Delcam’s PowerMILL CAM software for high-speed and five-axis machining is used by Chas. A. Blatchford & Sons Ltd to manufacture the company’s award-winning range of lower-limb prosthetics. The Delcam software is an important part of Blatchford’s drive to develop the highest quality products, while at the same time increasing volumes to meet the growing need for prosthetics.
The Blatchford name has been associated with providing excellent rehabilitation products and services for more than 120 years, during which time the company has become recognised as a global supplier of lower-limb prosthetics and orthotics. In the UK, the company has been given more than 30% of all NHS contracts to supply artificial limbs to British amputees, while its technical expertise has been recognised with four Queen’s Awards for Innovation. In addition, Blatchford provides the prosthetics service to injured soldiers for the Ministry of Defence at the Headley Court Rehabilitation Centre.
For the last five years, the company has been pursuing a strategy of re-inventing itself in order to meet the new challenges of the changing demands of markets and patients. This programme has included the introduction of a growing number of five-axis Matsuura machine tools, all of which are programmed with two seats of PowerMILL. The combination of machines and software is used both for the direct machining of metal components and for the production of tooling for parts moulded from carbon fibre-reinforced plastics and silicone.
The new strategy also involved the recruitment of more staff with an engineering background, rather than experience in medical device manufacture, including Senior Manufacturing Engineer, Ian Keeley. Mr. Keeley began his career with a five-year apprenticeship in toolmaking, before moving into aerospace manufacturing with companies including Mettis and Columbia Precision. He started using PowerMILL in 1999 and quickly saw the benefits of the Delcam software. "With one project, we were able to reduce the machining time from five hours to less than two hours,” he remembered.
His machining expertise led to his recruitment by Blatchford around four years ago, at a time when the company was targeting a significant increase in its volumes of parts.
Many of the materials used at Blatchford are the aerospace grades of aluminium and titanium that Mr. Keeley was familiar with from his earlier career. Similarly, the key benefit of moving to the five-axis equipment remained the ability to machine all of the critical features of a part in one operation, with only a second clean-up operation needed to complete the majority of components.
One significant difference is the amount of different tooling needed for many of the parts, with Blatchford’s unique designs requiring up to 100 tools, including extensive use of non-standard items. PowerMILL’s tooling database is essential in managing this complexity. "We have established databases for each machine, each containing around 240 tools with the associated feed and speeds,” Mr. Keeley explained. "We can drag and drop tools between the machines, and quickly add details for any new tools that might be needed. Using these databases saves a lot of programming time when we are producing initial samples, plus it is easy to edit the toolpaths to optimise feeds and speeds if we move to a longer run. Some projects can run for up to ten years so this optimisation makes a significant contribution to our productivity.”
The overall versatility of the software was the other key benefit highlighted by Mr. Keeley. "You can get PowerMILL to do pretty much anything,” he commented. "I’ve used other CAM systems but they don’t give you the flexibility of PowerMILL. It gives more efficient machining with a better surface finish. It is also extremely reliable – what you see on the computer is what happens on the machine.”