Stepping up to the challenge

Uploaded 21 Nov @ 14:07pm

With an enviable reputation in the high-performance lightweight industry sector and an ongoing investment plan set to provide further stability and opportunities for growth, the Swindon-based Retrac Group has plenty to shout about. M&MT reports
Founded in 1998, Retrac Composites employs over 40 highly skilled and experienced staff in 22,000 ft2 of combined motorsport and aerospace composites manufacturing facilities. The company operates alongside Retrac Productions to form a group capable of providing comprehensive support to its customers in the high-tech industry sectors.
One of the company’s latest investments is a Stratasys Fortus 450mc industrial 3D printer designed to use familiar materials to produce complex parts more efficiently and effectively. For demanding applications high-performance materials such as FDM Nylon 12CF (carbon fibre), ULTEM resins and ST-130 soluble material for sacrificial composite tooling can be used.
On the shop floor in Retrac Productions two new DMG Mori DMU 80 5-axis CNC machining centres have been installed, these machines will increase both capability and accuracy for the machine shop. “Both 5-axis machining centres being replaced will be moved to the pattern shop to provide additional capacity,” explains Company Director, Ian Drew. “This will improve the response time for all our customers.”
A new project manager, with a strong background in design for hot press tooling has joined the business as Retrac looks to expand into hot press form tooling for composites. Ian Drew says: “We have been gaining interest in this area from various customers in the market sectors we support, and we will be looking at installing a medium capacity heated press in the near future to support the capability we now have for hot tool design.”
Motorsports customer relationships remain strong with new customers coming on board, the work undertaken by Retrac in this sector is diverse and includes bodywork and suspension. In fact, the business was recently awarded the prestigious accolade of Composite Supplier of the Year 2018, including recognition as overall top supplier of the year by the Mercedes FI team. It secured the honour against 50 other high-ranking suppliers, managing to stand out by attaining a fast and reactive partnership to Mercedes F1 while maintaining a high level of quality and attention to detail in line with the high standards that are mandatory at this level of the industry.
The self-contained aerospace facility supports customers with large scale tooling and also conducts most of the R&D work undertaken for the various industry sectors supported along with projects to support academic studies. Being self-sufficient it can operate without impacting on the motorsport work, which demands commitment and dedication to meet the various customer requirements.
Across the group the maximum size for single piece (non-bonded) components or tools is an impressive 6 m, with a 6 m bed on a 5-axis CMS machining centre, an autoclave with an internal working length of 6 m and an inspection table of the same size able to provide all the measurement and inspection required.
“With the two composite units operating in parallel there are no conflicting business or capacity issues,” states Ian Drew. A recent aerospace project resulted in mandrel tooling up to 15 m long for wing spar production. And, further orders for more tooling for composite engine fan blades underlines the strong growth in the aerospace side of the business.
The company also went ‘live’ with a new production control/management system software database at the end of 2018. Now, all works orders can be fully traced through the manufacturing process. Barcode labelling and scanning system paperwork is used to control everything coming in and leaving the factory, as well as employees booking on and off operations at various stages of production.
To support the new fully automated system and to improve traceability, further internal changes to the layout of the building had to be carried out to aid processes and efficiency. A new mezzanine area has created a larger preparation room and a new mould storage area. This has made room for a new ‘large consumables’ storage area and space for a controlled bonded store.
“The new stores and data logging system is now bedded in and is proving very useful to the business as an analytical tool working for the company. Data capture gives clarity of productivity and efficiency as well as costings so we can clearly see the good, and the not so good, areas of the business. Process documentation is more consistent which supports a robust and repeatable method of working,” Ian Drew points out.
He continues: “Good business decisions need to be based on accurate information, which we now have. We might be making a profit across the whole business, but it is good to know which areas are more profitable and which need a bit more attention. It also allows us to be more selective on the type of new work we take on, work that proves the best fit between the customer and our capabilities.”
Following a recent recruitment drive more trainees will be starting soon to meet the company’s forecast capacity plan. “With a wider customer base we have the confidence that we will be busy; smoothing out the ‘peaks and troughs’ that are well-known to any business supporting the Formula 1 and wider motorsports sector,” says Ian Drew.
An additional autoclave brings the total to four, the latest autoclave is 3 m in diameter with a 3.5 metre internal working length. This autoclave is force cooled and runs on a new twin-compressor system that feeds the composite companies second unit. Only one compressor feeds the autoclave at any one time, meaning there
is a redundant back-up compressor should an issue arise.
Externally, the grounds around its facilities are undergoing development to make better use of the space available and to provide more parking facilities for staff. “It might sound insignificant,” Ian Drew says, “but we want to take good care of our staff; it is all the business has ever wanted, for people to enjoy working for us and in return we aim to provide stability and the opportunity to earn a good living in a thriving industry.”
He concludes: “With a bit of a challenge thrown in of course, that never stops. Continual improvement never stops, and the competition does not stop so we are always moving forward to match the customers demands. We have a great reputation with our customers’ and we want to uphold it.”

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