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“We can only be competitive if we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world by offering customers the best support to help their business thrive,” says Stephan Nell, CEO, United Grinding Group

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Interview “Trending towards complete processing”

Sep 22, 2016

…says Stephan Nell, CEO, United Grinding Group, while discussing the grinding business, in an interview with Megha Roy. Keeping in mind the Swiss innovation, quality and precision manufacturing, he shares his thoughts on rolling out the IIoT capabilities through smart machines, devices and products. Excerpts…

Today, there is an increasing consumption of resources in both emerging economies and developed countries. How does United Grinding cater to enhance the production process with a minimal use of resources?

The grinding machine business is a cyclical market, closely linked to the global economy. So, we always have to be prepared for difficult times and continuously optimise our production process. Optimisation, in this context, mainly means increasing the process flexibility with minimum input and maximum output. This is one of the reasons we developed the PuLs® program, which stands for precision and passion. With this program, our Group aims to eliminate all waste and further optimise internal procedures and production processes for the customer’s benefit. This is accomplished by a mixture of measures individually developed for our Group, comprising process optimisation and quality management concepts.

The Swiss are known for innovation, quality, and precision in manufacturing technology. How is your company addressing the challenges in achieving success on these parameters?

We can only be competitive if we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world by offering customers the best support to help their business thrive. Quality and precision are two crucial factors to meet our goals. Also, qualified personnel and financial resources are important. Thanks to the educational system in Switzerland & Germany, besides our universities, young people have the opportunity to combine the theoretical and practical knowledge through apprenticeships. Secondly, we spend a substantial amount of our sales every year on R&D. It is important for us to continuously invest in future, innovative solutions and further development of products.

Earlier, optimal design of grinding process was the priority, and today, the processes are already exhausted to some extent. How are the research and innovation processes organised within the group at United Grinding?

For grinding processes, we focus on reducing secondary process times to increase productivity for our customers and as a result, improve their profit. One example is the trend towards complete processing, which will reduce secondary process time drastically. This means that the workpiece is machined on one machine in many different ways and up to 5 sides, without re-clamping. Furthermore, the grinding process, pre and post process measurement, workpiece handling and washing as well as tool change are automated and often performed by robots.

Furthermore, we are focusing on an ease of operation. This is related to a more ergonomic Human-Machine-Interface (HMI) and also to smarter machine software that supports the operator with optimising process parameters. We are also working on smart machines in Industry 4.0 context, which is one of our R&D focus. In addition, our group is organised in three technology fields—surface & profile grinding, cylindrical grinding and tool grinding.

Fibre laser technology has opened up new possibilities in grinding process. How is United Grinding leveraging this in improving the performance of precision grinding processes?

The laser is superior to conventional machining processes, with regards to ultra-hard materials due to its power and precision. It can be used for machining tools from solid material, as well as adding functionalities to the workpiece (e.g. chip breakers), creating unusual geometries, structuring the tool’s surface, or modifying its surface characteristics (e.g. lotus effect). For laser technology, our company, EWAG is the technology leader. It has two machine types—Laser Line Ultra and Laser Line Precision.

What is your company’s approach towards Industry 4.0? How are you planning to roll out Industry 4.0 capability to your processes and products?

The primary goal of Industry 4.0 is to digitise and optimise the production process through smart machines, devices and products that are interconnected, which communicate with each other – not only within one production site, but also along the value chain.

We are approaching this issue from different sides. On one hand, we are developing our products further to make them smarter. Preventive maintenance is one solution we have had experience since 2006. Furthermore, we developed smart devices to Plug-&-Produce, which carry intelligence with them and are able to implement setting parameters on the machine themselves, without the use of machine control.

On the other hand, we are working on our own smart factory, which means that we are organising manufacturing and production sites based on smart factory principles. We are also a part of the Körber Group that coordinates different Industry 4.0 projects across its business areas. This gives us the opportunity to learn from other industries and to leverage R&D efforts group-wide.

The shop floors at your factories in Thun implement smart manufacturing practices. Can you brief us on the same?

At the production site of Fritz Studer AG at Thun, we completed the installation of our continuous flow-line assembly+ in October 2015. The idea here is to assemble all machines together in one line, to achieve maximum added value for the customer with the highest sustainability as well as short delivery times and maximum flexibility. Thanks to our PuLs® program, these changes were much more manageable for our employees because the required qualifications and the mindset were in place already.

How do you look at the potential in the Indian market for your business? What are your strategic plans for the Indian market?

We place special value on being close to our customers worldwide so as to understand their needs and serve them as best as we can. This is why we opened up a branch at Bengaluru in India, which is well-established in the market. We always strive to support the long-term success of our customers by delivering the best solutions for the application and being a reliable partner that our customers can trust. Our Indian customers place this trust on us. ☐

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