Automated machine tools make easy work of what were once labour intensive and demanding tasks. Added to which, running for hours unattended and under ‘lights out’ conditions ensures the maximum return on expensive investments. But what if a malfunction were to cause a fire? Not only is expensive machinery now at risk but the building and any occupants are also under threat.

In one incident at a Colchester, Essex-based subcontractor, a fire resulting from a combination of neat oil and friction from a broken tool tip resulted in £45,000-worth of damage. However, a similar incident in nearby Maldon resulted in no damage at all, apart from the lingering smell of burnt oil. The second incident took place at 4 am when the factory was deserted, so why the difference in outcome? Well, CCTV footage shows clearly that the second fire was extinguished in just over five seconds, courtesy of an automatic fire suppression system provided by Firetrace Ltd (www.firetrace.co.uk).

Various designs of direct and indirect high and low pressure systems are manufactured by the Ipswich, Suffolk-based company, with its latest investment – a 20 hp/5000 rev/min Compact Turn 52 LTY turning centre supplied by XYZ Machine Tools Ltd – itself protected by a Firetrace system. This, says Dave Melton, who with wife Chris began the business in 1976, is no reflection on the quality, performance, reliability or safety of the new CNC machine. “It is simply a sensible precaution to take because, in the worst possible scenario, it is far better to deal promptly and effectively with a small fire than to suffer the consequences of a much larger one.”

The recently installed XYZ turning centre, which has a 12-station VDI turret holding live tooling that can be driven at up to 4000 rev/min, has a maximum swing of 400 mm and turned diameter and length capacities of 220 mm and 490 mm respectively. This provides the flexibility needed to cope with diverse production demands, including essential development and prototype work. The Y axis can travel 35 mm above and below centreline (70 mm total travel), ideal for components that would otherwise require separate milling and turning operations. Standard equipment includes a Renishaw automatic tool setting arm, hydraulic tailstock and parts catcher.

Programming of the Siemens 820D ShopTurn conversational control does not require G coding knowledge, with canned cycles making shopfloor programming fast and simple. Once written, completed programs can be checked using graphical simulation, with the finished component displayed on-screen as a 2D or 3D image. Set-up and programming is the responsibility of David Forsdike, Component Production Manager, who says that “previous experience of the ease with which an XYZ Mini Mill VMC can be programmed made for a smooth transition to the new turning centre. In fact, the inherent flexibility of the CT 52 made it my first choice for the type of work we do here.”

A Firetrace automatic fire suppressant system is essentially a flexible pressurised tube that can be fitted anywhere there is deemed to be a potential fire risk. In a typical system the tube simply weakens at the hottest point – at the heart of the fire – and then ruptures. This releases the extinguishant and results in minimal collateral damage. (In the case of the second subcontractor, the total cost of what could easily have been a major disaster amounted to a new bottle of extinguishant and the replacement of two small air pipes… and the undamaged machine tool was back in action within five hours!).

Always looking for new and novel ways of detecting and extinguishing fires, Dave Melton, who is still involved in the family-owned business with day-to-day operation the responsibility of sons Andy and Tim, continues to refine elements of the various Firetrace products. More than 40,000 systems have been installed to date, one of the first in a vehicle participating in the gruelling Paris-Dakar rally. Many more are now to be found in a wide range of applications from domestic/industrial cooker hoods to electrical/MCC panels and on to forklift trucks and mining equipment.

(Above) Firetrace Ltd’s founder Dave Melton (right) with David Forsdike, Component Production Manager, and the recently installed XYZ Compact Turn 52 LTY turning centre.

(Above) A Firetrace indirect automatic fire suppression system fitted inside the working area of the XYZ Compact Turn 52 LTY.

(Above) Various components machined for a Firetrace prototype fire suppressant release valve assembly.

(Above) A Firetrace direct automatic fire suppression system fitted inside the control cabinet of the XYZ Compact Turn 52 LTY turning centre.