Econ at 50: True grit and laser accuracy

30/08/2019
Dominic Browne

It's not rare for the people of Yorkshire to hit half centuries, but it is always worthy of celebration. Econ Engineering - the UK's most popular gritting manufacturer - has reached this milestone in style and shows no signs of slowing down.

The company is the largest British manufacturer of gritting vehicles, controlling 80% of the bought or hired gritting market and producing 360 units per year at its 88,000 sq ft factory, which opened in 1980 on Boroughbridge Road in Ripon, North Yorkshire.

It also operates a growing hire fleet, currently numbering more than 800 units, which has boosted annual turnover to over £34m.

This family-owned UK business is experiencing an unprecedented order book, which it put down not just to harsher winters, but also to its 'multibody products that allow customers to utilise one chassis for multiple tasks, such as road repair as well as winter maintenance, making the investment usable throughout the year'.

The 220-employee company carries out all design and manufacture of its products in-house including painting of components, and for nearly one-third of its life has worked with Swiss supplier of sheet metal processing machinery, Bystronic, to maintain the high level of component accuracy.

The road to success

The company was created by the late Bill Lupton, who single-handedly started a business towards the end of the 1950s in a barn on his family's farm.

He began by making flail mowers and hedge trimmers to cut verges and hedgerows more efficiently.

After exceptionally cold and freezing weather during the winter of 1962/63 brought England to a standstill, with many being cut off for weeks, Mr Lupton was inspired to put his mind to developing the first salt spreading vehicle that would keep the country moving and the wheels of industry turning.

This led to the creation of Econ Engineering in the autumn of 1969 on an old brewery site in Ripon.

By then, the M1 motorway had opened as well as sections of the M2, M4 and M6 and local councils, notably Lancashire and Westmorland, were interested in winter maintenance operations such as salt spreading and gritting to make driving safer.

True grit and laser accuracy

In 2003, the second generation of Luptons – Jonathan and Andrew – took over running the company and were instrumental in developing contract hire for gritters and snowploughs at a time when public spending cuts were making new equipment purchase difficult.

To ensure a leading position in this market, in 2005 they increased the fleet size through the acquisition of a major competitor, Municipal Hire Services.

They also added new technology to the business strengthening its reputation for precision and quality combined with bespoke design.

It was in the early 2000s that the company bought its first Bystronic laser machine, which replaced a turret punch press and a plasma profile cutter for processing the majority of components made from mild steel plates.

The components are used in Econ's shop, to work on gritters, snowploughs as well as bodies for highway maintenance and road patching that Econ mounts onto lorry chassis, often Mercedes and DAF, supplied to clients’ specification.

This ByStar 4020 laser machine with a 4kW CO2 power source supplied by Bystronic UK, greatly increased production efficiency and component accuracy.

Sheet metal up to 4 metres x 2 metres could be processed on the machine, while its 4.4kW and then 6kW successors were able to accept sheet up to 6.5 metres long and nominally 2 metres wide (in practice they use 1,830mm wide stock).

This is the maximum size readily available in the UK - Econ's sheet is cut from coil produced in Europe to meet the company's required steel specifications.

This matters because larger body panels can be produced without welding and the productivity of smaller components is boosted by the ability to nest and cut more parts in one sheet, reducing the amount of wasted material in the skeleton.

Econ's current laser machine was installed in 2014 and works 24/7, processing up to 35 tonnes of steel a week into any of 87,000 different components. These are produced in batch sizes ranging from 5- to 30-off and to an accuracy in some cases down to ± 0.5 mm.

Keeping track of this operation is no small feat and extensive use is made of modern MRP (manufacturing resource planning) software as well good old colour coding of components on the shop floor.

The effectiveness of the procedures - including planning cutting schedules 14 days ahead is evidenced by an above-average OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) of 63%, representing the proportion of time the laser is actually cutting metal.

Among the other equipment on site are three Bystronic press brakes on site, an Xpert 40 tonne / 1 metre press brake, which arrived in 2018 for bending smaller parts more efficiently, a VR 10x4000 jobbing guillotine and a belt grinder from German firm Weber.

Jonathan Lupton, joint managing director said: 'We have always tried to innovate and strive for excellence and nowhere is that more apparent than in our use of the laser to cut steel in our body shop.

'Despite the Bystronic machine representing a considerable expense at the outset, it was another example of how we always lead the way in our industry. The investment has more than paid off in terms of higher production output, while improved accuracy has almost eliminated fit-up during assembly and cuts costs further.

'We have gone from strength to strength by focusing not only on quality but also on the needs of our customers. That is why we have a UK-wide network of depots for servicing and recalibrating our equipment in the field, including a new one that opened recently in Alloa and another due to open in Cardiff in spring 2020.'

Staying ahead

Econ was the first in 1989 to invent the quick change body (QCB) system that allows a single chassis to have multiple applications, for example by the addition of an asphalt hot box for road repairs or for use as a tipper, crane or gulley emptier.

This was one key step in a long history of innovation, which has moved into software as well as hardware.

A recent Econ invention was a Spargo system that controls grit or salt spray and width patterns from the cab, automatically optimising the amount of product used and hence saving cost as well as protecting the road surface.

It also provides one-touch control for lowering the snow plough, turning on the gritter's beacon bar and performing other functions, making the driver's tasks easier and less tiring. And it is connected to the vehicle's GPS to help plot the most effective route.

The Econ story is far from over and the company has said it already has driverless vehicles and liquid de-icers in its sights.

That is the kind of ambition that takes you to a century.

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