1 October 2019

Automation is key to keeping manufacturing in Europe

Irish manufacturing company Dromone Engineering, established in 1978 and now employing over 140 people, took a decision early on not to focus on providing a subcontract machining service but instead to develop, manufacture and market its own product lines. It has since become industry leader in both, namely tractor pick-up hitches for the agricultural sector and excavator quick couplers for the construction sector.

The company also resolved to keep its manufacturing base at the headquarters in Oldcastle, County Meath, and not move production to a low-wage country in Asia or elsewhere. It is an admirable objective that many firms achieve, as has Dromone Engineering, but in its case there was a particular obstacle. Despite having to provide top quality products for applications in the industries it serves, price negotiations do not come down to the nearest euro, but to the nearest cent.

From the start, the dilemma of manufacturing in a first world country and trimming prices to two decimal places has continually focused the minds of the firm's directors and shaped their capital investments. For example, in 1999 they were among the first to harness the productive power of laser cutting with the purchase of two 3.5 kW CO2 machines built by Bystronic in Switzerland and supplied by Bystronic UK for profiling mild steel sheet up to 4 metres by 2 metres.

In March this year, these long-serving, reliable machines were replaced with more up-to-date technology in the form of a ByStar Fiber 4020 10 kW fibre laser cutting centre from the same supplier. It was delivered as a turnkey package, automated by the addition of a bespoke material handling system and tower store that accommodates up to 96 tonnes of material on 17 levels.

Dromone Engineering's Managing Director William Egenton explained, "We export almost all of our products to 39 countries, either directly to blue chip customers like JCB, Volvo, Massey Ferguson, Claas and Kubota, or via a worldwide distribution network servicing other OEMs, dealer networks and rental fleets.

"Customers in the West in particular appreciate the fact that we manufacture safety-critical products tailored to their specific needs in Ireland and are impressed when they visit us, but to make the operation financially viable we have to use a high level of automation.

"That is why we have invested €5 million over the last five years in not only the latest laser cutting technology, but also in three Panasonic robotic welding cells, four Mazak horizontal- and vertical-spindle machining centres and enterprise resource planning software."

The increase in cutting output at Oldcastle has been dramatic. The single fibre machine fed from the sheet storage and retrieval tower, which was purpose-built to be exactly 5.54 metres high so that it fitted beneath the factory roof, produces 30 per cent more than both of the previous CO2 machines combined.

That is not only down to the speed of fibre laser cutting but also because previous sheet replenishment, although automatic, was relatively slow. It was achieved using swing-arm Byloaders to transfer material from pallets to the respective CO2 machines and offload the laser-cut sheets. Overall, utilisation of the machines was only 50 to 60 per cent.

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