offer a consignment stock which is stored at the customer’s premises.
“Most importantly, many of our staff have been with us from day one and are highly skilled and adaptable so we can produce components to the highest possible standard.”