Pedro Hofmans: "We can plan more production time or easily catch up on the existing schedule."
Pedro Hofmans successfully transformed himself from an employee to a self-employed entrepreneur 20 years ago. In Venlo he started his own company, specialized in precision mechanics. Now Hofmans CNC Verspaning has 17 employees and the company has an extensive machine park where precision mechanical products are made with an almost impossible accuracy and quality. These products are for the aircraft industry, the medical sector, the car industry and the semi-conductor market. If you look further than the advanced machine park, you will see that automation is a core aspect of this company and that robotization has a fixed place in the production process.
Hofmans CNC Verspaning has built up a good reputation as a supplier. “As a machining company you want to have a challenge. We prefer to do work that other suppliers have difficulty with or that is too unique. We focus on the higher segment, larger companies, where a very high quality level is required.”
Some of the smallest products that they produce are the M1 screws with a 0.25 mm slot and the spindles of 0.5 mm. It is almost watchmaking work. The old saying ‘if it looks good then it is good' is certainly not applicable for Pedro Hofmans: “Our products require an accuracy up to the thousandth of a millimeter. That is where our strength lies.”
Forerunner in automation
Automation has been implemented at all levels of the organization. In addition to knowledge of machines and machining, Hofmans has a passion for programming, something that is visible and tangible throughout the organization.
“Everyone is talking about Smart Industry 4.0 nowadays, but we already did that in 2013. I was convinced that you could only survive as a company with smart programming and far-reaching automation. I wrote my first ERP system myself. That expanded further and further, because each client had its own system. That went well for a long time, but in the end it turned out to be unworkable. So I went looking for a better solution.”
Hofmans came into contact with a German machining company, which had also developed an ERP system and wanted to market it under its own label. They were looking for input from another company to be able to run tests and Hofmans was looking for a new system. So the link was quickly made.
“The cooperation went well and has resulted in a very useful ERP system. We have developed it together. The ERP system is now completely ‘in the cloud’.”
Hofmans demonstrates this using a large touchscreen monitor in the company hall which is used to control the processes. “The customer comes with a stepfile or drawing. We import all items and thus create a precise step-by-step plan from purchasing to delivery.”
“Every employee can see exactly what needs to be done, when, on which machine, which materials are needed, in what quantities and which drawings are related to this. Recently we made it so that employees can also retrieve the information and read nc programs via a personal tablet.”
“Thanks to this system, nothing is overlooked. All machines link the times back to the ERP system. It works efficiently and with one push of a button I know exactly how long the machine has been running. As a result, there are no surprises afterwards in the subsequent calculation.”
Next step: robotization
The machines are running continuously in the production hall. Precision mechanical products in numbers from a few dozen to more than one hundred thousand are created here for the end-user.
“A robot was the most the obvious solution.”
It is precisely this repetitive work that requires far-reaching automation, something that was handled by Pedro Hofmans right from the start: “Many machines are equipped with an automatic bar feeder. I was looking for a solution to completely automate the loading of our machines. A robot was the most obvious solution.”
“A few years ago we bought a robot. Unfortunately, however, the interface was so complicated that I was the only one who could operate and program the robot. Sometimes I was setting up 2 days before we could start producing! That's why we started to look for a robot with a handy interface.”
For Hofmans, the requirements for a new loading robot were clear:
- Easy to program: no complicated interface, minimal programming necessary and can be set by anyone;
- A ready-to-use system: preferably a standard or modular system with proven technology and no or minimal customization;
- Reliable: able to run long production;
- Flexible: easy to move and connect to different machines.
“Based on these requirements, we drew up a shortlist with three suppliers. Although the differences were small, the HALTER LoadAssistant best met our requirements. In addition, our dealer Humacs had positive experiences with the products of HALTER. Plus the good references were decisive for the final choice. I also appreciated how they assisted us during the selection procedure and their knowledge of our production process,” says Hofmans.
“The robot was installed in December last year. We did have some start-up problems, which were solved by HALTER’s service personnel. The LoadAssistant robot now runs smoothly. I would really like to have another one!”
“We can plan more production time or easily catch up on the existing schedule.”
What was the result?
“Faster deliver and meeting our delivery times.” Hofmans is very clear about this. “At the moment, this is the most important thing in our sector. We are already seeing a clear improvement, thanks to fully automatic loading of the lathe. The HALTER robot provides more capacity and runs so many extra hours that we can schedule more production time or make it easier to catch up on the existing schedule. If you can deliver on time as a supplier, you now have an enormous advantage over your competitor!”
In addition to the delivery benefit, Hofmans is also very pleased with the user-friendly interface: “The operation is very intuitive. You notice that the younger employees handle it very easily, but also the older colleagues, who were always accustomed to manual loading of the machining tools. There was no need for drastic changes in the work process or retraining of employees. The use of the loading robot results in less time pressure and less stress in production.”
Does automation also have disadvantages?
“We only see benefits ourselves. But companies that still want to get in and want to get started with Smart Industry, and certainly with robotics, are having a hard time. They have to realize that they must first have their process under control.” warns Hofmans. “You have to organize your process in such a way that it runs smoothly and only then automate. That requires time and patience, especially in the beginning. So be realistic when you automate.”
What will be the next step?
“We will shortly be using the HALTER LoadAssistant on other production machines. That was one of the most important conditions in the choice of the new robot, namely flexibility. At this moment the HALTER LoadAssistant feeds our Mori Seiki lathe, with which we are gaining a lot of experience. We will soon be able to use that experience when using the robot on other machines.”