The railway expert
Uwe Distler knows what tested quality really means. At the Kaufmann company in Schwegenheim he produces items for the railways – and they demand 100-percent safety and reliability.
Uwe Distler’s past couple of days at work have been long and tiring. And they have been tricky, too. He had to cope with a number of customer audits — everything had to be absolutely right. Distler is relieved since, once again, everything turned out well. In Schwegenheim, a town in the Rhineland-Palatinate, he is the manager responsible for the metal technology section at Kaufmann GmbH & Co. KG. The company’s most important products are parts for locomotives and commuter trains. The firm has to satisfy stringent quality requirements before it is even allowed to manufacture these parts. “We supply assemblies that are critical for safety — such as subfloor containers. Later they are fitted beneath commuter train carriages, where they house most of the electronics needed to power the train,” explains Distler. Accordingly, German Rail tests these assemblies and the manufacturing processes assiduously. “In addition to certain basic materials, we are only permitted to use fillers approved by German Rail,” he explains. “And the parts can only be joined by a welder who has been licensed for this particular material, for this particular material thickness, and for this type of welding seam.” Kaufmann scores with its high-quality assembly groups and has made a name for itself in aluminum welding. “We have 30 licensed aluminum welders here because joining this material is a specially tough challenge,” says Distler.
The railway industry is a highly competitive market. Orders for major production runs are awarded to the cheapest bidder.
This supplier analyzes work samples to see that all the parameters are in order. Dye penetrants are used to inspect welding seams, which are also regularly x-rayed by the TÜV, Germany’s technical inspection authority. A number of certificates had to be obtained first, before the company was even allowed to bid on rail industry orders. Among the operative standards is DIN EN 15085, which governs welding for rolling stock. This has been joined by the new IRIS certificate. “This endorsement indicates that we now fulfill the International Railway Industry Standard. This tells our customers that we can meet their requirements and does away with separate process audits — for them and for us,” explains Distler.
Set-up times? None!
That is quite an effort. But railways are certainly no longer a niche market. “The competition for this industry’s orders is highly competitive nowadays,” says Distler. “Tough competition, especially on the part of Eastern European companies, determines who will be awarded major contracts. The price is the be all and end all.” It all boils down to the fact that the cheapest offer wins. It’s as simple as that. What leverage does a company like Kaufmann have, if any? “Set-up times have to be cut,” says Distler. He has managed to do this with a TruPunch 5000, which is linked to a Stopa storage system via a SheetMaster. “This configuration replaced two older machines. An equally significant step for us was purchasing a ToolMaster,” he adds. Kaufmann has 40 additional tools stored in the ToolMaster. This means that a total of 60 tools is always readily available. This is a crucial factor for Kaufmann which, as a rule, produces smaller batches of up to 100 items. “With our new automation solution, our set-up times for punching work have dropped almost to zero,” emphasizes Distler. This lets him manufacture complicated assemblies rapidly and economically — and that is what he focuses on. “We couldn’t exist nowadays if we tried to live purely off blanks and bent parts,” he says. “But we are exactly the right people for complex assemblies!”
That is why he does not even bother bidding on high-volume production. Distler prefers to go for pre-production parts, since that entails a lot of manufacturing expertise. Engineering support is the name of his successful strategy, since certification and modern technology are, to him, only two elements in this highly competitive market. “These alone will not suffice. We have to offer our customers additional benefits.” This is why his engineers sit around the table with the client’s engineers to jointly optimize the assemblies. For Distler this is a guarantee of ideal results. “The customer’s engineer knows exactly what is required of the component — where it will be located in the train, for instance — and our engineer knows how to manufacture it most economically.” In this way he and his team have been able to significantly reduce the number of welding seams and riveted joints. They participated in the design of control console for the engineer’s cab and greatly reduced the diversity of parts involved — for products marketed in the future, too.
Being close to the customer is important to Distler. “We don’t want any one-day wonders — all our business relationships are long-term in nature.” That is why each customer is assigned a specific contact who will look after all his enquiries. The same is true when orders involve the company’s second specialty, electrical engineering, for which Kaufmann director Franz Bognar is responsible. The ability for both divisions to carry out orders has its advantages. Distler emphasizes: “If it’s what the customer wants, we can supply just the mechanical components. But we can also manufacture complete units, fully wired, with electronic testing. This is something our competitors cannot do.”
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This article was first published in autumn 2014.