Aberlink graced the cover of the March 2013 edition of Production Engineering Solutions and were featured in a special 3-page company report.

Full published report below - Words: Dave Tudor (PES)

Spot the difference

Whilst there are many companies selling inspection and metrology equipment in the UK, there are very few, if indeed any, like Aberlink. As Dave Tudor discovered, the prime differentiator here is that all manufacturing, R&D, software development, programming and applications support takes place under one roof – the company’s headquarters in Eastcombe, Gloucestershire.

When arriving at Aberlink's facility, visitors could be forgiven for thinking that this is just a showroom area - albeit an attractive, modern, highly functional one.

On display is a range of Aberlink equipment - from Axiom too and Zenith CMMs through to Project X camera based vision systems, but behind the showroom and display area is where things really get interesting because there's an assembly area, a fully equipped machine shop and an office area that's home to software development, admin, applications engineering and customer support.

All this is necessary because everything Aberlink produces in terms of equipment, software and IP emanates from its headquarters in Eastcombe. This is a self-sufficient operation if ever there was one - from machining its own CMM guideways on a Cincinnati FTV 640 machining centre to manufacturing its own air bearings.

Software driven

Aberlink Is the brainchild of two ex-Renishaw employees Gavin Bailey and Marcus Eales. Mr Bailey looks after the commercial side of the business whilst Mr Eales is responsible for all product development and design - both hardware and software. Since its inception, the business has grown into the largest UK-owned manufacturer of CMMs, vision systems and measurement software.

The company started back in 1993 and as Mr Bailey explains the launchpad was an idea conceived from work that Mr Eales had been involved with at Renishaw. "Marcus had developed a novel method for the error mapping of volumetric area and this was born in part through his work with Renishaw's ballbar products", he says "we decided to literally develop a range of metrology products that would incorporate this technology."

At the heart of Aberlink's success is the Aberlink 3D software that to this day incorporates Mr Eales' error mapping concept although it has developed significantly over the years.

Mr Bailey believes that when the company first started out, this was the real game changer: "In the early days of CMMs, accuracy was entirely dependent on the build quality of the machines themselves. They were often made from granite and steel and were very expensive because of the painstaking accuracy that needed to be inherently built in "we changed all that," he continues. "Our machines are built predominantly from aluminium - which was almost unheard of back then - and we compensate for any inaccuracies via the error mapping capabilities of the software through a very intuitive user interface. I believe we were one of the first companies to adopt this software-based approach and another important aspect to note is that from day one, our software has been developed to work on the Microsoft Windows platform."

Britain’s got talent

In the early days however, Mr Eales' concept was just that - a concept, and concepts don't put food on the table.

To fund the CMM projects Messrs Eales and Bailey invested in some machine tools and offered a subcontract machining service. This provided a somewhat erratic, but much needed, income stream, and it did enable the duo to manufacture parts for their CMM projects in­house. Ultimately, investing in machining capability turned out to be a shrewd move which effectively shaped the company's evolution because today it manufactures all component parts used in its metrology equipment in-house.

Pausing for reflection for a second, the remarkable thing about all this is the fact that prior to setting up Aberlink with Mr Bailey, Mr Eales had no software programming experience whatsoever. "He just picked up a book one day and started from there," says Mr Bailey. "He started by writing software to program our CNC machine tools initially and then went on to develop our bestselling 3D software that is now used throughout the world on thousands of machines. An incredible achievement when you think about it. He's a rare talent indeed."

The real break. however, came in 1995 when Aberlink applied for a DTI Smart Award and received a £70,000 development grant. This enabled the company to expand its workforce and develop its metrology products and software property. Today Aberlink employs 33 direct members of staff, utilises a self-employed sales force to look after business in the UK and operates a distribution network of 29 dealers operating across 35 countries globally. Over 80% of its products are exported.

