It may enjoy a global reputation for precision metrology and process control, but more than anything, Renishaw represents innovation and technological advancement. Jonny Williamson headed to South Wales to pay the engineering powerhouse a visit.
I’ve often heard people note that if the UK truly wants to supercharge its economy and trade more effectively on the world stage, then it needs to better support its manufacturing ‘Mittelstand’.
This crucial slice of the business landscape typically comprises family-owned companies (or have fostered a strong family-esque corporate culture), with a long-term focus, invest in their workforce and technology, and benefit from high levels of flexibility, agility and innovation.
Widely regarded as the backbone of the German economy, making up the vast majority of its businesses, there is a distinct lack of a UK-based Mittelstand.
“As a result of greater access to finance, and a willingness to think beyond the next set of results, the [German] Mittelstand is far more productive than its British equivalent,” notes Beverley Nielson – executive director of the Institute for Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA), writing for the New Statesman’s CityMetric.
It’s a slightly damning critique and there may be some truth to her pointed comments regarding finance – a bitter taste still lingers from government’s sudden termination of both the Manufacturing Advisory Service in March 2016, and the anticipated launch of the £600m British Income and Lending Trust in March the following year.
Yet British-based companies that ascribe to those accepted ‘Mittelstand’ characteristics are out there, and you need look no further than rural Gloucestershire.
In less than half a century, Renishaw has grown from a home-based start-up to a 600-million-pound organisation employing almost 5,000 people worldwide and exporting 95% of its output.
Renishaw manufactures highly innovative, complex engineering products that started with precision metrology probes and has more recently encompassed additive manufacturing machines and cutting-edge medical equipment.
The business supplies products and services used in applications as diverse as jet engines and wind turbine manufacturing, through to dentistry and brain surgery. It is considered a world-leader in the field of additive manufacturing, where it is currently the only UK business that designs and makes industrial machines which produce parts from metal powders.
“Renishaw’s success has been built on patenting solutions for very complex problems principally related to improving manufacturing processes,” Gareth Hankins explained to me. “Our focus is on enhancing process control, something which enables us to identify and then eliminate or adapt to sources of variation.
“That’s vital in manufacturing because uncontrolled variation can significantly impact a business’ competitiveness and profitability, causing waste, inefficiency, high reject rates and labour costs, late deliveries and poor traceability.”
The Group Manufacturing Services Division director was giving me a guided tour of one of the company’s latest acquisitions, a 460,000 sqft facility in Miskin, South Wales. The site was acquired in 2011 to address the need for greater production capacity and has already benefitted from more than £45m worth of investment.
“People thought we were crazy to buy such a large footprint, but we’ve always been very fortunate that we’re able to take a long-term view and invest for the future,” Hankins noted, “We thought the space offered the business plenty of room to grow, but we’ve more than half-filled the space since we started operations in 2012.”
Considering that Miskin has two production halls (one for machining, one for assembly), a process machine shop, a dedicated healthcare additive manufacturing facility, the cleanest anodising room you’re likely to ever see, a sophisticated marking and packing room, and a low-volume production line currently in development, not to mention an impressive educational outreach facility, it’s easy to see how the space has been filled.
“Vertical integration is very important to Renishaw, we try and do as much as we can in-house to better control factors such as quality, delivery schedules, and costs,” Hankins said.
Quite the set-up
Of everything I saw during my tour of Miskin, I was particularly taken with what Renishaw had created in its machining hall – which I’m told is replicated at its other machine shop facility in Gloucestershire.
As well as a bank of Citizen CNC sliding head machines [Renishaw has the largest installed base of Citizen machines in the UK], 60 modified 5-axis and 3-axis CNC metal cutting machining centres supplied by Yamazaki Mazak currently occupy the space, a testament to the deep relationship Renishaw has forged with the Japanese machine tool builder over the past 30 years.
Blanks and rough castings along with the roughly-set tools are placed onto carousels at one of three kitting stations. These carousels are then delivered to an available machining centre where a Renishaw-developed automation system transfers parts from the carousel to the machine and back again, and sets all of the cutting tools accurately at the beginning of the production cycle.
Each machine cuts multiple sets of parts simultaneously, which helps maximise cutting time while minimising tool change. Finished parts then come off the machine and go straight into assembly. I asked Hankins how that was possible, given the precise nature of what Renishaw produces, surely there must be an intermediate inspection step?
“Everything we do is geared around process control and removing sources of error and labour cost. That allows us to assess two or three key features on a single part and be secure in the knowledge that if that part passes, the other components in the set will also be conforming parts.”
Indeed, as you’d expect from a world-leading metrology company, Renishaw works to an incredibly high degree of accuracy. Its operators spend a significant amount of time up front to ensure that each machine is set up perfectly from the outset.
Furthermore, various data points are continuously monitored, enabling the company to build a detailed map of how each machine subtly moves and deviates over time. No matter how minute, any movement is compensated for through precise recalibration during the production cycle.
A large part of this information comes from Renishaw’s own probes which have been ruggedised to actually work inside a machine tool, despite elements such as swarf and coolant.
By continually talking to the machine and the wider manufacturing software system, the probes help deal with any potential issues during manufacturing, rather than after. Further helping to eliminate waste and reduces defect rates.
Renishaw’s sophisticated system doesn’t just inform a machine has stopped, it offers intelligence as to why production may have dropped or spiked. It also monitors tool wear and informs the carousel that an offset update or a tool change is required. Upon returning to a kitting station, each carousel undergoes a ‘data dump’ which informs the station which carousel is present and notifies the operator of any changes that may be required.
“There is a lot of talk at the moment about so-called ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ manufacturing,” notes Hankins. “The systems and processes we’ve integrated into our machining operation perfectly demonstrate that this concept is nothing new. We haven’t done this overnight, Renishaw has been pushing the envelope and leveraging new technologies since its inception five decades ago.”
“Everything we do, have done and will continue to do has been wholly focused on controlling the process and creating very precise, repeatable and scalable outcomes,” he adds.
As a teenager, Hankins’ passion was bikes – advancing from regular bicycles to motorcycles and eventually motocross. He could often be found in the family garage taking bikes to bits and reassembling them. A fortuitous conversation led the budding engineer to an interview at Renishaw, and he’s been with the company ever since.
“When I started my career in industry, engineering was largely siloed in terms of disciplines. Your apprenticeship was in instrumentation, electronics, mechanics, and so forth, and there was very little cross-over,” he told me.
“At that time, Renishaw would predominantly have been a mechanically-led workforce with some elements of electronics and software. Today, our workforce is equally split – roughly – between software engineers, electronic engineers and mechanical engineers, and we are all largely systems-focused engineers. Most of the people we’re recruiting are multi-disciplined.”
Mirroring the skillset evolution of his fellow employees, Hankins has also witnessed first-hand the huge technological shift thanks to the ready-availability of data. What used to involve many hours of sifting through numerous spreadsheets and disparate data sets – not to mention the arguments over the accuracy of information, has been radically shortened.
“With the systems approach and real-time data capture we have in place, interrogating multiple datasets or information sources to produce a standard or even bespoke report is quick and easy. Furthermore, you trust that data because you know exactly where it’s come from. That represents a seismic shift in information availability and the ability to make more accurate decisions promptly.”
As beneficial as digital technology has been, there will always be a place for common sense, physical tangibility and seeing things for yourself, Hankins is quick to note.
“There is much to be said for getting away from your desk or office, walking around the factory and talking to people. A system may present you with information, but we must never lose the ability to step back and question it.
“Don’t be so quick, for example, to jump onto CAD and start working on a design before first sketching it out on a piece of paper to make sure the design actually works conceptually.”