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Feature: Robotic resource

In 1988, having bought a small skip-building business from an advertisement in the local newspaper, husband and wife team Mark and Gill Edwards formed GJF Fabrications. Along with one employee they set out on a journey which, 16 years later, has seen the company grow to 70 employees with an annual turnover of £5 million.

In the beginning, Gill already worked full-time. But in order to help the fledgling company's cash flow, at the end of each working day she then worked for GJF, carrying out tasks ranging from running the office to donning her welding gear and making skips.

Following steady growth, a 40,000ft2 factory at Brownhills in the west Midlands superseded the original premises. And in 2002, Mark and Gill took the decision to go down the high-tech route to increase production and improve quality.

Mark sourced an additional 40,000ft2 of factory space and invested around £1m in state-of-the-art equipment, which includes an automatic combination drill/saw line, a 3.4kW laser profile cutter with automated plate stacking and handling system and, most recently, Cloos robotic welding units with magnetic manipulators.

This investment has effectively doubled the manufacturing capability of GJF to around £8m a year.

The prime grade steel plates used in all GJF skips are first loaded into cassettes that are stored in the holding tower. Using data from the drawing office, the laser profile computer selects the cassette with the correct plate for the particular component and loads the plate on to the cutting bed, where it is accurately cut to tolerances better than half a millimetre.

Any shape is possible so, for instance, holes for doors or holes in recycling banks can easily be programmed into the system. At the end of the cutting phase the plate, with its components, is returned to the holding tower for unloading.

Couple this with the fact that, once programmed, the system is completely self-reliant and can be left to run overnight so that there is always a supply of work for the following day's production.

The rolled steel channel which provides the reinforcement for GJF skips is cut to length on the automatic saw/drill line, again using initial component data from the drawing office. The saw can be set up to automatically chamfer the ends of each bar to the correct angle and also drill holes for the lifting lugs at any predetermined spacing. By nesting a series of components together, the saw makes best use of the bar length, minimising wastage.

Using a unique tongue and groove system developed by Mark, the skip components (cut plates and reinforcement sections) are assembled in a jig which is held by a magnetic manipulator, and the computer numerically controlled welding robot then welds the seams inside and out.

The accuracy of the welding, along with the lack of weld porosity along long welded seams, has resulted in an even more robust product, made at a faster pace, than is possible by purely manual methods.

According to Mark, the accuracy and repeatability of this production method means the customer gets a stronger skip which is easier to stack. "The demand for our robot-welded skips has been overwhelming," he says. "At the moment, we are only producing our small to medium range of skips this way. Although the components for our larger skips and rollonoffs are still hand-welded, they are cut using our laser and auto saw.

"A further £2m investment programme over the next three years will see us move into producing our larger range using high-tech manuf

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