Q&A Why reliable, automated processes are crucial to being globally competitive
From humble beginnings in 1958, Hofmann Innovation Group based in Lichtenfels, Germany, has developed into one of the most renowned companies in the plastic processing industry. Managing Director Günter Hofmann explains why standardisation and automation are the key to success.
Mr. Hofmann, you long ago embraced automation in toolmaking. What moved you to automate the first EDM line about 10 years ago?
We were reacting to pressure coming from low-wage countries and turned to automation and standardisation in an effort to cap our costs. Because electrode milling and EDM are time-consuming processes, they are ideally suited for automation. The implementation is relatively straightforward and it is a good opportunity to learn a lot when you are just beginning with automation, for should something go wrong at the beginning, throwing away an electrode is not a big deal, but with a finished workpiece it would not be that simple. Of course you need to control the entire process and to do so, you must never start with the most complicated process. Today, we are milling around 25,000 electrodes per year - even the Chinese cannot work any more efficiently!
By now, you have also largely automated your milling lines…
Yes, but fully automated milling of hardened mould inserts is even more difficult, because it involves much more wear and requires even higher accuracy. In this regard, we benefitted from Hermle machines and the experience gained from the first two EDM lines. We have a smaller line with two C50U units and a robot and a larger line with four Hermle C42U machines and 60 pallets. The larger line is currently being put into operation and will go live in the coming months. The line is as efficient as 10 stand-alone machines. Even though automation makes up half the investment, it is still worth it.
Standardisation is the prerequisite for automation. What does standardisation mean for Hofmann?
We of course use and also produce our own standard components. Then of course there is standardised design. You need standard elements that are always designed exactly the same. That is one key aspect of it, but you must also standardise the process itself. Reduction is key here, like for example reducing the number of tools. When you have 500 tools, it is unrealistic to think you could operate an automated line. Fifty would be a good number. And these 50 tools will have to do, no matter what. Programming must also be standardised. Then you can execute the process in a secure and uniform way. Since we never manufacture the same workpieces, standardisation and process reliability are crucial for us.