Production of precision components in the high-wage country of Switzerland - It's all down to automation

02. February 2017

Allegedly, the strong currency and high wage levels in Switzerland significantly impair the competitiveness of the country's production plants. But one company in the canton of St. Gallen is demonstrating how with the right strategy and the right level of automation, you can still achieve success.

Oliver Würfel (CNC Automation), Ivo Högg & Adrian Sennhauser (Högg Produktionstechnik)

Compact MOTOMAN MS80W robot requires minimal floor space / Kompakter Roboter MOTOMAN MS80W arbeitet in engsten Räumen

Slim design and internal cabling perfectly fit to the loading- and unloading process / Die schlanke Bauweise sowie die integrierte Kabelführung sind perfekt geeignet für den Be- und Entladevorgang

Precise loading and unloading due to high repeatability of the six-axis robot / Präzise Be- und Entladung durch hohe Wiederholgenauigkeit des Sechsachsers

MOTOMAN MS80W operates reliable despite tough working conditions / Erschwerte Arbeitsbedingungen können dem MOTOMAN MS80W nichts anhaben

Anyone visiting Högg Produktionstechnik AG in Wattwil would notice nothing to suggest that the family-owned company now looks back on a 110-year history. The new and uniformly stylish production building is built on a green field; with its high-tech machine plant and consistent use of robots, there is no way the casual visitor would guess that the company was originally founded in the year 1905 as a blacksmith's shop.

In the 1960s, the company underwent a gradual transition into a contract producer. In 2010, all of its production plants were merged into a new building at Wattwil. Throughout all of these years, the company has invested a great deal in its production building, machinery and automation systems, as well as in employee qualification, engineering skills and quality assurance, not to mention its consistent customer orientation.

And the concept appears to be paying off. Today, the company presents itself as a specialist manufacturer of precision components active throughout Europe, and successfully countering not only the high level of pressure from the competition in Europe but also the currency-related disadvantages. CEO Ivo Högg explains how the company has succeeded in squaring the circle: 'We produce complex prototypes, single components and serial items – where required, with a precision in the µ-range. In this segment there is virtually no competition from low-wage countries. And in our subsidiary, simplify engineering ag, we have taken things one step further and offer engineering services ranging from affordable engineering construction and determination of the most cost-efficient production process to assuming responsibility for entire systems.'


Countering cost pressure with automation

With its 100 employees, the company manufactures precision components made of virtually any metallic materials, across its 10,000 square metres of production space. Over 200 tonnes of steel, 100 tonnes of aluminium, 100 tonnes of stainless steel, plus various other materials are machined there every year. Högg employs the latest production technologies, comprising more than 50 CNC machine tools with consistent automation. For many years, the Swiss company has trusted in the robot technology of the Japanese manufacturer, Yaskawa. Their machines have proven themselves extremely well in the complex field of precision component production, both in terms of their reliability and their precision.

The most recent example was the automation of a Mori Seiki NT 4250 turning and milling centre, an assignment that the Swiss manufacturer gave to the experienced system integrator, CNC-Automation Würfel from Singen. After reading the requirements specification, CEO Oliver Würfel and his team set about implementing the standard tasks: 'Naturally, the automation of a machining centre does not present us with any problems we cannot solve. The important factors for Högg were a fast realisation time for the project, while ensuring maximum flexibility. They also wanted to be able to operate the machine without robots for prototype production, which required good accessibility.'

The solution was realised with CNC automation and features a clear and intuitive plant layout coupled with excellent plant accessibility realised with an extra-large, two-section sliding door. This means that the two Europallet spaces for unmachined and finished parts can be easily reached and apparatus can be changed over quickly, whenever required.


'Welding robot' proves itself in handling tasks

The choice of robot, the Motoman MS80W, which is known primarily for welding purposes and is here finished in black, may seem a surprising one. But when you think about it, it soon becomes clear why this six-axis solution was specifically the first choice for this handling application. With its slim design, the MS80W has relatively low space requirements, while thanks to its impressive reach of 2,236 millimetres, it is able to access any position without problem.  And what is more, thanks to its repetition accuracy of 0.07 millimetres, it displays more than enough precision for loading and unloading the machining centre and fetching and placing parts in the workpiece carriers.

To maximise the flexibility of the MS80, the Würfel experts chose a Schunk gripping system that covers a very wide application range, making it unreservedly suitable for a wide variety of component diameters. In addition, the robot has an automatic gripper changing system that enables Högg to easily couple a different gripper unit whenever necessary.

The slim construction and integrated cable routing of the robot are advantages that make themselves particularly felt when loading and unloading the machining centre. The robot has to reach deep into the machine to access the chuck and approach a compressed air unit to clear away chippings. The difficult operating conditions including constant contact with chippings and cooling lubricants are no problem for the robust Motoman robot.

'The Motoman robots have proven themselves to be indestructible in our production facility. The machines are in operation around the clock and display no disturbances even over three shifts. And this is something that is of great importance to us, particularly as we rely on unmanned, autonomous production in the night shift,' says Adrian Sennhauser, technical manager at Högg.

At this point, Ivo Högg has more to say on this particular aspect, as from his point of view, it clearly shows how it is possible to produce economically in a high-wage location like Switzerland, even into the future. 'This automation solution shows how low the proportion of wage costs is today measured against total production costs. It makes no difference whether the plant is located in China or Switzerland – the investments costs for the machining centre and automation system are the same everywhere. And the lower wage costs are balanced out by the far lower logistics costs associated with producing in the home territory. For this reason, we consider our precision component production to be excellently positioned for the challenges of the future.' 




Text & Pictures:

Ralf Högel


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