Investing to Meet Post-Covid Demand

North East-based engineering company Hydram, a leading specialist in precision sheet metal fabrications, has recently (September 2022) completed a significant programme of investments in an attempt to satisfy increasing demand from its customers. 

 

From heating and ventilation, rail (both rolling stock and trackside), through to off-highway construction vehicles, Hydram’s customers cover a broad range of industries, and almost without exception, there has been a significant surge in requirements since the lifting of Covid restrictions.

 

Meeting increasing demand presents challenges at the best of times, and post-Covid, those challenges have multiplied and intensified, with both constrained labour and spiralling energy markets conspiring to make the task particularly difficult throughout the supply chain.  Right now, it certainly cannot be described as the best of times, and the current responsibility for overcoming these challenges lies with Hydram’s Operations Director, Stephen Beacham.

 

Increasing the Tempo

“Over 45 years Hydram has always maintained a steady rhythm of investment and renewal to ensure we remain competitive and have capacity to grow with our customers,” says Stephen, “although there are times when you have to increase the tempo and do something exceptional to make the difference.”  The difference in this case was a huge increase in the company’s powder coating and finishing capacity.

 

Hydram’s extensive capabilities range from laser cutting and punch profiling through to forming, welding, coating (both wet and powder painting) and assembly.  “Analysis proved that our most significant bottleneck was in painting, which is an area where floorspace and energy use are significant constraints,” Stephen explains, “which together made this a significant project to undertake, entailing a great deal of planning and preparation, and two new paint plants with a budget of over £1.2M.”

 

Auto Wash Pre-Treatment

With the acquisition of a vacant factory unit adjacent to the existing site, expansion of the floorspace was achieved without impacting the existing production area – which was already fully occupied by three paint plants.  An order for the first new painting facility was then placed with North East-based Hogg Blasting and Finishing Ltd; a facility which includes both wet and powder spray booths, curing ovens and an auto-wash pre-treatment unit.  “This new facility ultimately replaced one of our old plants in the main factory and it does so with a much smaller footprint thanks to the auto-wash,” says Stephen.  “The old plant used several large dip tanks which took up a lot of space, were laborious to use, and inefficient in terms of energy usage – the auto-wash solves all these issues.”

 

Making Space

The Hoggs paint facility was commissioned in May 2022, and it handles the wet spraying and oversize powder-coated items, dealing with the smaller production volumes efficiently in a batch fashion.  It offers many advantages over the older plant in the main building which, now redundant, was dismantled to make way for the second new investment.  Stephen explains, “our real bottleneck was with the higher volume, smaller-sized parts, and for those, you need a continuous automated line, rather than a batch process.  The old batch plant was decommissioned to allow us to use that floorspace for a new automated conveyor operated paint line.”

 

Increased Automation

With the floorspace in the main factory no longer a constraint, West Midlands-based TD Finishing was commissioned to supply a brand-new conveyor-operated paint line complete with an automated spray booth supplied by Gema.  Installed over 6 weeks, the second new plant has a 145m overhead conveyor, a 20m-long five-stage pre-treatment plant with eco-friendly Oxsilan multi-metal pre-treatment solution, a 15m-long dry-off oven and a 38m-long curing oven.  The Gema booth is equipped with the MagicCompact fast colour change facility, powder reclaim system and 10 auto guns on reciprocators complete with dynamic 3D contour tracking.

Gema reciprocating autoguns outside painting booth at Hydram

“The new conveyor plant was commissioned in July and it sits next to our two other conveyor plants,” Stephen says.  “It has a higher throughput than our oldest plant, has more automation, a powder reclaim unit – which reduces the amount of powder wasted – and it uses less energy in the process.  Overall, we have increased capacity by more than 50%, with the benefits of reduced labour requirements and increased energy efficiency, which are our two other constraints.”  Now, with three conveyor paint plants for powder coating and a separate batch plant for wet and powder coating, Hydram has impressive capacity for metal coating and can rightly claim to offer a complete manufacturing solution.

Parts exiting new paint plant dry off oven 2022

Maintaining the Rhythm

With the bottleneck in painting alleviated thanks to the £1.2M budget, the underlying rhythm of investment involved in maintaining Hydram’s capacity was being addressed in other processing areas in the factory.  Core to any sheet metal business are its profiling facilities and Hydram is proud to offer both high-speed laser and CNC punch profiling.  On the punching side, the oldest of the two premium TruPunch 5000 punching machines from German-based Trumpf was beginning to show its age.  “In a factory operating 24 hours per day, it’s imperative those hours are productive, and after 12 years of loyal service our older machine was beginning to cause us headaches,” admits Stephen.  “In addition, the newer of the two machines benefitted from a tower storage system for automated sheet retrieval, and we wished to take the opportunity to upgrade, although again this was not without its own challenges!”

 

Packing a Punch

With an order placed for the new TruPunch and TruStore tower, the hard work began to prepare the factory for the new machine – it wasn’t simply a case of old-out, new-in.  Two civil engineering tasks had to be undertaken long before the new machine was delivered, and in the meantime customer demand was still growing, making continuity of supply a major concern.  “We had to move the 12-year-old machine to another part of the factory whilst we upgraded the concrete floor and raised the roof – literally – to accommodate the tower, which was not ideal,” Stephen recalls.  “We only just had enough room to squeeze the old machine in a corner and that was without the automation systems for loading or unloading.  In addition, punching is a noisy process that we try to segregate, but it was an essential compromise to keep our customers supplied whilst the necessary upgrade tasks took place.

Trumpf Trupunch 5000 with TruStore tower at Hydram

The new TruPunch 5000 complete with its TruStore tower was commissioned in August 2021 at a project cost of £1M, providing a significant uplift in capacity both in terms of reliability and efficiency, as the automated sheet retrieval system means the machine spends less time waiting for material.  The machine is fully equipped with a SheetMaster loading and unloading system, a TrumaTool for automated tool storage and a TrumaGrip scrap unloading facility, minimising the labour requirement and maximising its potential as a profiling maestro.

 

Maintaining the Lead

Hydram considers itself to be one of the UK’s leading sheet metal subcontractors and the effort required to maintain that position is considerable.  With two big capital projects completed within 12 months, and a number of less significant, but no less important investments in three TruBend pressbrakes and a Haas VF-11 CNC milling machine in the same period, the evidence of that effort is compelling.

 

Those capital projects grab the headlines, but there are many other elements involved in increasing capacity, such as staff training and efficiency drives, and Hydram is working hard on these too.  Hydram continues to run its own apprenticeship program – a number of former apprentices have continued studying to degree level – and it offers NVQ training to those who wish to gain additional qualifications.  The workplace environment also gets a fair share of maintenance and renewal attention, with recent endeavours to improve shopfloor lighting and ventilation, health and safety projects to reduce manual handling, and regular low-tech deep cleaning, all benefitting the business, helping to ensure staff retention and improve their performance.

 

Stephen concludes, “Our business is built on customer satisfaction – and maintaining a high level of service in the current climate is challenging for all businesses in this sector.  We can prove that Hydram is working exceptionally hard and investing significant sums to continue meeting demand.”

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