Simon Watson vividly remembers the moment he made his decision to buy his first laser processing machine. “I used to have an office that overlooked the workshop, and I could see all our welders spending most of their time cutting steel and drilling holes, rather than welding. I knew then we needed to get our skilled people doing what we pay them for.”
Simon is the owner and director of Watson Gym Equipment, a premium supplier of exercise machines, dumbbells, barbells and weight benches. The company, which was set up in rural Somerset in 1999, has evolved to become one of the most renowned brands in the personal fitness industry.
“I’ve always had a twin passion for both fitness and engineering,” begins Simon. “I was originally a welder by trade, so I started making some quite simple gym equipment in my spare time. All I had was an abrasive wheel, cut-off saw, a grinder, my welder and a sewing machine for doing the upholstery. I would take the finished equipment to local gyms and offer them for free for a week with an option to buy.”
While the first few years of operation were challenging, Simon soon identified a gap in the market for producing high-end specialist equipment, made bespoke to a customer’s requirements. This proved to be a pivotal turning point. As the company evolved, Simon – who still designs all the products himself – began to introduce more product lines into the Watson Gym portfolio. However, this approach was not without its own growing pains.
Simon continues: “Our biggest challenge is the sheer diversity of our portfolio. We manufacture over 250 different products, many of which are available in different variations. To cater for this high-mix, low-volume approach, we initially subcontracted a lot of the machining to third parties. However, retaining control of our inventory became increasingly difficult so we decided to bring all the machining in-house.”
The company’s first machine tool was a Mazak VCN-530C vertical machining center, purchased in 2010, which was used to machine weight stack plates and stems. However, it was not long before the VCN-530C was operating at maximum capacity, so Simon invested in a further Mazak lathe with a larger second spindle, followed by two QUICK TURN NEXUS 250-II MS turning centers.
“What really struck me when I was doing my research was Mazak’s DONE-IN-ONE philosophy, where components come off the machine as a finished product. Knowing we had to rapidly change between components, that really appealed to me.
A strong commitment to customer service was also another key factor in Simon choosing to partner with Mazak: “I have always placed great emphasis on customer service. It is critical to the success of my own business, so I expect the same attention to detail from my suppliers. It was very reassuring to know Mazak had a lot of engineers on the road who could respond quickly.”
While the company was growing from strength to strength, fueled by a burgeoning in-house machine shop, its rural location soon presented Simon with a scenario familiar to many OEMs: a shortage of skilled engineers. However, he was once more able to turn to technology to overcome this challenge.
He continues: “We knew how many plates we could produce running three shifts with three people loading the machine. We gave that information to Mazak, and they came back with an automated machine tending solution for our VCN. That meant we could produce twice as many weight plates within a 24-hour period, with the labour cost virtually taken out of it.”
However, Simon’s commitment to continuous production improvement led him to see another even bigger opportunity, which brings us back to his lightbulb moment. “I could see expensive, skilled welders doing quite menial tasks and I just thought there must be a better way.”
This sparked further conversation with Mazak around the prospect of integrating laser processing into the company’s in house manufacturing process. It culminated in 2017, with Mazak recommending a 3D FG-220 II laser processing machine with the capacity to cut multiple types of tube while also undertaking operations such as drilling and tapping.
“It was a momentous investment for a small company, but I kept doing the figures and it all stacked up. Buying that first FG-220 II is the biggest jump forward we've had with a single machine. However, it has completely transformed how we operate. Our welders are now welding, not cutting steel. They're doing what we pay them for.”
The FG-220 II was swiftly followed by a 3 kW OPTIPLEX NEXUS 3015 FIBER laser processing machine, and then a second FG-220 II when the company moved into a new facility in 2018. “With the lasers we can customise everything to suit us and cut components in a way we just couldn't before. We are cutting today what we are welding in 2-3 days’ time which keeps our stock right down.”
In 2021, Simon further increased the company’s productivity by upgrading the original OPTIPLEX to a 6 kW OPTIPLEX NEXUS 3015 FIBER version complete with a KST automation system. “We had an issue of storing sheet metal because we tended to pile the sheets ontop of each other, which meant that we were forever moving pallets out of the way to get to something underneath – all of which impacted productivity,” he continues.
“As soon as I saw the KST system I knew it could solve the problem. It stores all the steel out of the way and then is able to pick whatever you need and load it automatically. This has resulted in a huge increase in our overall operational efficiency, which in turn has helped shield us to a certain extent from the increase in steel prices.”
Going forward the plan is to keep expanding. “The personal fitness equipment sector is growing all the time and we’ve only really scratched the surface of what is possible. There are a lot of markets we've either not yet tapped into or that we can exploit further. Australia is a particularly good market for us, while the Middle East also has huge potential,” Simon concludes.
“Mazak will be a big part of us realising our ambitions. The more I worked with Mazak and the more I got to see the factories and meet the management, the more I got the feeling that the company really cares about its customers. From my very first enquiry, through to the installation, commissioning and aftersales support for every machine we have purchased from Mazak, the service is second to none. Indeed, when I visited Japan, I met the Yamazaki family and that told me I wasn’t dealing with a faceless company, but with real people who wanted the best for Watson Gym Equipment. For me, this is the difference.”