HelcoMotion has supplied is latest-generation GV3 system vee-section linear slides to Rotosound for use in semi-automated guitar string winding machines that deliver double the output of 30-year-old manual machines - also fitted with Hepco vee slides.
What does the late John Entwistle of The Who have in common with Dave Best of the indie rock band The Pigeon Detectives, or Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols with Rupert Jarvis of The Maccabees? The answer is they are all bass guitarists with a strong preference for Rotosound guitar strings.
The sound quality of this British manufacturer's products has made them the choice of successive music generations, and photos on Rotosound's sales office walls give a glimpse of its celebrity status. Jimi Hendrix, ELO's Jeff Lynne, 10CC's Eric Stewart, and Iron Maiden's Steve Harris count amongst its high-profile customers.
This enviable reputation derives from Rotosound's careful choice of raw materials and the bespoke winding process that gives its strings their distinctive sound. The process itself is fundamentally the same today as it was when the current Chairman's father started the business in the 1960s. Also unchanged is Rotosound's use of HepcoMotion linear slides to guide the cradle that carries the wire spool set. Indeed, the Generation 1 Hepco slides that were specified for the first winding machines are still working today, more than 30 years later.
Rotosound came into being as a result of zither collecting. Having learned to play the instrument in the army, James How started to buy old zithers, most of which had missing strings. As a typical instrument can require up to 150 strings, the need to mechanise the winding process became apparent to make restoration viable. As he was working at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Woolwich at the time, James had the means to design and make the machine that was, ultimately, to form the basis of his guitar string manufacturing business.
Jason How, the founder's son, and Chairman of Rotosound since the mid-1990s, explains: "The late ླྀs was a good time to start. Floyd, The Who and The Beatles were at their peak and there were virtually no imported US strings into the UK so the potential was considerable." The reputation of Rotosound's products travelled with those bands, and a global market soon opened up for this Sevenoaks-based company.
The first generation of the Rotosound winding machines were highly labour intensive. They required the wire to be fed manually and their throughput was just 20 to 30 strings per hour. The process involves wrapping various types of cover wire over a choice of base core wires and then, in many cases, gluing on a final layer of silk.
As demand for the product has grown, so too has the need reduce labour costs, improve consistency and increase output. That is precisely what the latest design of the 'How' winding machine has been designed to do.
Nevertheless, the basic mechanics of the original machine remain relatively unchanged, as Jason says: "Why change a system that is working well?" What was needed, however, was the introduction of a programmable electronic drive to improve the consistency of the feed and boost productivity.
Thanks to its 'vee' profile and bearing set-up, the design benefits of the original Generation I Hepco slide remained central to the friction-free movement of the carriage plate and overall rigidity of the system. So in specifying elements for the prototype of the semi-automated version of the machine, Jason naturally chose Hepco again.
In Jason's words the products have been key to how he has been able to develop the machine: "In truth I have never considered any systems other than Hepco. I know of designers who have used recirculating technology in the way of shaft and ball bushings, but I did not feel this could give me the rigidity I needed. There was danger of deflection in the end supported shafts; any load could cause the shaft to wobble." Rigidity, ensuring the carriage runs true and steady, is vital to maintaining the constant tension of the core and wrap wires and their respective feed angle.
Rotosound has gone straight from Generation I Hepco slides, skipping a whole generation introduced in the 1980s, to the latest GV3 System for the new machines. The only specification change has been the introduction of a dual slide system that is mounted in parallel with a set of bearings on each slide track that carries the wire feeder mechanism. In common with the original slides, the GV3 System runs dry to keep the process as clean and friction-free as possible; in comparison, recirculating systems need regular lubrication and are therefore not maintenance-free.
Another important design benefit of both generations of Hepco systems is their eccentric adjustment that allows pre-load to be controlled simply to provide the necessary rigidity on the carriage plate. Compensation for wear can be accommodated in a similar way but, as the winding traverse only requires linear speeds of just 50-70mm/s, Jason cannot recall having to adjust for this purpose.
Clearly the machines are required to handle different gauge wires – each having its own operating parameters – but the linear system is permanently set for the highest load and the greatest tension.
Although the winding machine does have a cover to help prevent glue and debris falling onto the slide tracks, the HepcoMotion design is inherently able to cope with such ingress, as the vee-profile is essentially self-cleaning. In contrast, a recirculating system relies on seals/scrapers to remove any deposits. However, there is always risk of the seals failing to exclude the debris, resulting in contamination of the recirculating pathways and compromised running quality.
Along with the introduction of the HepcoMotion GV3 system came cap wipers that provide positive lubrication and enhance the self-cleaning operation of the vee-profile. However, true to his father's original design, Jason chose not to include this option, as he was determined to keep the system as simple as possible. Also as the Generation I system worked well without them, why shouldn't GV3 too?
The successful design of the new semi-automated machine led to the building of a further ten units that went into production in 2006 and their introduction has added £250,000 of additional product sales with no increase in labour cost. These machines are producing 60–80 strings per hour – which is more than double that of the manual version – and they are responsible for more 95 per cent of the company's output.
There is no longer any need for training on specific products as, once set-up, the machine is responsible for holding all the necessary operating parameters. The payback on each of the new semi-automated machines is projected to be just two to three years, and each unit effectively saves one operator. Jason adds: "And crucially the quality of our manufactured product is much more consistent, which is of vital importance in the light of demand."
In the last four years Rotosound has invested more than £500,000 in new machinery and it is a programme that has certainly paid dividends. In addition to the UK and USA, the company now sells into 50 or more other countries around the world via a distributor network. It is currently producing between 50,000 and 60,000 sets of strings per month, containing an average of five strings apiece. Jason concludes: "Demand from the US is unbelievable; we cannot make enough for customers out there." And one of those customers is Lou Reed – another testimonial to add to the website.