Firm packs a punch as it marks robotic revolution

Edward Pryor and sons 'Master Engraver Dennis Hopwood
Edward Pryor and sons 'Master Engraver Dennis Hopwood
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Edward Pryor can claim to be making its mark on everything from engine parts for aerospace giant Rolls Royce and chassis numbers for luxury car maker Jaguar through to cutlery, jewellery and even cigarettes.

And, just how the Sheffield-based company does it is equally diverse – using everything from robots with lasers on fast-moving production lines where hold-ups lasting a few seconds spell disaster, to a man with a hammer and a hand-held punch.

In more than 160 years the Egerton Street company has done everything from engraving the 70 words of the Lord’s Prayer on a piece of metal no bigger than a 5p piece to developing complex software that automatically reads 2D barcodes packed with data tracing every production process.

What’s more, it still does just about everything it has ever done and more using techniques that range from the traditional skills of craftsmen engravers to CNC machines.

Hand punches and engraving were the foundation of the business, which now trades as Pryor Marking Technology.

“A big part of the business was cutlery and punches bearing the maker’s mark,” says business development manager Alastair Morris.

“We have built up a huge catalogue of marks through the years and, once upon a time, we would have had row upon row of specialist engravers.

“We still have a guy who does engraving that way. If it is a particular design that we don’t keep as standard, he is faster than a CNC machine because of the time it takes to set the machine up and we still sell hand punches through catalogues.”

Hand punches are used by smaller manufacturing companies the world over to mark low-volume products and, if it is clarity, quality and durability they want, Pryor’s punches are top of their list.

A big part of Pryor’s business revolves around computer controlled dot matrix markers, capable of printing text and machine-readable 2D codes on a range of materials.

Pryor introduced dot markers in the 1970s and has developed a range that can be hand-held, bench-mounted or part of a production line – either linked to a machine or mounted on a robot.

Vision systems followed, which are not only capable of reading and checking the mark is the right mark for the component and in the right position, but also of judging when the time is right to carry out maintenance or install new marking pins.

Pryor’s software – dubbed Traceable-IT and pronounced “traceability” – links in to the user’s own asset management systems.

Depending how the marker has been programmed, the software can tell manufacturers and end users everything from where and when the raw material was produced to which operators, using which machines, worked on it after that.

Just before the new Millennium, Pryor moved into laser marking, which offers a clearer image, similar to printing, and can be used on materials like glass, plastic and wood, which might be damaged by a dot marker, as well as metal.

Lasers aren’t so popular in aerospace, however, where there are concerns about what the localised heat treatment resulting from laser marking might impart to what may be a safety-critical component.

Pryor also offers inkjet printing systems as part of its determination to provide a comprehensive range of marking technologies that other manufacturers cannot match.

But, what has really taken off over the last 18 months is its range of fully robotic marking technology.

Innovation, quality and durability really have been the key to Pryor’s success – although durability can be a bit of a double-edged sword.

“We get people contacting our support department with machines that they have had for 25 years,” says Alastair.

“The business has had to innovate to keep sales continuing – otherwise, once everyone had a marker, we would go out of business!”