What do prosperous job shops in the heart of Switzerland look like? How do Swiss machine tool builders cope with the high cost of manufacturing in their country? Why is lean manufacturing being embraced by Swiss companies that already enjoy a reputation for efficiency and precision?
Answers to these questions, along with many other interesting observations about manufacturing in Switzerland, can be found in “Lean Manufacturing, Swiss Style,” an MMS Online Exclusive. The article profiles eight companies in the metalworking industry. The list includes two very distinctive job shops (C-mill Technologie AG and Fribosa), two builders of grinding machines (Studer and Mägerle), a manufacturer of machine tool spindles (Step-Tec), a builder of high-performance machining centers (Mikron), a builder of electrical discharge machines (Charmilles) and a manufacturer of collets and toolholders (Rego-Fix).
The brief highlights given here show that Swiss companies are meeting the challenge of global competitiveness in many of the same ways as U.S. companies, although with a characteristically Swiss twist.
One of the common themes that connected the companies visited was a strong interest in lean manufacturing techniques. Lean manufacturing is often described as a journey, not a destination. It is a well-developed methodology for continuously identifying and then eliminating activities that do not add value to products in the manufacturing process. As should be expected, not all of the companies in our cross section were at the same point in the lean journey.
For example, lean techniques are well established at Mikron. The company builds high speed machines for precision die/mold work and high-performance machining centers for high-value volume part production. At the company’s plant in Nidau, it is easy to see the shadow boards, standardized work instructions and kanban component bins. Likewise, at the Rego-Fix plant in Tenniken, one can find good examples of cellular manufacturing to enhance continuous flow production of collets and toolholders. Because this company manufactures these products in different size ranges, efforts to reduce setup time and change-over have had visible results, particularly in palletizing.
In contrast, spindle manufacturer Step-Tec AG is in the early stages of further streamlining production by implementing lean manufacturing at its plant in Luterbach. The company is still adjusting to some of the changes to an established shop culture that almost every company encounters when embarking on the lean journey.
Because labor costs are high in Switzerland, being able to run machine tools with minimal operator attention is a high priority for both job shops and product-line manufacturers. Building machine tools with provisions for automated operation is the corresponding priority for companies such as Studer, Mägerle, Charmilles and Mikron.
The manufacturing cells at Rego-Fix, for example, consist of turning centers loaded and unloaded by robots. Gaging stations inside the cells are also automated. These cells are designed to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week when production levels require it, which they routinely do.
As job shops, C-mill Technologie and Fribosa rely on the capacity for automation that is available on today’s CNC machine tools. C-mill’s automation is noteworthy because the company does mostly prototype work. Machining one or two parts in a run is common. Yet multiple part setups and pallet changing allow the company to boost output during unattended operation. This practice helps the company meet fast turnaround commitments. Similarly, Fribosa, a job shop that serves a diverse customer base with a variety of machining processes, is adept at maximizing unattended operation of its wire electrical discharge machines and its jig grinders.
Machine Tool Trends
All of the Swiss machine tool builders we visited face a similar challenge—virtually every machine tool that they produce is tailored to the special needs of the buyer. Customers have many choices in optional features. Mikron, for example, builds its machining centers to order to accommodate the variety of customized configurations. Mägerle, in contrast, builds highly engineered, customized grinding systems by relying on modular construction to gain flexibility and efficiency. Each machine is built in place on the factory floor at its plant in Fehraltorf, near Zurich.
With this exception, the other builders move machines under construction from station to station, completing each machine in four or five stages. Typically, subassemblies and kitted components are delivered to each station from prep areas across the aisle.
Both Mikron and Charmilles offer machines that are “packaged” for medical applications, making it easier for these companies to streamline production of commonly requested features and options. Mikron’s ProdMed machining centers, for example, are equipped with spindles most suitable for machining titanium, which is widely used in medical implants and prosthetic joints. Likewise, Charmilles’ MedPack Robofil wire machines come with preset cutter parameters for stainless steel and titanium.
Combining grinding and hard turning on a single machine is an important development coming from Studer. Because high-precision grinding calls for a machining platform with exceptional rigidity, a precision grinder naturally lends itself to hard turning, which also requires a machining platform that is resistant to vibration and deflection.
Developing A Skilled Workforce
All eight companies on the tour recognize the importance of a highly skilled workforce. Most of the companies are actively involved with in-house apprenticeship programs, a rarity among U.S. companies these days.
For the job shop, employees who can do their own NC programming and setup are key to successful operations in the unattended mode. For the companies with product lines, the emphasis on customization requires a flexible workforce that can handle shifting responsibilities to keep up with a changing product mix. All of the companies that are involved with lean manufacturing benefit from the resourcefulness that skilled personnel bring to kaizen (rapid improvement) events.