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UK steel company William Cook saves 200 local jobs by investing £6M in 3D printing & precision found

William Cook Cast Products, a casting company based in Sheffield, UK, has invested £6 million ($7.5M) in new technology, including a huge 3D printer, in an effort to keep its business alive. The company says it is the “last throw of the dice” following a decline in demand for British steel.

William Cook employees pour molten steel into a cast

Sheffield, a city in the English county of Yorkshire, is best known for its steel industry, which has been internationally renowned since the 19th century. Sadly, however, the “Steel City” has in recent times seen its manufacturing industry suffer a steep decline. Steel is still produced there by companies like Howco and Tata Steel, but such companies are having to work harder than ever to squeeze a profit from the iron alloy.

In what has been described as a “last throw of the dice” for one important Sheffield-based casting company, William Cook Cast Products (an arm of the William Cook Group) has invested £6 million in new manufacturing technologies, including a new Precision Foundry and a large-scale 3D printer. This new 3D printer can, according to the company, produce items ten times faster than traditional machining equipment, using just a tenth of the material.

Sir Andrew Cook, chairman of William Cook, said that the big investment was an important step for the company. Not only has it secured the immediate future of 200 local jobs, it could also vastly improve production efficiency at the company. For instance, the new 3D printer can be used to speed up and lower the cost of lost wax casting, a technique in which wax patterns are dipped in a ceramic slurry, baked, and then melted away, allowing molten steel to be poured into the ceramic mould.

Ceramic molds at William Cook

“All the commodity stuff has gone to China and steel is the last choice of the engineer because it is difficult to work compared to aluminum, cast iron and plastic, although it is very high strength and can be welded,” Cook said. “If there is a future in first-world manufacturing, it is in precision engineering.”

The chairman, who was knighted by outgoing British prime minister David Cameron in 2016, believes that additive manufacturing and other new technologies could be used to generated fresh interest in the metal alloy, bringing jobs and prosperity back to the region. But despite the positivity, Cook and all involved with the company know that they will need a degree of good fortune for the £6 million investment to pay off fully.

“The 3D printing techniques allow production of much larger, precision components more cheaply – you create your tooling by printing it rather than spending months and tens of thousands of pounds making complex shapes,” Cook said, before commenting on the resilience of his company during tough times: “I have changed the focus of this group many times in the last 50 years to cope with big market changes. There will be growth—there has to be growth to justify the investment.”

Of course, reshaping the casting company involved getting rid of certain things as well as adding new ones. To finance the investment in new equipment, William Cook had to close one of its sites, which it said had become obsolete after the dissolution of several of its target markets, including the mining transport industry. The company has moved workers from the closed facility to the new Precision Foundry, which was made from former storage buildings.

Lewis Rooms demonstrates 3D printed patterns and castings (above) and a laser scanner

(Images: Chris Etchells)

“I decided to give this business a future by bringing [two sites] together in this site and modernizing them to make high-technology, complex components which China can’t or doesn’t make,” Cook said. “Combined with the heavy integrity facility across the road it should give this business a long-term future. There’s a big team here and with effort from everyone I’m confident this factory will see me out.”

William Cook Cast Products employs 500 people across three UK sites, in Sheffield, Leeds, and County Durham. In November 2016, the company won the “Component of the Year” accolade at the annual Cast Metals Industry Awards, scooping the prize for a 70 kg valve cage made using 3D printing and investment casting technology. The cage is used to modify fluid flow in control valve systems, reducing noise levels and improving efficiency.

“Traditionally, people have had to design for manufacture, which means they have had to make compromises,” said Simon Alexander, managing director at William Cook Cast Products, upon receiving the award. “Now, thanks to 3D printing, we have design for function. People can design with freedom. The art of the possible has changed.”


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