“I don’t want a flash in the pan”
Only if your stance is secure you can grow successfully, notes Harald Keller, who then explains how he put his company on solid footing.
You took over a company with a long heritage. But the first thing you did was to turn it upside down. Why?
It was important to break out of the rut and install new structures that never existed before. We started by expanding the offices and networking the entire company with modern information technologies. Today we use a merchandise management system and there are competence teams for laser cutting and welding, for punching and for bending. This wasn’t always easy. Fortitude was of the essence. We have completed a lot of the restructuring but we aren’t entirely finished.
What distinguishes your family-owned business?
We are now in the fourth generation and want to continue to adopt a long-term perspective. Flash-in-the-pan jobs are just not our thing. We are pursuing several goals. I want to work with my customers over the long haul. It’s not just a question of landing a single order but more of offering advice and appropriate solutions. We want to earn our customers’ trust. They need to know we will never take advantage of them. And I want to make full use of our machinery. The result is that we don’t accept every order but manufacture only items that dovetail with our production structure.
How does your new focus — manufacturing complete assemblies — fit into this concept?
I want to take some of the frenzy out of production operations by achieving a degree of continuity and maintaining a certain basic workload. Assemblies can be used for this purpose. To do so we work with umbrella blanket orders for which work can be planned and scheduled. In the future I want to offer our own products, as well.
Your new TruLaser 3030 is equipped with the LiftMaster Compact. Does this mean that small orders can also be automated at a profit?
Of course! We need to make production more effective and more profitable. The key is to keep manufacturing lean and that was why we elected to automate the new TruLaser 3030. Right now we don’t want to grow — but instead to be better and more attractive. That is why we are trying to run second and third shifts — by way of automation that I can afford.
How does the new TruLaser 3030 stand up in a direct comparison with its predecessor?
The basic flying optics concept is the same, but in other respects the machine has been completely reworked. The controls have been much improved and that increases user-friendliness. One advantage of the new controls is the starter for repeat production. Relaunching manufacturing is easier. What’s more, the new TruLaser 3030 is extremely good for maintenance. That helps us boost productivity. The machine turns out parts faster and we have to make sure we can then keep up with subsequent production steps.
In the past the laser cutting phase was the bottleneck, but that has now shifted to the press brake. With the single cutting head strategy and the nozzle changer we save a good hour and a half each day — without automation. When we have the right orders we can easily double production — with this machine and automation — since we can go into an additional shift.
What is the benefit of the newly developed RotoLas accessory? What products do you use it for?
We use that for “exotic products” — large-diameter tubing and profiles in short production runs. Custom-machining profiles for machine frames is one example. We do not need to saw or mill anything and that reduces the number of steps in production. High manufacturing accuracy makes for satisfied customers. When compared with the previous version, ease of operation has been improved considerably. Of great advantage, in addition, are the supports and the additional axis with numerically controlled shifting. Setup is also faster nowadays. The concept with the wide conveyor belt ensures good accessibility to the machine. This has enabled us to shorten setup time by about twenty percent.
A semi-automatic application like the RotoLas unit and a fully automated laser system. How do they fit together?
As a small shop we have to be flexible and combine things as needed. For our purposes, the combination fits well with our concept. During the day we produce short runs on the TruLaser 3030 and one-off parts on the RotoLas. In the second shift it will be possible to institute automated production. We are taking our first fledgling steps in pipe and tube machining — and we have to learn to walk before we can take off running.
Contact us: MastersofSheetMetal@trumpf.com
This article was first published in summer 2010.