Providing protection for a quarter of a century

As a precision engineering business with a rich heritage RE Thompson has always taken the lead when it comes to the application of innovative technology. An early investor in NC machining equipment and techniques the company was also quick to realise the benefits of protecting its capabilities with VERICUT, independent CNC simulation and optimisation software from CGTech.

A family-owned and run business, Hampshire-based RE Thompson has relied on VERICUT simulation and optimisation software for 25 years, and it is fair to state that both the precision engineering business and the software has developed in parallel in terms of capability. Today, the machine shop at RE Thompson operates around-the-clock with 30 staff and is tightly packed with the latest multi-axis tool technology and Fastems pallet-fed FMS (Flexible Manufacturing System) that would be the envy of many of the OEM and tier one companies that the company supports in the civil and defence aerospace, industrial machinery, rail, earth moving equipment and motorsport sectors.

RE ThompsonIt is so tightly packed in fact that the company has recently invested in a further manufacturing facility located just a stone’s throw away in Andover. A number of new CNC machine tools have already been installed and around 10 highly experienced staff running the new site to support both new business and growing demand from existing customers.

“We have always been willing to invest in technology and capability,” states Head of Sales, Matthew Shaw. “Established in 1948 to design and produce vacuum valves and leak test equipment, we first applied computerised manufacturing technology when the owner paid an extra £32,500 to have the ‘C’ bit added to an NC milling machine back in 1968. These machines represented a significant investment and when we found VERICUT software could provide protection to eliminate the chance of crashing a machine we purchased the UNIX-based software back in 1991.”

Just like the capability of the machine tools that RE Thompson has continually invested in, VERICUT has also constantly evolved in line with the CAD/CAM systems used by the company. A number of key moments along the journey jump out for Matthew Shaw, as he recalls: “The first time we told a customer we could machine and compare the component that was a big ‘wow’. The second is along similar lines when we started using machine tool simulation, it was spectacular because you are looking at the part here and then seeing it there on the machine. It is easy to be flippant about it now, but these were huge leaps forward at the time.”

RE ThompsonProduction Engineer, Patricia Hunt, adds: “Just recently we got the CGTech interface between our CAD/CAM software, Pro/Engineer, and VERICUT which provides full simulation functionality. It allows VERICUT to start within the CAD/CAM environment and creates a project file that also takes all the tooling and fixturing over. Before we were creating an SDR file and we had a library of tools to pick from to build up, but now it is all much more efficient when proving out NC programs.”

Prove out efficiency gains are vital for the business as the company aims to be able to introduce up to 10 components per week, from simpler prismatic or turned parts to complex freeform 5-axis components. “We have a very different structure because we do not operate a quality control department. Engineers fulfil that roll because we believe in a ‘cradle-to-grave’ philosophy, so the engineer that introduces a part will forever be responsible for it, and if any issues arise it is their job to sort it out. It means we are very quick to react to any customer’s concerns,” Matthew Shaw explains.

With at least 100 live part programs running every week across all the machines, and new parts being introduced all the time, the integrity of the NC program is vital. RE Thompson prides itself on a ‘zero defect’ policy and on time delivery to meet customer production schedules using Line Side, JIT and Kanban manufacturing systems. As Patricia Hunt says: “With so many opportunities for errors the NC programs are never manually written or amended on the shopfloor. Errors eradicated by VERICUT include collisions between the machine’s spindle and the workpiece or fixturing, or gouging of the raw material, which could result in a machine tool being out of action. This in turn could lead to a failed delivery or capacity shortage and neither is acceptable to us.”

RE ThompsonMatthew Shaw is convinced that the efficiency of any machine shop running 24/7 would suffer without VERICUT. “If we replaced our FMS with standalone machine tools I think we would need a factory five times the size. It is extremely efficient and can churn out complex parts very quickly. That means it also needs feeding with raw material and part programs, and the programs have to be proven so that the FMS is kept safe. All NC programs for this facility and the six new machines installed at the Andover site are all checked for errors by VERICUT.”

The role of VERICUT starts at the quotation stage for RE Thompson. “All CAD/CAM systems will provide a cycle time, however the time the VERICUT predicts from the simulation is far more accurate. I believe it is within 2 per cent of the time we will achieve when the job is run,” Patricia Hunt says.

Optimising the process is the next key function of the software as it allows the engineers to refine machining strategies and apply different cutting tool techniques to save time and cost for the customer. As the changes are all tested in the virtual environment there is no disruption to the shopfloor and tweaks can be made without fear of any negative results.

VERICUT also makes the process more visible as it creates a fully simulated manufacturing file that can be shared with customers. This boosts confidence in the machining process and subsequent timely delivery of the parts.

Matthew Shaw concludes: “Looking back, 25 years ago our turnover was under £1 million, but now it is £6 million or so. The plan with new machines already in place at the Andover facility is to add about another million. As a company we have always been aware of change and we will keep evolving; keep progressing as we are consciously aware that we need to grow. Of course, at each step we take every precaution to protect our well-established reputation and VERICUT certainly plays a part in that.”