Past meets present as a vintage car is restored with the help of a hi-tech lathe

The purchase of a Harrison Alpha 1400XS manual/CNC lathe from 600 UK has brought major improvements in speed, product quality and cost-effectiveness to AJ Glew, one of the UK’s leading restorers of vintage Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars.

The Alpha is used for the turning of up to 400 automotive parts, manufactured to the specification of original Rolls-Royce technical drawings. AJ Glew believes that the investment has already paid for itself, in terms of improving manufacturing turnaround times.

AJ Glew was founded in 1997 by experienced Rolls-Royce engineer Allan Glew, who still runs the company with his son Frazer. The company has a global reputation for the quality of its restoration work, specialising in Silver Ghosts and Phantoms dating from 1906 to 1928. Meanwhile, its commitment to sourcing original blueprints – in some cases, over 100 years old – means that it is also a major supplier of vintage Rolls-Royce parts to fellow restorers.

Until 2013, parts were turned on manual lathes; given their intricacy, it was a time-consuming process to ensure the accuracy that AJ Glew prides itself on.  As a result, Allan Glew investigated the options in automated lathes at MACH 2012, where he was introduced to 600 UK and the Alpha XS range.

“I had actually been looking at a more complex lathe from another manufacturer but when I saw the Alpha I realised it fitted the bill perfectly. The Alpha is designed as an entry level model and, as such, was the natural progression from our existing manual process,” Allan explained.

Another key selling point was the fact that the Harrison Alpha is a British brand. “We like to keep true to Rolls-Royce’s British roots, so it is great that even a modern piece of kit like the Alpha is part of the nation’s engineering heritage.”

The lathe chosen by the company was the popular Alpha 1400XS, perfectly suited to produce detailed, intricate components with fast, high-quality repeatability, excellent accuracy and surface finish and, most importantly of all, lower component production cost. Amongst many other features, it offers a 400mm swing over bed, 1250mm between centres and a 7.5kW main spindle motor – plus a host of turning features as standard.

AJ Glew’s investment did not end with the purchase of the Alpha lathe. The company has also built an extension to its premises in the Cotswolds, ensuring that the Alpha can take pride of place in a bespoke machine shop, while freeing up more space in the workshop to meet the increased demand that the Alpha makes possible.

The company has also hired Liam O’Reily, an experienced CNC operator and programmer, to operate the Alpha. 600 UK arranged training with applications engineer Trevor Matthews, after which Liam was ready to run the machine. 

For AJ Glew, the ease of programming is one of the key selling points of the Alpha. Liam uses the Alpha’s intuitive Manual Guide interface, which leads the operator by a series of questions in order to automatically generate a program to turn each part. 

Initially, Liam tested the Alpha’s capabilities by asking it to manufacture parts from nylon, in order not to waste metal and to ensure that the finished product matched the blueprints, with positive results. 

For AJ Glew, the quality of the finished work is paramount and this is where the Alpha triumphs. “If it doesn’t look right, we would lose our market overnight,” explained Frazer Glew. “As soon as we saw the test parts, even in nylon, it was obvious that the Alpha’s speed and ease of use went hand-in-hand with quality results.”

With the majority of the 400-strong portfolio of parts now programmed into the machine, the Alpha can manufacture parts quickly to a uniformly high standard. “We’ve gone from averaging a few parts per day, to as many as eight in an hour. Even on parts with complex threads, the final finish is outstanding,” Frazer confirmed.   

AJ Glew has been impressed with the versatility of the machine.  “Should we need to tweak the design of a part to suit the needs of a specific restoration, the Alpha can handle it, giving us the same control we enjoyed on the manual lathes,” commented Frazer.

The Alpha now operates daily, enabling AJ Glew to manufacture parts faster and more cost-effectively. Frazer Glew believes that the Alpha has already paid for itself, particularly given the weather conditions since it was installed in 2013. “Winter is our busiest period, as customers want work done when it’s cold so they can be on the road when the temperature rises. Given last year’s strong summer and an early Spring in 2014, the window has been shorter than ever – yet the Alpha has helped us to meet high demand.”

With such positive results, it is no surprise that AJ Glew is considering further options for automation. “Purchasing the Alpha has brought us into 2014, yet without losing our links to 1906,” confirmed Allan Glew. “The marriage of vintage and modern engineering excellence has really lifted our standards, enabling us to work faster and more efficiently to restore Rolls-Royces to their original splendour.

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