In automotive manufacturing, Vector Pipe Line (VPL) machines are used to create and shape corrosion resistant tubing for exhaust systems. After purchasing two used VPLs for its production facility, Klarius Products Limited contracted KM Tools to refurbish them to modern standards. The company used its multi-disciplinary approach to upgrade the existing large production machines as well as build a new one.

The two original machines were purchased from the VW Group by UK based automotive manufacturing company Klarius. In order to provide replacement exhaust systems for virtually every car on the road over three years old, Klarius requires precision shaping of exhaust tube to different diameters and the flexibility of short run production batches.

Upgrading older machines

The VPL machines stand 6m high with a mezzanine level. In operation, the machines turn flat aluminium coated steel strip into a long loop of precision welded tube. Next, a robotised hydraulic bending and cutting head forms and shapes sections of the welded tube to suit tens of thousands of different exhaust systems.

Each VPL had completed an initial ten-year operational cycle and KM Tools was approached to carry out a full refurbishment before the machines were installed at Klarius. The principle challenge for KM Tools was to combine the best of the 30-year-old mechanical and hydraulic machine design with the latest factory automation control, networking and power systems.

KM Tools refurbished the machines from the ground up. The bending and cutting head of each machine features a dedicated hydraulics system. The head is able to turn 360 degrees, in any direction, and keep turning in the same direction. This greatly improves production flexibility and reduces the time to make each bend and adapt to each batch. Moreover, there is a 24v slip ring coupling in the head for power supply and all the control signals are wireless. The head talks to the control cabinet over a wireless Ethernet connection, which interfaces with EtherCAT within the control cabinet. Finally, the latest Omron PLCs and modern servo controllers are used for a lot of the movement.

Benefits of refurbishment

Having refurbished these machines, updating the controls and welding equipment to increase capacity and enhance reliability, KM Tools then set about building a brand new VPL, starting from only a few available parts. Using the knowledge gained from working on the first two, KM Tools updated the mechanical components and control electronics, while installing new in-line welding systems.

Mark Brickhill, CEO at Klarius, explained the benefits: “KM Tools has doubled the original theoretical output of each machine, but according to our very pleased production staff, the actual productivity is severalfold higher due to lower maintenance requirements and greatly reduced downtime. The other significant benefit is that the refurbishments and rebuilds were all achieved in scheduled maintenance periods, which allowed production to continue without any additional breaks beyond normal shut-down windows, maximising uptime.”

Adrian Degg, Group Engineering Director at KM Tools, concludes: “We are delighted with the outcome of this project. This refurbishment offers the perfect example of taking the opportunity to upgrade and improve an existing production asset, while providing a much shorter ROI than having to invest in a completely new machine.”