Tech up, cost down - igus uses innovation to cut costs

With various factors impacting on the manufacturing and engineering sector, from supply chain disruption through to escalating production costs and changing customer demands, innovation is becoming increasingly important in helping to find ways to keep costs down and processes running smoothly. In this article, we speak to Matthew Aldridge, Managing Director of Manufacturing and Engineering Week key sponsor, igus, about how the company is using its innovative approaches to production and supply to help its customers overcome their challenges.

As a major supplier of components and cabling systems to industries ranging from agriculture to woodworking, igus UK knows a thing or two about engineering plastics. With products ranging from cable chains to connectors, plastic rotary and linear bearings and even pick and place robots, igus regards itself as at the heart of the UK's innovative industries.

One of the company's mainstays is a broad range of chains for managing cables or hoses for use on machine tools, car washes and car transporters. igus also supplies the cables to go in the chains.

The other side of the business is plastic bearings, which are dry running, maintenance free, lightweight and corrosion resistant. Managing Director Matthew Aldridge says: 'We've got over six million plastic parts here in our UK site in Northampton. Most of our parts are modular, so we can build up an enormous number of possibilities for customers.

'That gives us a bit of flexibility - if someone comes in for a certain type or size of chain that their regular supplier can no longer provide, we can help - while we might not have exactly that size, we are confident we'll have something that will work for them. It's something that will fit, and we have enough in stock to keep their production lines running.'

The company's main motto is 'Tech up, Cost down', something that Matthew lives by: 'Our ambition is to help our customers drive costs down and improve their technology and we always try to offer at least one of those to a customer.

'If people are traditionally using a metal part, we can take out cost - we can remove lifetime costs by removing the maintenance as our parts are dry running bearings, which don't need any maintenance systems. That adds up significantly over time ' typical cost savings from our products compared to a competitor's offering are around 20 to 25%.'

Better by design

Some companies may be reluctant to use plastic materials for components such as bearing housings where they have always used metal in the past, but Matthew believes that in most applications, igus products speak for themselves: 'If a customer has a specific technical issue like corrosion or they're using it underwater or they're having problems with dirt ingress, that's actually fairly easy to demonstrate. We can show that our product achieves that goal because it is manufactured for that purpose and we can provide some applications where we've proven that previously.

'If they want to take duplication out or they want to take cost out of the system, then we have perhaps a longer discussion. We would do that by providing the calculated life which we can give in two ways, either in the form of wear measured in microns per kilometer, or the lifetime in number of cycles, or thousands of hours. We give that calculation and say okay, that's what we believe scientifically we can achieve and now here's the part for you to try.'

igus is also using its bearing expertise to extend into other areas such as robotic automation: 'We're seeing an increasing trend in buying complete sub-assemblies and robotics, so we've put some of our bearing systems together to make a low-cost robot system. That can help customers with the increased pressure on wages and some companies that otherwise wouldn't are now looking at ways of automating simple tasks, so that's opening up new markets for us.'

The ambition to improve technology and cut costs is exemplified by the company's concept of smart plastics. Cable chains are not usually regarded as particularly hi-tech, but igus has taken these products to whole new levels. Perhaps often thought of as a commodity, cabling is sometimes the Cinderella component of a production machine but if a critical power supply fails because of a faulty cable, millions could be lost in interrupted production.

igus meets this challenge by connecting its cable chains thorough its iSense condition monitoring modules. 'Sensors are mounted to measure values such as'temperature, forces and vibrations - values outside the limits produce an alert or a notification.'In a more advanced system known as i.Cee, cable chains and rotary and linear bearings can be connected wirelessly for analysis via a local network or over the cloud, allowing predictive maintenance.

The company is also keen to play its part in protecting the environment: 'Although plastics can get a bit of a negative press right now, our plastics are not single use,' says Matthew. 'These plastics last for many years and they don't end up in the sea - we also have a full recycling program for our power components when they do reach the end of their useful life.'

Keeping supplies moving

As with other companies in manufacturing, Matthew finds that supply chain issues are one of the biggest current challenges facing his customers.

'We've found that supply chain reliability is the number one issue. Of course, people will always say cost as well, but that is becoming secondary - anyone could sell it cheap now and not actually supply the part. But we are benefiting from the investments that we've made over the last few years.

'For example, we manufacture cables and sell them by the meter, whereas most companies are selling them by the drum. Suppliers only normally hold one or two drums, so they can only serve two orders from that stock - but we can often supply perhaps 100 orders from that, because we're selling what people want. We have 200 kilometres of cables stocked here in Northampton and if we were to ship all of that out tomorrow, I can have that replenished within 48 hours.'

Support from supply to design

In addition to helping with supply issues, igus can support customers to finalise their designs or improve their processes.

'That's a typical inquiry for us,' says Matthew. 'People come to us with a problem and say they've got a cable failing or they realize they want to take lubrication out or try and fit a bearing into a very small space which they haven't really allowed for. We can get involved in that design stage - we don't do a design for them, but we can work with the customer to help them arrive at the right design and make sure that design is also suitable for manufacturing.'

igus also offers 3D printing of prototypes: 'We are the only company at the moment that can 3D print engineering plastics. We can print a component to finalise its form and function, then move on to machining from stock product for the pilot production and then to a moulded part for volume production. We have capability and capacity in all of those manufacturing processes.'

As well as sales engineers who can visit customers and advise them, the company's service offer is rounded off with several remote resources. These include training seminars and online tools to configure and specify products such as cables and energy chain systems.

Yet the personal touch remains a vital part of igus' thinking, which is why the company is pleased to be a major sponsor of Manufacturing and Engineering Week. 'We attend shows not simply to push our products ' we want to listen to what the market needs, to get that input on the ground and then see if we can help.

'After the interruption of the last couple of years, Manufacturing and Engineering Week is a good place to start building back our presence at live events.'

igus will be exhibiting at stand M40 at Manufacturing and Engineering Week at the NEC from 8-9 June

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