The natural force of change at Progressive Technology

Uploaded 15 Jun @ 13:53pm

Just a short time ago, in 2014, Rob West was approached by Newbury-based Progressive Technology, with a plan to establish an advanced composites machining facility. Right from the start he knew the company had an ambitious growth strategy, however what has so far been achieved by the business has exceeded all expectations.
Rob recalls: “In March 2014, we started out on what I believed to be a fantastic opportunity. We set it up as a separate company, as part of the Progressive Technology Group, called Progressive Technology Advanced Materials. We started with just one machine tool. Today, there are nine machine tools cutting epoxy and polyurethane tooling board patterns and models, carbon fibre as well as structural foams.
“Many of our customers are motorsports based, particularly those towards the front of the Formula 1 grid. So, we have invested in machine tools which are capable of producing the parts they typically require. We have three large 5-axis gantry machines, with a maximum working envelope of 3.6 x 2.8 x 1.2m, these are supported by two smaller higher accuracy 5-axis machines primarily used to machine carbon fibre inserts or for intricate, higher tolerance pattern work. While four 3-axis machines are used to produce the less challenging components and foam cores.”
With over 20 years of experience in motorsport, with several Formula One teams, Rob understands the demanding and complex nature of the industry sector. The new company’s reputation for quality and delivery soon created an increased workload. So, the head count was multiplied with additional staff joining the business from within the motorsport industry. These were quickly followed by two trainee pattern finishers, a trainee composite inspector and a machining apprentice who all attend the local college in Newbury. Now, there are a total of 15 people employed in the Advanced Materials business, within the Progressive Technology Group.
“Our trainees and apprentices have been an excellent addition to the business,” explains Rob. “We call the pattern making path that they are following a ‘traineeship’ because there was not really an apprenticeship in what we define as composite pattern making available. It is important to us to look after our young and developing staff, because they are helping us grow the business, to take it forward. Also, there are not that many people out there with the skills that we require, so it is important for us to grow our own skilled workforce, as we grow as a company. Then they understand the ethos of the business, and what all of our customers expect from us.”

Additive Manufacturing at the pinnacle
It is not just the Advanced Materials part of the business that has seen growth, as the total number of employees within the Progressive Technology Group has gone from 35 since 2014 to its current level of 140. Part of this growth is the result of the recent acquisition of the additive manufacturing specialist Innovate 2 Make (i2M).
Additive Manufacturing (AM) represents the pinnacle of modern engineering and offers a new approach to manufacturing complex structures in a wide range of materials, such as aluminium, titanium, Inconel, stainless steel and so on.
The AM process works directly from the Computer Aided Design model (3D CAD). It orientates the components and slices the CAD data into layers that are then drawn in the build chamber, in Progressive Technology’s case using a Ytterbium (Yb) fibre laser fired on to a powder bed containing fine metallic ‘powder’ particles. Each layer is ‘grown’ together to produce the final metallic component.
Having originally co-founded i2M, Mike Kelly now runs Progressive Technology Advanced Manufacturing. He says: “People often see this form of AM as more akin to casting; I like to think of it as elegant welding. Here at Progressive Technology, we use AM to offer an end-to-end supply solution for customers looking for low to medium volume production of complex components typically used in high performance environments such as Formula 1, aerospace, and medical. Critically, all areas of the AM production process are controlled to Aerospace Quality standards.
“With each of these industry sectors you have to be able to prove that you are producing a part that achieves the appropriate standards. With parts that are predominantly ‘grown’ the integrity is crucial, which is why we have invested in an extensive laboratory capable of providing materials testing, along with the skilled and knowledgeable staff required to operate it.”
Since taking over the business Progressive Technology has doubled its additive manufacturing machine capacity and there are now five people working in this division. The company has also added an in-house heat treatment capability, that allows full process control with the added advantage of faster turnaround.
“3D Printing as a concept is well understood by design engineers,” explains Mike. “However, 3D print as a market is still emerging and some customers are more advanced with it than others. There is no doubt it is one of the fastest growing areas within motorsport and we aim to support our customers from early concept design through to final machining and finishing. We have always seen the integration of CNC with metallic AM as the pinnacle of part production, but the integration process has taken time to develop and refine. We have applied some of the skillset from the world of machined castings, but with the advantages of modern machine tool technology to apply the final touches.”

Finishing touches
That ‘final touch’ is applied by the comprehensively equipped Progressive Technology Advanced CNC division of the company. Here, an extensive array of multi-axis machining centres, mill-turn lathes, and EDM machines from the world’s most advanced builders are used not just to finish AM components, but to machine tight tolerance components to challenging delivery schedules for some of the most demanding end users.
Across the business around £4 million has been invested over the past couple of years, with several new Mikron and DMG Mori 5-axis machining centres being installed within the past 12 months. Operations manager, Steve Shadwell, says: “We have targeted and recruited a team of highly skilled engineers from the UK and throughout Europe, who have been empowered to make decisions of their own. We provide them with the best manufacturing equipment and processes available to help them perform at the top level. We run around-the-clock, not a skeleton crew but fully trained programmers, so a customer can pick up the phone late on a Friday evening knowing that we can program and produce parts by Monday morning, or sooner in a real emergency. Wherever possible we install more than one of each type of machine tool, that way if a machine has to stop for any reason we can still meet or exceed the customers’ delivery requirements.”

Train to gain
One of the company’s recent investments has centred on construction and equipping of an Apprentice Training Academy, complete with a dedicated full-time trainer. Seen as a clear demonstration of its commitment to machining here in the UK, supporting both its customers and its own long-term future.
There are currently 10 apprentices progressing through the academy, with plans in place to grow this number year-on-year. As Rob West has already stated, this new blood is rightly seen by the group as supporting its future.
Steve Shadwell concludes: “When we talk to our customers they want that one-stop solution. They want to issue a design with a specification that they feel sure will be produced correctly, meeting all the criteria and is delivered on time. That is what we do. It is hard work 24/7 that has got us to where we are today, and there are no plans to change our winning formula.”

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