In 1981, with great anticipation, Brian Gardner opened Oak Engineering in a small room at the back of a café in Germiston, Gauteng, with only a single second hand conventional Colchester lathe and a Bridgeport mill.
Now, 34 years later Oak Engineering occupies a 1300m² factory in Greenhills Industrial Estate, Tunney Ext 6, Germiston, Gauteng, employs 29 staff and has a shopfloor that is occupied by six high end Okuma CNC machine tools.
“I had limited knowledge in the machining arena when I started. I had only completed a couple of years as a turning and machining apprentice at a large multi-disciplined company when the urge came that I must do something on my own,” said Brian with a little smile on his face.
Brothers Richard and Brian Gardner of Oak Engineering
Oak Engineering installed an Okuma MB 66-VA CNC vertical milling machine last year, supplied by F&H Machine Tools. CNC vertical milling provides the possibility to mill various configurations and shapes, including 3D forms. CNC milling machines are used for the production of simple parts with some holes, as well as for complicated 3D form milling. This technology is also used to carry out final treatment of the welded steel structures in order to mill surfaces or drill precise holes
“In the beginning anything and everything would be tackled, and that even continued when my brother Richard joined me in 1983. We were at the bottom of the food chain and had to build up a reputation. We were a desperate jobbing shop but we had a will to succeed,” continued Brian.
“We had a simple plan: Cast a wide net and something was bound to stick.”
Today the company is not quite the jobbing shop that it started out as. In fact it is worlds apart. The business operates as a disciplined entity, building on the strengths established from success and a work-hard ethic that the brothers have put into the company.
“Our goal now is to secure more business in market sectors that demand the same precision and production efficiencies that our customers have become accustomed to,” continued Brian.
“We can’t say that we have been successful because we have had a high volume simple-to-machine components strategy, or even one where we have pursued complex jobs involving complicated processes done on single components machine, for the reason that we are neither.”
“We have rather invested in our equipment but not in any particular direction. We have a range of CNC machining centres and lathes, while at the same time we have a decent compliment of conventional equipment. This gives us flexibility and the comfort to know that we will not waste a huge amount of expensive machining time on one of our CNCs when an uncomplicated job can be done on a conventional machine.”
The Okuma MB 66-VA is equipped with a Kitagawa TRX 320 heavy-duty rotary table that gives the machine integrated 4th axis capabilities. This now allows the company to machine many different components in a ‘done-in-one’ operation
Shafts that have been machined in a ‘done-in-one’ operation
“A good example of this is the large size shafts, lengthwise up to five metres, that we machine. The volumes don’t justify buying a turning centre with big capabilities so they are done on the conventional centre lathe. Conversely all of the small shafts up to 1500mm in length by 500mm diametre are done on the CNC machines.”
“Shops can’t afford to only do one thing anymore. You have to be able to do a mix of things. Shops have to be ready to do just-in-time for customers, stock parts for them and even carry out some assembly. We separate ourselves from the competition by offering a mix of machining technologies along with value-added engineering. We even take complete responsibility for processing customer jobs, including outside services where necessary, to ensure they can purchase a complete assembly.”
“We are not big on the fabrication side and do not intend to be, but we will not turn away any requests. It is all about being service orientated and taking care of the extended needs of our current customer base.”
Taking the CNC plunge
When CNC machine technology was gaining popularity in the 1980s the brothers did not think they would be acquiring one in the near future, even though they saw tremendous potential in CNC machines.
The turning point for the company came when they noticed that their first client Copalcor had a CNC that was very under utilised.
“That was back in 1989 and it would be our first encounter with Okuma machines. We struck up an agreement with them and before we knew it we had the LC 1500 on our floor. We were into this less downtime, interpolation, contouring, finishes and high precision, all traits that are attributed to the CNC machining concept,” explained Richard.
“We had moved into a bigger factory in Premier Park, Germiston South, by that stage so space was not a problem,” continued Richard.
