From its manufacturing headquarters in Tiverton, Devon, HepcoMotion has been producing linear guidance systems for over four decades for applications across the world. Rachael Morling visited the company to find out more.
For many years now, we’ve been told by numerous sources that UK manufacturing is in steady decline, and even that the UK barely makes anything any more.
But, as I’ve been finding out more and more recently, there are still a great many engineering companies manufacturing products in the UK, and despite the recession and economic impact, business is good.
All the companies I’ve spoken to recently are proud to be UK manufacturers, and are creating products not just for use domestically, but for export across the world – after all, the UK has always been known for its high quality.
I recently visited one such company – HepcoMotion – at its site in Tiverton, Devon, where its bustling factory floor showed the extent of its manufacturing expertise and skilled staff, many of whom gained their knowledge via Hepco’s apprentice scheme.
Recent news items have focused on the importance of apprentices in the UK marketplace, and this is something in which HepcoMotion excels. At Tiverton, the apprentices start off by learning the basic skills such as drilling and milling before moving on to the next area, and are even given the chance to manufacture their own tools which they can then use throughout their later career. In fact the company has won numerous apprentice scheme awards for career progression, with one of its pupils, Katie Webber, winning Apprentice of the Year.
HepcoMotion has been manufacturing linear slides since 1969 and, outside its Tiverton facility, has manufacturing sites also in Braintree, Essex, as well as in Korea. Today, approximately 77% of its linear products are exported across the world, for use in all manner of interesting applications.
As well as manufacturing linear slides, the company offers full application support and design assistance, ensuring the ideal solution is created for the application, no matter what the industry. In fact key markets currently range from packaging and medical to electronics, solar panel production equipment, and automotive.
With its ‘system solutions’ the customer simply explains what they want to achieve, and Hepco suggests the best solution, customising products when needed. This also includes the design and manufacture of frameworks, mounting plates, cable chains, motor flanges and linking methods. The company can also recommend the best driving method for each application.
The Tiverton facility is filled with production machinery, enabling it to produce standard or bespoke solutions to exact customer requirements, whether linear or rotary solutions are needed.
In fact, through the purchase of large vertical boring centres, HepcoMotion can now manufacture large diameter rings up to 1.8m in a single piece of material. If the requirement is for a larger diameter, the company can now produce rings of an unlimited diameter by simply joining segments together end-to-end. Each segment is machined from solid using state of the art CNC machinery, these are then butted together to form a complete ring – there is theoretically no maximum diameter! Back plates are then fitted across the joins to give the ring strength and rigidity even in its free state.
However, one of its core products is the PRT2 Ring & Track system, produced at Tiverton. Through the creation of ring slide segments combined with straight slide lengths, track systems can be produced again in unlimited lengths, widths and diameters – a process which no one else can do, the company claims.
To further aid the design process, the company can supply bleed lubrication systems for use in track systems and linear applications. These channel lubricant directly onto the Vee faces of a straight slide via pathways in the slide, enabling the lubricant to be carried round the entire system.
The company also produces timing belt driven rings, which are single edge ring slides modified with a timing pulley profile. The timing belts produced provide a high driving force and speed, while being accurate and quiet.
Developing a solution
One recent project was the development of a machine for scanning paintings, which could then be digitized and archived onto an online catalogue.
In fact the company did a similar project a while back in which it worked with SmartDrive on a fine art infrared scanning system. This, it explains, shows how a scientific tool with micron positioning accuracy can be created from standard industrial automation components. The first large scale SatScan is installed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute near Cambridge.
The SatScan system moves digital and infrared camera heads around the artwork using encoder technology to achieve precise positioning. The system control and specifically developed image stitching software also enables distortion-free digital photographs of large works to be taken for further study and record. For the art conservation world this system represents a significant imaging breakthrough.
“We know the position of the carriage to within ±1 micron,” explains the system’s designer, Dennis Murphy, managing director of SmartDrive. “We’re achieving this from automation components with industrial tolerances of 100 – 200 microns. In scientific terms we are also using relatively low resolution, off-the-shelf cameras. But by acquiring a small field of view – maybe just an inch or two square – and holding it perpendicular to the painting, we can take images that are completely distortion free.”
Creating sub-assemblies and indeed complete automation systems of this type is now a very important strand of the HepcoMotion business. Murphy said: “Whilst the system load is small, about 20kg for lights and the camera, we needed a large frame to accommodate large works of art. The HKI SatScan is designed to scan areas of 4.5m x 3.5m.This makes for a large installation and its metalwork – mostly aluminium extrusion – weighs over 400kg. The HepcoMotion technical team designed a strong lightweight frame that was capable of handling the inertia of such a moving load yet maintains rigidity so that ‘wobble’ is minimised, and the micron positioning of the cameras that is so crucial is not compromised. Furthermore we had to ensure everything was sufficiently robust, especially given the value of many of the subjects involved.”
The HepcoMotion SBD was selected for carrying the camera heads in both the horizontal and vertical axes. This sealed belt drive is designed for high loads and demanding duty cycles and provides an exceptionally clean linear solution. Each of the guideways is fitted with a scale and optical read head to provide positioning feedback. The high strength, aluminium SBD units are mounted onto the SatScan gantry that is made from the HepcoMotion MCS machine construction system. A small GV3 guideway was chosen to provide fine adjustment of camera carriage in the Z axis. Further HepcoMotion components included the ZIMM screwjacks that are responsible for adjusting the incline angle of the 4.5m x 3.5m frame to accord with the painting. The entire system was built at the factory in Tiverton.
In addition to the art system developed for Hamilton Kerr, for larger works it has developed another system. This is for examining museum artefacts in standard 500mm square trays, typically archaeological collections, entomology or botanic specimens. The company has also developed microscope slide scanner version for imaging objects whose size is measured in microns rather than metres.
Producing quality products
HepcoMotion is an innovative company, producing linear solutions for use in a diverse variety of applications across the world – and proudly shows that the UK is still a manufacturer of high quality products.
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