There is something reassuring about the click of a quality switch and, at St Leonards-based Focus SB they have forged a highly successful business by targeting the high-end market in hospitality, residential and heritage electrical wiring accessories market. A pioneer in the manufacture of high- quality electrical sockets and switch plates, it has maintained its success through innovation and investment. Most recently it has installed an Autopulit robot polishing, graining and brushing cell, initially to improve production of switch rockers.
Focus SB has been manufacturing its standard and bespoke ranges of electrical wiring accessories (light switches and sockets) for over 40 years over which time it has supplied products for many prestigious projects from five-star hotels, and exclusive residential developments to royal palaces. Its products, particularly the switches and faceplates are manufactured from three main materials: brass and stainless steel, (which can be brushed finish, polished, plated or painted) and clear acrylic plates that allow the décor to show through. In 2016, company chairman Roger Kemp invited Gary Stevens to join the company as Managing Director with the challenge to drive the company forward. Addressing an urgent supply chain issue led Gary to China and a whole new market was opened up to Focus SB, which is now the only UK-based manufacturer of electrical wiring accessories with CQC approval (China’s equivalent of British Standards) allowing it to export into the lucrative and growing Chinese market for high-end fittings.
“Breaking in to the Chinese market was a major coup for the business,” says Gary Stevens. “However, it did come with its own challenges that made us look at our manufacturing operations, in particular our productivity as we tend to operate with relatively small batches and used lots of hand finishing techniques and skills developed over many years.” With a history of re-investing in the business, attention turned to how to automate production, with initial focus on the rockers that feature in both the light switches and wall sockets produced by Focus SB. These come in different sizes and forms, but key was consistency, as when two or more rockers sit side by side any discrepancy becomes glaringly obvious. Quality and consistency were key, alongside a robot system that could provide linishing and polishing in a single cell, prior to hand finishing. The solution proposed by Ellesco was an Autopulit robot cell with an ABB robot arm presenting parts to a single linishing belt, along with a double-ended spindle, which can be equipped with Nylon web brushes, Scotch-Brite or polishing mops complete with tanks and guns to automatically apply compounds fluids. This combination means the cell is capable of grinding, linishing, polishing and graining. For added productivity the cell is also fitted with a twin-pallet system to handle raw and finished parts without manual intervention.”
One of the challenges facing Focus SB was the transfer of what was a highly labour-intensive process to the robot cell taking into account the wide range of sizes and shapes of the switch rockers that it produces. Two members of the Focus SB team went for training on the cell where they developed the skills required to manage the cell efficiently. “To meet this challenge we took the decision to start with the smallest and most challenging rocker, with the view that everything after that would be straightforward, which it was. Small tweaks were made to the software to create the accuracy of the profile we wanted which has freed up the operators who used to do this work by hand, releasing them to do more interesting and rewarding work and have also learned new skills. Moving to automation hasn’t cost anyone their job,” says Gary Stevens. “The investment in the Autopulit cell was driven by quality and productivity demands. We sell our products on the back of their quality and our customers can be, quite rightly when paying for a premium product, highly discerning. The automated cell from Ellesco has delivered what we needed and eliminated any concerns in that area, and while the initial process of transferring a highly-skilled manual operation to a fully robot-controlled cell was a challenge, we are now processing all of our switch rockers on it and producing them more consistently, in terms of quality and also faster. With the rockers now an established process on the robot cell we can look to expand its use on similar products and components.”
The addition of the Autopulit cell has enhanced Focus SB’s versatility, while batch quantities are relatively low, they are increasing, and the time savings generated by the automation of the grinding, linishing, polishing and graining operations has created additional capacity. “Our flexibility both in terms of product design and manufacture sets us apart from other manufacturers, we are happy to make a one-off, especially for our heritage projects. However, the growth of the Chinese market and other areas such as the middle east and Commonwealth countries, in addition to the UK domestic market, that all use British standards means that business is growing, and the robot cell supplied by Ellesco will allow us to meet that demand more easily,” says Gary Stevens