Pictured: Vollmer UK MD, Martyn Cross, with Systco Unilap general manager, Bob Young, and MD, Gary Hughes

Almost 50 years ago, South Yorkshire Saw & Tool Co – a small saw blade sharpening and ancillary supply company – first opened its doors for business. Wind forwards half a century and the Doncaster manufacturer that started working out of a two-bay garage has evolved into one of the UK’s leading saw blade and round tool manufacturing and servicing companies for the woodworking industry.

The transformation of the company now known as Unilap is highly impressive. Still family-owned and operated by the sons of company founder, Darrell Hughes, Unilap has invested heavily in sharpening technology from Vollmer UK since the late 1970s. Now, as the company continues its exceptional growth trajectory, it has invested in another three Vollmer machines to increase capacity and compress lead times of its 5,000+ product lines.

Unilap utilises its automated CNC technology to manufacture everything from circular saw blades, TCT and PCD tipped rotary tools and solid carbide tools. To manufacture the countless product lines with thousands of new, re-sharpened and serviced tools being delivered each week, the company has increased its Vollmer plant list to 11 Vollmer machines.

Adding to the portfolio that already includes QM, CHD, CHX, QXD and QWD models, the Doncaster manufacturer purchased a Vollmer CHX840 with an HS loading system in April 2022. This was rapidly followed by a Vollmer QXD250 with the HC5 loader in July and then a Vgrind 260 with an HC4 loading system in October.

The investment in additional capacity and capability is the result of annual post-Covid growth of 25%, as well as growth in new market segments. The reasoning behind the CHX840 and the QXD250 was simple. The automated CHX840 saw blade sharpening machine was purchased to add unmanned ‘lights-out’ running and alleviate capacity on the 22-employee company’s other saw blade manufacturing and servicing machines.

“As we expand our customer base in the woodworking sector, the QXD250 and CHX840 are giving us huge capacity and productivity benefits that will be the foundation block for future growth”

Likewise, Unilap already had a nine-year-old Vollmer QXD200 machine running around the clock, so upgrading to a brand-new QXD250 would add capacity. It would also support the rapid growth and give continuity of supply in the event of planned maintenance or machine downtime on the existing QXD200. The Vgrind 260 was a completely new technology and a leap of faith for Unilap – a leap the company is delighted it has made.

As Unilap Managing Director, Carl Hughes says: “We have been buying Vollmer machines for over 40 years and we love the brand. The build quality, innovation, reliability and the ability to outperform all other machines is what keeps us buying Vollmer.

“The new machines are more user-friendly, productive, flexible and capable than ever before. The strides forward in technology from Vollmer compared to our older existing machines is phenomenal.”

With saw blade manufacturing continually growing and a series of robot-loaded Vollmer CHD machines running around the clock, Unilap wanted to automate the production of smaller- diameter saw blades to ease capacity issues and compress lead times. The solution was the Vollmer CHX840 with an HS automation system that can accommodate up to 25 saw blades.

Commenting upon the unprecedented post- Covid growth of 30% for saw blades, Carl adds: “Whilst Covid was difficult for many people, others managed to save a lot of money and
as soon as the pandemic ended, consumers invested in home renovations. This rapidly accelerated the demand for circular saw blades.”

QXD200 and QXD250 side by side at Systco Unilap

Unilap wanted a machine capable of producing saw blades of 180mm diameter and smaller. This would leave the existing CHD machines to automatically process larger saws whilst alleviating capacity pressure on the manually loaded saw blade sharpening machines. The Vollmer CHX840, with the HS automation system, was the perfect fit.

Before the arrival of the CHX840, an employee would produce upward of 200 saw blades a week by manually loading a saw blade sharpening machine for 8-10 hours a day. With the arrival of the CHX840, up to 22 blades can be loaded to the automation system during the day and this will run unmanned whilst the operator can continue running a manually loaded machine. However, the major benefit is having the ability to re-load the CHX840 with another 22 saw blades at the end of the day shift to run overnight unmanned – effectively doubling capacity.

Also contributing to the success of the business is the new QXD250 machine with its HC5 automation system. The QXD250 was installed to underpin the growth of the rotary PCD tipped tool division and, before its arrival, the existing Vollmer QXD200 machine was running 24 hours a day and six days a week. This gave the company no opportunity to grow its production of specialist rotary tools.

Additionally, any time-consuming complex tools would create a bottleneck. As Bob adds: “Despite the complexity of the PCD tools we produce, our lead times would be 2-3 weeks for a new tool with existing re-tipping and servicing tools often having a lead time of around one week. With the new QXD250, we can reduce the lead times to less than one week – and in many instances 2-3 days.”

The QXD250 was supplied with the HC5 automation system that can accommodate 28 tools up to 320mm in diameter and 250mm long with a weight of up to 25kg. Offering 24/7 unmanned running, the new QXD250 at Unilap is frequently running non-stop for up to six days without an intervention.

“The leap forward in technology with the new QXD250 is incredible,” comments Bob. “The QXD250 incorporates Vollmer’s new VPulse EDM generator that is increasing our cutting speeds by up to 40% whilst delivering vastly improved surface finishes up to 0.1μRa.

“From a software perspective, the machine has a Windows-based interface with the ExLevel PRO software that makes programming the machine much easier with its flexibility and intuitive interface. We can programme tools 50% faster than before.

“Added to this, the enhanced probing technology can now probe a tool in three minutes as opposed to 30 minutes on the previous machine. When you add all of these factors together, the new QXD250 is at least 50% more productive than its predecessor and the overall comparative time saving can be up to 70% to 80% when you add in the programming, set-up and probing efficiencies.”

The final machine of the three to arrive at Unilap was the Vollmer Vgrind 260 with an HC4 loading system that can accommodate up to 158 round shank tools. With its unique multi- layer machining concept that has two vertically positioned grinding spindles on the C-axis pivot point, the move to a new machine concept was a daunting prospect for Unilap – but the company now wishes it made the move sooner.

Systco Unilap MD, Carl Hughes, on one of the many Vollmer machines

Unilap produces an ever-increasing quantity of compression cutters for the woodworking and composite sectors. However, these ‘up cut down cut’ tools incorporate a more complex geometry than standard tools. That was until the arrival of the Vgrind 260.

“To prevent delamination on surfaces, the compression tools have two opposing geometries on a single tool, which can pose more of a challenge with the programming process,” adds Bob. “However, the Numroto software suite on the Vgrind 260 makes the programming and production of compression tools and other complex geometry tools very simple. The intuitive guidance through the process enables us to programme and produce these tools with ease, and this is further streamlining our output and cutting our lead times with complex tools.”

The transition of rotary carbide tools from our other CNC machines to the Vgrind has been seamless. The NUMROTOPLUS software platform makes programming easy, as it combines simulation and collision monitoring in an intuitive control panel. This is perfect for processing new tools and moving existing tools from our other machines has proven to be simplistic.

“The new investment in state-of-the-art technology from Vollmer is a statement of intent from Unilap,” Bob concludes. “As we expand our customer base in the woodworking sector, the QXD250 and CHX840 are giving us huge capacity and productivity benefits that will be the foundation block for future growth.

“With the new Vollmer investment, we can also deliver an astounding level of quality on everything from standard to special rotary tools and saw blades with impressive lead times.”