VERICUT protects growth into new sectors for Freeform Technology

If you have a background in the motorsport industry it would be natural to turn to it when starting a new business. That’s what the directors at Freeform Technology did in 2008. Today the company has an established reputation and has expanded beyond this initial area of expertise. However, one thing that has not changed is its reliance on the business protection provided by VERICUT, the world’s leading independent CNC simulation and optimisation software from CGTech.

Freeform’s modern facility

Freeform Technology operates from two modern industrial units in Buckingham, and both of the company’s co-directors knew each other at their previous employer, Red Bull Racing. From the start the fledgling company had strong links to the Formula 1 sector, with at least 80 per cent of its work coming from moulds and tooling for the various UK-based race teams. Most of the remaining business came from the non-F1 side of the motorsport sector.

Now, the balance of the business is much broader. The value of the motorsport work is the same but today it accounts for around 55 per cent of the turnover. New customers in the automotive, defence and medical industries have created a more stable demand for the company. The aerospace industry is also a target sector, and it is just beginning to get accreditations and approvals in place.

“We have grown and invested in staff and machine tool technology every year,” states Company Director, Fred Hutton. “Our goal is to keep all our machine tools running as long as possible to increase efficiency. This is straightforward for larger motorsport moulds, which can be up to 3.5m by 1.5m as a single piece, where the set up might take an hour or so and the machine can be left to run for 4 to 6 hours. However, for the smaller more intricate moulds required for our medical customers it becomes more difficult.”

With three 5-axis CMS machines, two Antares machines and a larger Ares, as well as a DMG DMU 100T 5-axis machining centre and DMU 65 monoblock machining centre for machining metallic components, Freeform Technology’s machine shop is well equipped to deliver high quality tools to customers’ specifications.

5-axis CMS

Programming at the company has always been carried out offline using Siemens NX CAD/CAM to create the NC code to drive the various machine tools. Every NC program created has to be proven safe to run on the machine tool selected by VERICUT simulation software.

Fred Hutton says: “With the ‘disconnect’ between the programmer and the machinist it is vital to ensure the programmed toolpath will run safely on the machine tool before it is handed over. We don’t run production parts so there is no opportunity to prove out the code by running the machine with reduced cutting data, it has to be right first time. Thanks to VERICUT we have produced nearly 15,000 tools without any major incidents.”

DMG DMU 65 monoblock

Freeform Technology has two floating VERICUT licenses and use the CGTech NX interface to run the verification and optimisation software within the Siemens CAD/CAM system. The interface allows the seamless transfer of the data between the two software packages. He continues: “We also have tight delivery deadlines to meet, especially in the motorsport sector, and we cannot afford to crash the machine. This would reduce our capacity and put a strain on the remaining machines and staff.”

The pursuit of efficiency at Freeform Technology extends to multi loading the large beds available on the CMS machines, as Fred Hutton explains: “We call it tandem machining, with two large jobs running over night on the machines. We get all the roughing out done during the day to make sure the cutting tools do not wear out. Then they are programmed to semi- and finish cut overnight during dead time. When you come in, in the morning, you have two large jobs completely machined and ready for any finishing operations required. We really maximise the machine hours by using this tandem method, and of course it is always verified by VERICUT.”

VERICUT simulates NC code

A system of using the G code G54 to G59 workpiece co-ordinate system to position both parts in NX has been developed and this is transferred through to VERICUT as well. VERICUT also checks the maximum depth of cut applied to the NC toolpaths for the composite tooling on the CMS machines, to ensure the lighter structure of the machines are only pushed to known limitation parameters.

With customers in the medical sector now making up 10 per cent of the turnover, the company has established a close working relationship with Bristol-based Limbs and Things. A recent winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Innovation the company produces clinical skills and medical training devices and is going from strength to strength.

Fred Hutton says: “Our relationship with Limbs and Things means the staff there appreciates what we can do, and they often push us to the limit of what can be done. They come up with some demanding machining and often need a little assistance or guidance from us. For example, complex jobs can be split down and then we can bond moulds back together so any unusual features can be created to match the design. For most of the medical training devices liquid silicon is poured into the mould by the customer, and ideally the mould should be aluminium. However, it is not always cost-effective so we offer high density polyurethane board, which can handle being treated a little bit more aggressively. In terms of our processes, it does not matter if it is a PU tool or a metal tool it is the same toolpath.”

As well as additional machining capability the company has invested in more staff, and two apprentices started their training programme in 2014. A first for the company, the lack of young enthusiastic people brought apprenticeships to the attention of the Directors. As Fred Hutton points out: “Speak to anyone in our industry, they have got all these fantastic machines and no one to run them. And, it is better from our perspective to grow our own staff.”

As part of the training programme, that will see the new youngsters take in all aspects of Freeform Technology’s business, the apprentices are learning how to use the Siemens NX CAD/CAM system and VERICUT. Fred Hutton reflects: “Undoubtedly young people such as this will take the company forward; we want to transfer our skills and services into more industry sectors and it is important to have the energy and enthusiasm to do that.”

Published in MMT, March 2016 [PDF]
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