Powerfully practical

Aberlink's products are designed from the ground up to offer powerful functionality combined with operational simplicity and broadly speaking, things fall more or less into three main areas: hardware (CMMs and vision systems); software (Aberlink 3D, Vision and CAD): and ancillary services (retrofitting, rental schemes and contract inspection).

The company's sphere of expertise is mainly at the small end of component inspection and the Axiom too is its bestselling machine. Equipped with Renishaw probing, this comes in four different sizes and offers a large measurement volume of 640mm in X, 600, 900, 1,200 or 1,500mm in Y and 500mm in Z. Both CNC and manual variants are available with the former offering the capability of storing and recalling CNC inspection routines Manual machines can be converted to CNC via a simple retrofit upgrade.

The Axiom too's aluminium bridge structure ensures that if the CMM is not housed in a temperature-controlled environment the machine will expand and contract uniformly with temperature fluctuations ensuring distortion free operation. Ambient temperature can be compensated for in the Aberlink 3D software making it ideal for use on the shopfloor.

Components up to 300kg can be accommodated and a granite and honeycomb aluminium table provides natural damping characteristics.

Other options

For customers needing to inspect larger components, Aberlink offers the Zenith too CMM. This has a measurement volume of 1,000mm in X, 1,000 to 3,000mm in Y and 600mm or 800mm In Z. Both the Axiom too and Zenith too have a plethora of optional extras available from manual/motorised indexable probe heads and CCD camera systems through to CAD comparison software modules and automatic ambient temperature compensation sensors. Plans to unveil an even larger CMM will come to fruition later in 2013, "we see a lot of business potential in the oil and gas. automotive and power generation markets, so a larger CMM is under development as we speak," Mr Bailey divulges.

But not all components can be inspected via probing methods so completing the hardware line-up is the Project X non-contact camera based vision system which uses a patented technology XY scale that not only records the X and Y positions but also any rotational movement of the camera system. In addition, this is an absolute scale system which means that as soon as you switch the machine on, it knows exactly where it is - with no need for referencing. The air bearing mounted camera is free to glide around the measurement area without any worry about restraining the mechanics to avoid losing accuracy. Project X is designed to provide a modern, reliable alternative to using a profile projector. Conveniently, Aberlink's camera can be swapped out with the probe on the CMM in seconds turning it instantly into a vision system.

Jewel in the crown

But Aberlink's real jewel in the crown that quite literally drives everything else, is its geometric measurement software Aberlink 3D and optional variant modules Vision and CAD - the former for use on vision, camera-based systems and the latter for when there's a requirement to measure directly against a CAD model.

"Aberlink 3D software is by far the number one selling feature on our machines but we also sell it as a standalone product to other metrology companies, affirms Mr Bailey. Baty International for example bundle the software with their own vision systems, Faro sell it as part of their inspection arm packages and because we have such a strong export market there are a large number of overseas manufacturers that bundle our software with their hardware.

"Users like Aberlink 3D simply because of its user-friendly graphical interface and powerful features and the fact we develop it in-house means we can be price-competitive and flexible. We've sold over 2,000 software seats globally and it can work with most manufacturers' CMMs via a controller upgrade retrofit that we can do here."

Under control

In terms of flexibility, having all constituent elements of a business at your disposal has significant benefits. "The main advantage is that we can bring products to market very quickly," Mr Bailey enthuses ·Many of our product development ideas originate from customers. We can bring them back here. start working on them and prove a concept sometimes in timescales as short as a week. Through our in­house machine shop, assembly area and software development department we can produce prototypes and tweak designs as necessary in-house. I believe this capability is totally unique to Aberlink and it offers us a real competitive advantage over our competitors."

Sound business ethics are also a cornerstone of Aberlink's success. It's a debt­free, profitable business that has enjoyed growth year on year, - but Mr Bailey describes that growth as 'controlled'. "Offering cost-effective, high quality products, service and support is what we're all about and we won't jeopardise that by overstretching ourselves to a point where we can’t look after our customers properly." he concludes.