Oak Engineering can machine shafts up to five metres in length on their conventional lathes
Oak Engineering has standardised on Okuma CNC equipment for their machine shop
“The machine opened up a whole new world and set the course for the company’s future machine tool acquisitions. By 1994 we had purchased two more CNCs but this time we went the new route. Both of them were Okuma LB 15s. We are very loyal to our suppliers and that is why we have stuck to the Okuma brand. Besides, we don’t believe in purchasing a machine that will have to be replaced in two years. We look for a minimum of 10 years lifespan.”
Once the company invested in these high integrity CNC machines, the machines drove the business to find more complex and high precision work. For the Oak Engineering team, it’s critical to invest in the latest equipment in order to keep up with competition and customer demands.
New Okuma MB 66-VA CNC vertical milling machine
This is exemplified with the addition of an Okuma MB 66-VA CNC vertical milling machine last year.
“CNC vertical milling provides the possibility to mill various configurations and shapes, including 3D forms. CNC milling machines are used for the production of simple parts with some holes, as well as for complicated 3D form milling. This technology is also used to carry out final treatment of the welded steel structures in order to mill surfaces or drill precise holes,”
The Okuma MB 66-VA has a milling length (X axis) of up to 1500mm, a milling width (Y axis) of up to 660mm and a maximum spindle speed of 15000 rpm.
Oak Engineering has also equipped the Okuma MB 66-VA with a Kitagawa TRX 320 heavy-duty rotary table that gives the machine integrated 4th axis capabilities. This now allows the company to machine many different components in a ‘done-in-one’ operation.
Included amongst the Okuma lineup is a Space Turn LB4000 EX CNC turning centre, which is built on Okuma’s Thermo-Friendly Concept to ensure minimal thermal growth, also supplied by F&H Machine Tools
A view of the conventional machine section at Oak Engineering
“Flexibility is a key requirement for our production mix and we gain a processing choice with this machine. We can run one job complete or we can run two different parts through the machine. Coupled with our mill/turn and conventional two-axis turning centers, we can pick the best combination of turning and milling operations for the work we have, rather than trying to fit the work to a limited process capability.”
“We love the machine not only for its operational efficiencies and the versatility that it offers, but also because of the OSP control. We are biased because we have a floor full of Okumas, however we believe they are one of the best machines on the market,” said Richard.
Controlling every aspect of the manufacturing process is also the key to the shop’s ability to be both competitive and profitable. Both Brian and Richard fully understand that the shop must continually find ways to machine parts “better, faster and cheaper.”
Oak Engineering cuts a variety of materials, including steel, aluminium, stainless steel, copper and brass and is not scared to tackle those difficult to machine requests.
The owners of Oak Engineering also believe that in today’s manufacturing environment, many customers equate shop cleanliness with quality.
“If a customer visits our operation and sees the environment in which we manufacture, it’s a plus for getting the order,” says Brian. “Our shop is a sales tool. Of course we must do the job correctly but the first impression customers get when they see us helps give us a time to explain our manufacturing capabilities,” said Brian.
There are other advantages that Oak Engineering has reaped from its clean, well-lit and spacious shop environment in Greenhills Industrial Park, Tunney, Germiston, which they custom built six years ago.
Some larger shafts that have been CNC machined at Oak Engineering
Oak Engineering cuts a variety of materials, including steel, aluminium, stainless steel, copper and brass and is not scared to tackle those difficult to machine requests
“Finding and keeping good people has been easier with an orderly shop. To maintain a competitive business in an industry that is fighting to keep jobs from being outsourced to China and India, you need to be on top of your game and take advantage of any aspect that you can control,” said Brian.
The brothers have also kept the business in the family. Both their wives work in the administration department, and Richard’s daughter has recently joined to take care of the social responsibility aspects of the business.
“There are a myriad of rules and regulations that are thrown at us these days, which we understand have to be taken care of. However these are going to be to the detriment of many SMMEs in this country. We are fortunate that we can afford to employ a dedicated staff member but many small businesses will not be able to do so,” said Brian.
“Moving into the future Oak Engineering must preserve its assets (Staff) and remain competitive in a new global engineering world. As far as we can see engineered products in South Africa are mostly of a high international standard, so at Oak Engineering we remain positive for the future,” concluded Brian.
For further details contact Oak Engineering on TEL: 011 822 2555