Beyond progressive

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     Beyond progressive
     Think you run a progressive manufacturing business? Maybe the
     following will make you think again. Steed Webzell reports

     E   ver heard of Formaplex? Not yet
         maybe, but in less than 10 years
     Formaplex could be a term widely used
                                                  of Formaplex, is smiling from ear-to-
                                                  ear, reflecting the latest success of the
                                                  company in winning the order to
     in manufacturing circles to represent        supply concept tooling for a full size
     manufacturing excellence/efficiency just     instrument panel capable of crash
     as kaizen, high-speed machining or lean      testing for a leading car manufacturer
     manufacturing are today.                     based in the UK. “Who would have
          At present, Formaplex Machining         thought it…little Formaplex,” he says
     appears, from the outside, to be like any    knowingly.
     other sub-contract manufacturing                  Mr Shooter’s employment history is
     company. Starting life in a single unit,     spread across a host of plastic injection
     Formaplex has now proliferated across        toolmaking companies. However,
     three sizable adjacent industrial units in   disillusionment turned to despair with
     Havant, Hampshire. Not bad for a             what he describes as “toolmakers with
     business that had its formation as           manufacturing style and ethos based          components
     recently as 2001. There are also plans to    around draconian managers with their         across the company’s
     add two additional premises to the           heads in the sand, who do not realise        machines, with multiple
     Formaplex empire: so just how is such a      that investment in technology is the way     different parts subsequently set up
     growth rate being achieved?                  forward. The ‘Mike Baldwins’ of industry     on machine tables. IGES files are sent –
          The answer lies with the company’s      have no place in UK manufacturing,” he       wirelessly – from the companies FTP
     founders, who have invented and              says.                                        server straight to the machine shop
     evolved a new way of working – a new              He left the UK for a sojourn, working   where personnel then use RTM to
     method of manufacturing – one that has       in the US and Italy, before returning to     generate new CNC programs. Cutting
     already attracted the business of many       create Formaplex. Today the company          can commence very quickly since not all
     household OEM names. It is called the        has an annual turnover of £3 million         toolpaths need to be completed before
     Formaplex Process and it could have a        (achieved with just 12 production-           those that are can be used to start
     huge influence on the future of industry,    related employees), “We have invested in     roughing. In fact, cutting can commence
     the world over.                              machines, software, tooling and staff        within 15 seconds, says Mr Shooter.
                                                  with high levels of ability,” he explains.       For the established Formula One
     WINNING WAYS                                 “With these elements we control the          clients there isn’t even any customer
     In the three years since formation,          whole manufacturing process to a level       contact, not even a quotation process,
     Formaplex has attracted a significant        beyond anyone’s comprehension.               component geometry is simply sent to
     workload from many high-profile              Spindle time is everything with the time     the FTP site.
     customers in the autosport industry, a       from receipt of customer IGES file [via
     sector notoriously fastidious about its      internet/FTP site] to cutting                DOWN IN THE ENGINE ROOM
     suppliers. It also has contracts with        paramount.”                                  There are a total of 10 CNC machining
     leading automotive giants and their tier          Formaplex uses Lemoine RTM (Real        centres at Formaplex, including multi-axis
     one suppliers. It seems hardly a week        Time Machining) CAM software with            JOBS, Huron and Correa machines, many
     passes without a new household name          anti-collision detection in combination      of which have beds up to 3 m, and are
     being added to the Formaplex client list.    with its own bespoke software to             simultaneously loaded with up to seven
     At time of interview, Dave Shooter,          schedule jobs to support global              different jobs for various customers. Many
     manufacturing director and co-founder        modelling of an infinite number of           of the machines are of high specification,

