CEL Study using CAD CAM and ERP Automation Software.

When all’s said and done, optimising productivity and profitability is all about equipment, people, systems and software working harmoniously together in the most efficient way possible. Dave Tudor visited Kent-based sheetmetal and fabrication specialist Contracts Engineering Limited (CEL) to see how pivotal Metamation CAD/CAM software is to the company’s production processes.

In this 21st Century digital age, most manufacturing companies realise that being successful requires a multi-faceted approach. It’s important of course to invest in new equipment and machines to take advantage of technological advances; it’s also vital that staff have the necessary skills to do the job; and of course, particularly topical at the moment, is the adoption of emerging technologies like digitisation and automation.

But whether it’s an ERP/MRP system, CAD/CAM software or an accounting package, software provides the foundations for any business. For Contracts Engineering, Metamation is the CAD/CAM software of choice.

The 33-employee company operates from a 16,000ft² facility in Sittingbourne, Kent and has evolved into a true fabrication and sheetmetal specialist. You won’t find any 5-axis milling machines or lathes on the shopfloor; what you will find is an extensive range of fibre laser cutting, punching, forming, bending, rolling and welding equipment. Design and assembly also feature on the services list.

And that’s because, for CEL, it’s all about adding value through offering an all-encompassing end to end fabrication service rather than focusing on a single discipline. And when the company does have a requirement for something outside its core skillsets – machining, galvanising, powder coating, anodising or plating for example – it can call on a network of trusted suppliers to get the job done.     

Taking pride of place on the shopfloor and representing a recent £175,000 investment is ‘Zelda the Welder’ (the winning entry in an in-house naming competition), a twin bay automated MIG welding plant complete with Fanuc robot and CNC. Installed in 2020 and purchased from systems integrator Cyber-Weld, the machine is designed to handle repetitive, high volume work, freeing up CEL’s skilled operators to undertake more challenging tasks.

“We needed to incorporate automation into our processes,” affirms Troy Barrett, managing director at Contracts Engineering, “This was our lightbulb moment. Currently, Zelda can weld mild steel up to 18 hours a day but plans are in place to accommodate stainless steel and aluminium in the near future.

“Our next investments will most likely be an auto-feeding system for our Bystronic BySprint 3050 fibre laser so we can run lights out and a press brake upgrade with an option to include a robot arm.”

All about the service

Mr Barrett reflects on what has been a pretty hectic past decade: “The company has actually existed since the 1980s but we bought the business in 2011,” he explains.

“We’ve changed things quite a lot in that time. We actually own another company, Furnitubes International which supplies street furniture products to a strong home and export market. Furnitubes is Contract Engineering’s second biggest customer and here we provide manufacturing services on a subcontract basis to support that operation.”

Since taking over the reins in 2011, Mr Barrett and his team have expanded the company considerably into the ISO 9001 approved, £3.5 million turnover business it is today, with a wide and varied customer base that includes clients in construction, street furniture, light infrastructure, racking and storage systems, and landscaping.

“Our mantra is: ‘We bring manufacturing closer to our clients’,” Mr Barrett adds. “In a nutshell, our ‘sweet spot’ is the provision of highly skilled, dependable manufacturing services to companies who don’t have the capability to produce the work themselves.”

Natural synergies

It’s not surprising that Metamation is Contract Engineering’s CAD/CAM software provider of choice. Just as CEL is solely focused on the sheetmetal and fabrication markets, so is Metamation and the synergy is apparent. It’s a global company headquartered in India with development offices in Japan and a worldwide network of resellers and OEMs.

Product wise, everything hinges around a series of core products: MetaCAM, MetaBEND, MetaWORKS SW, MetaCAM Enterprise and Flux – Metamation’s next generation engine for offline press brake programming software with advanced CAD importing capability and also Nesting for press brakes and punch/lasers.

But drill down into the individual modules and you soon realise that Metamation’s product portfolio leaves no stone unturned for savvy fabricators and sheetmetal specialists. Optional modules include 2D and 3D CAD, ProfileCAM (laser, waterjet, plasma, flame) and PunchCAM (pretty self-explanatory), Nesting and 3D CAM.

CEL is a MetaCAM Enterprise (server-based) user and also makes effective use of CAD/CAM Nesting which has dedicated algorithms for punching, profiling and punch/shearing. Nesting is all about optimising material utilisation and minimising waste.

Gary Carnall heads up the UK operation which was established in 2012: “As well as covering all the essential elements of 2D/3D CAD/CAM programming for fabrication companies, there are also high levels of automation capability built into the software,” he comments.

“Traditionally, a programmer using a standalone system would have to bring in the CAD file and set the material, thickness, tooling and nesting parameters manually. With Metamation software, many of these processes can be automated. The point to emphasise here is that because it’s a modular system, it can be expanded as required as a customer’s business grows. You don’t buy modules you don’t need.”

Software upgrades are carried out at least annually but more often than not on a six-monthly basis either via downloadable links or, as Contracts Engineering prefers – because Enterprise is a larger, database driven platform – through scheduled remote sessions where the server is taken offline, backed up and upgraded.

The quest for productivity

Contracts Engineering’s relationship with Metamation began back in 2012 and was triggered by a need for greater productivity and system integration. “We had an excellent MRP production control software system – MIETrak Pro – installed but we simply weren’t using it properly,” Troy Barrett recalls.

“We also had nesting software, but it was very manual, inefficient and extremely time-consuming. We heard about Metamation through MIE Solutions – the company behind MIETrak Pro – as they were a preferred CAD/CAM supplier and we were very impressed. The two pieces of software work very well together.

“In fact, the single best thing I can say about how good Metamation and MIETrak are is that when we bought the business, we were turning over £1 million and had three people working in engineering. Now we’re doing £3.5 million with four people – and it’s all down to the software and the excellent training we received from both companies.

“Operationally, from providing more accurate quotations through to better stock handling, production scheduling, engineering and nesting, we’re now much more streamlined and efficient as a company which has also drastically improved product quality,” Mr Barrett enthuses.

“Metamation is very visually orientated – which makes it simple and intuitive to use. Its powerful nesting capabilities really help us optimise material utilisation by enabling us to group parts together efficiently to minimise waste.

“For us, it’s the inherent flexibility Metamation brings to the table that’s really useful,” he concludes. “We receive the CAD file from the customer, open it, maybe clean it up and then save it to the server.

“Metamation takes the file, identifies the material, the thickness and tools up the job. But the great thing is this isn’t just for one machine – it’s for all the machines. So, if our Bystronic laser machine is at full capacity for example, we can move work over to the punch – where possible – where there may be more capacity without having to retool everything again.

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