Call to arms

The relentless spread of Covid-19 has shaken the world to its very core, affecting virtually everyone on the planet with a magnitude that has seen medical experts drawing comparisons to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. In these unquestionably surreal and bizarre times it’s heartwarming to see the UK manufacturing fraternity rallying round to help the cause. Dave Tudor reports.     

The relentless spread of Covid-19 has shaken the world to its very core, affecting virtually everyone on the planet with a magnitude that has seen medical experts drawing comparisons to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. In these unquestionably surreal and bizarre times it’s heartwarming to see the UK manufacturing fraternity rallying round to help the cause. Dave Tudor reports.

The biggest challenge the UK, and indeed the rest of the world, faces is not overwhelming respective health services and hospitals – and it’s a fine balance. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, before placing the country on lockdown and succumbing to Covid-19 himself along with Health Minister Matt Hancock, issued a rallying call to manufacturers to assist with ventilator production – vital items of equipment that are woefully short in supply and in great demand. The response, typical of the UK manufacturing fraternity, has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium, led by Dick Elsy, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult in the UK, is leading the charge. The consortium comprises a number of significant UK industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors, which have come together to produce medical ventilators for the UK.

The consortium has been tasked with orchestrating production of a range of ventilator designs to meet a high-level specification for a Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator System (RVMS). Its brief is to investigate and evaluate all stages of manufacturing – from design and production through to assembly and test.

One of the medical devices manufactured by VentilatorChallengeUK, a design from Penlon. Image: Twitter

At the time of writing, the consortium reads like a who’s who of UK manufacturing powerhouses: Airbus; BAE Systems; Ford Motor Company; GKN Aerospace; High Value Manufacturing Catapult; Inspiration Healthcare Group; Meggitt; Penlon; Renishaw; Rolls-Royce; Siemens Healthineers and Siemens UK; Smiths Group; Thales; Ultra Electronics; and Unilever

In addition, UK-based F1 teams: Haas F1, McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull Racing, Racing Point, Renault Sport Racing and Williams will be lending their support along with key enablers Accenture; Arrow Electronics; Dell Technologies; Microsoft; and PTC.

Also part of the consortium is a dedicated medical ventilator manufacturer. The group will provide additional manufacturing support to this company for the production of a second, existing ventilator model.

Strength in the supply chain

Further down the supply chain but equally vital in this monumental coronavirus effort are a whole host of other manufacturing businesses making the constituent parts, sub-assemblies and components that combine to make the finished ventilator. Not surprisingly, for such a vital product, specifications are exacting and critical. There’s no margin for error here.

One such business is 51-employee Welwyn Garden City-based precision subcontractor Unicut Precision. Jason Nicholson is its managing director: “Once the Government announced that it needed help with ventilator manufacture, we’ve literally been inundated,” he affirms.

“Since our formation in 1990 we’ve invested consistently in technology, people and systems and we have a good reputation in the marketplace for reliability, flexibility and the ability to undertake highly complex work. The call to arms was literally instant: the Monday after the Government’s announcement, I received 40 drawings to manufacture product urgently.

“Because we’re so well established, I suspect that much of that came from word of mouth and recommendation from within the industry. Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) prevent me from giving details about the components themselves, but I can say that the lion’s share of the work we’re undertaking is from two large organisations.”

For Unicut, the work involved is intense but unquestionably achievable: “Over the coming weeks, we’ll be manufacturing 780,000 ventilator components from around 31 different part numbers,” Mr Nicholson explains.

Impressive indeed but Unicut is well-equipped to handle these kind of volumes. It has around 35 mill/turn machines at its disposal – encompassing everything from sliding heads to multi-tasking machines. In a typical month, the company produces anything from 900,000 to one million components so this rallying cry from the Government won’t phase the company. In many ways it’s business as usual for the Hertford manufacturer.

“The components are a real mixed bag,” Mr Nicholson adds. “Some are relatively simple parts whilst others are quite complex. Materials are also a mixture – mainly stainless steel, brass and plastics.

Serious investment reaps serious dividends

One machine that will be really earning its keep at Unicut is an Index MS40 multi-tasking machine purchased from Kingsbury around seven months ago. At €1.5 million this is a serious, serious investment – but then Jason Nicholson has never been afraid to back his business will the best technology – in the past two years, he’s also purchased four Miyano fixed head machines from Citizen at a cost of £1 million.

In fact, it would be something of an understatement to say that Mr Nicholson is a fan of Citizen products. He’s bought 98 new machines since 1998 – serious investment in anyone’s book.

“Citizen make great machines and the support and service is excellent, but from our operators’ perspective there’s something to be said about sticking with a particular brands in terms of familiarity,” he advises. “It’s important that staff feel comfortable with the technology they’re using. There’s a definite psychological element to optimising productivity.”

But he’s equally delighted with his latest purchase from Kingsbury “If we didn’t have the Index, realistically I don’t think we’d have been able to take on the ventilator work,” he confides.

“Taking into consideration the cycle times on a conventional sub-spindle, twin turret lathe, I’d probably need four or five machines to do the same amount of work the Index is handling. You really do get what you pay for. The Index has given us a real competitive edge in the marketplace in terms of its speed and accuracy.”

With a generously dimensioned and freely accessible working area – important for changeovers and unhindered chip flow, the Index MS40 features six main spindles and up to two synchronous swivelling spindles with C-axis for optimum machining capabilities, across a wide variety of materials. It’s possible to make speed adjustments during drum indexing, thus avoiding any additional secondary processing times.

The MS40 is far more than simply a turning centre. With its multi-spindles, driven tools and C-axis and optional Y-axis, the machine can also undertake off-centre, inclined and cross drilling, threading, contour milling, gear hobbing and polygon turning.

As well as front end machining on four main spindles, the two synchronous swivelling spindles, which can accommodate up to six tools (two driven), are ideal for rear end machining.

The ventilator part manufacturing effort at Unicut is spread across multiple machines. Twelve different components in varying quantities are being manufactured on the 22 Citizen sliding head lathes at the manufacturer’s disposal with the balance being completed on the Index and a number of fixed head Miyanos.

Working together

Not surprisingly, in these surreal circumstances, Jason Nicholson is proud to be involved in such important work that will inevitably save many lives. As Covid-19 targets the respiratory system, ventilators are in short supply but companies like Unicut are stepping up to the mark to help.

“What’s really encouraging to see is a really great communal spirit amongst the UK manufacturing fraternity,” he concludes. “The subcontract manufacturing marketplace is highly competitive but we’re all pulling together to help each other out. We’ve loaned tooling to other competitor companies because they need it to make their ventilator parts. This is a time to forget any rivalry and focus on what’s needed.”

Mr Nicholson reserves the last word for his own staff: “They’ve been fantastic,” he enthuses. “Without exception, everyone has done everything that’s been asked of them and more to ensure deadlines are met.”

Unicut Precision


Unicut Precision [**]


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