Jon Keeling and Phil Atkinson admit they are obsessed with motorbikes, engineering and exotic materials, which explains why in 2004 they set up Racefit Ltd to manufacture titanium exhausts for the motorcycle after-market. However, these were never going to be me-too exhaust systems, with the emphasis from the beginning on innovative design and quality of manufacture.
It is the consistency and reliability provided by a new BLM CNC tube bending machine that explains why Phil Atkinson says "it was not so much a case of whether we could afford to buy this machine, as a case of it being exactly what we need to guarantee 100 per cent good parts that will fit precisely into our assembly jigs."
"BLM is a class act and the ELECT is an awesome machine that has the capability to do exactly what we want and more," adds Jon Keeling. "In fact, we are now equipped to offer quality tube bending on a subcontract basis…and because we work with tube all the time we know we can bend titanium, steel and aluminium tube to a very high standard."
"We had to be different to be successful," says Phil Atkinson. "Other manufacturers faced with rising material prices were outsourcing production to China to cut their costs and there was no way we wanted to do that." To which Jon Keeling adds: "Having worked for pretty much all the major exhaust manufacturers in this country, Phil knew enough about manufacturing exhaust systems to be able to look at it from a completely different perspective. I didn't know anything about manufacturing exhaust systems, so I was looking at it from a different perspective anyway!"
The result is that five years later the Matlock, Derbyshire-based business has emerged as a leading supplier of titanium exhaust systems bearing such evocative names as Growler, Slash and Mega. In fact, this year's FIM Sidecar World Championship-winning LCR Suzuki outfit sports a Racefit exhaust. Despite finishing second in the final race of the season at Le Mans on 6th September 2009, Ben and Tom Birchall made it into the record books, with Ben's younger brother making history by becoming the youngest-ever passenger to win a World Sidecar Championship.
"We are passionate about what we do, and that is designing and manufacturing products that appeal to like-minded people who simply want the best," says Jon Keeling. "This is why we use titanium tube. It's light, strong and super-corrosion resistant but it is also ten times the price of stainless steel. That's why we have invested in a BLM CNC tube bending machine…because we can't afford to waste material."
Apart from carbon fibre sleeves and laser cutting of support brackets, everything is processed in-house. "We were subcontracting our tube bending but we use big diameter - up to 63 mm - thin wall titanium tube, and that can be difficult to bend," says Phil Atkinson. "Virtually every bit of our product involves tube that we have to buy in 200 metres at a time and, at around £50 per metre, rejecting subcontracted components because of 'wrinkles' on the bends was expensive and time-consuming. We were also experiencing delivery problems as our work was not always seen as a priority."
The latest-generation all-electric BLM ELECT-63 CNC tube bender was installed in June 2009, with the inherent precision and control of all the axes positioning guaranteeing consistent, highly accurate, bends. However, the benefits for an end-user such as Racefit do not stop there. The machine's multi-stack tool mounting facility allows multi radius and variable radius bending of the same tube to take place in a single set-up. Bends with very little straight between them, even compound bends, can also be accommodated, along with tight bends that can have a radius less than the tube diameter.
"Because the ELECT's control holds all the relevant programs, it allows us to make to order," says Jon Keeling. "Given that most orders come in via the internet, this ensures the shortest possible time between receipt of order and dispatch of the completed exhaust system."
All critical machine setting parameters are managed by the Siemens 840D SL CNC 'Solution-Line' control system, which interfaces with BLM's VGP3D graphical programming and simulation software to provide fully automatic and truly interpolated simultaneous movement of all nine machine axes. This eliminates 'dead time' within the tube bending cycle and effectively de-skills the tube bending process previously so reliant on individual operator expertise. The new machine's precise calibration cycle means that it is set right-first-time and guarantees that a first-off part, and all subsequent parts, will be to specification.