                                                                                                  January 2005 ●

                                                                                                                   SUB-CONTRACT MANUFACTURING

                                                                                  cent of the labour content           it will have capability that represents a
                                                                                  deployed by conventional             ‘first’ for machining centre technology.
                                                                                  toolmaking companies.                The first fruits of the endeavour are
                                                                                     Incidentally, there are no EDM    anticipated in the summer of 2006.
                                                                                 processes involved. “You don’t need        Why go to these lengths seems a
                                                                                 EDM to make mould tools,” he says.    reasonable question? “Because,
                                                                                 Long reach cutters such as the        ultimately, I want to create the
                                                                                TaeguTec Art Mill, which far exceed    Formaplex Process: something
                                                                                European standards, help               comprising machine, tooling and
                                                                                Formaplex negate the need for          software that I can patent and that will
                                                                               EDM. And when even these cannot         allow western manufacturing companies
                                                                               reach into deep cavities, the           to compete evenly with the Far East. I
                                                                               company tailors the standard cutter     want to create something that will make
                                                                              shanks to suit. Formaplex also uses      a real difference; I want to take this
                                                                              the TaeguTec Bull Mill to great effect   model to the market and make it happen
                                                                              achieving substantial savings in terms   by 2012.
                                                                             of insert cost and machining time              “We are trying to push the
                                                                             through increased tool life and feed      boundaries of what is achievable using
                                                                            rates.                                     machines, software and tooling. The UK
                                                                                  Mr Shooter likes to call his         has the work ethos and scope to
                                                                            company a ‘creative studio of              compete, much more so than many
                                                                         manufacturing’, rather than a toolmaker       other nations, but draconian
                                                                         or precision engineering firm. There are      management is suppressing ability,
                                                                         no rules, no clock machines and no            which is where Formaplex comes in.
                                                        offering 50      works managers. “In fact there is no          And when potential customers ask ‘how
                                                m/min feeds and          management pyramid whatsoever,” he            do I know it works?’ I can use my own
                                         24,000 rpm via high-frequency   adds. “We are simply 12 people working        company as a real-time showroom.
                                electrostatic spindles. Four more CNC    towards the same goals, which is              Look at my client list; look at my
                            machines are planned for the first half of   basically about achieving 24/7 spindle        returns; it’s a default status of our
                            2005. By performing critical path analysis   up-time, which in turn helps make             process. Formaplex wins business
                            the bespoke Formaplex software allows        profit. Our employee contracts state:         because it is extremely competitively
                            the machines to whirr away unmanned          ‘work hard and have fun,’ that’s all. It’s    priced and it is quick, very quick. Armed
                            while operators check CAD files at           the future, the days of chairman in pin-      with this process I could walk into any
                            machine-side PCs for the following set of    stripe suits sucking on cigars are            toolroom in the world and, within
                            jobs.                                        numbered.”                                    hours, show them how to revolutionise
                                 It all amounts to contracts that can                                                  their processes.”
                            be manufactured at an extremely              TOP SECRET                                         And who is to doubt him? After all,
                            competitive price in a fraction of the       The customised Formaplex software is a        when he started out three years ago he
                            lead-time. Astonishingly, Mr Shooter         closely guarded secret and is something       predicted Formaplex would be the most
                            quotes next-day delivery for models,         that is being continuously developed and      successful and dynamic machine shop in
                            patterns and components, and two to          enhanced. However, in yet another             Europe by 2008. To be honest, it could
                            three days for small mould tools. He         remarkable revelation about the               well be already.
                            gives recent examples of nine days for a     company’s ambitions, Mr Shooter says               “I’m not a clever man,” he concludes
                            car air box mould tool, 10 days for a        that Formaplex is also currently working      modestly, “I just know how to machine

                            glove box tool and 18 days for a stowage     with a design house to create its own         parts successfully.” At some point in the
                            box mould. A competitor quoted an            machining centre. One of the additional       not too distant future others will know it
                            Italian washing machine manufacturer         units that the company is shortly to          too. Formaplex: you saw the name here
                            12 weeks for a drum mould; Formaplex         occupy will be ‘blacked out’ so that trial    first. ■
                            completed the job in just four. He           and development of initial machines can
                            estimates that the current processes         take place. Again, Mr Shooter keeps              Enter 80 at
                            employed by Formaplex remove 70 per          details close to his chest, though suggests

                   ● January 2005