Text Meinolf Dröge ––– Photography
The investment that stands out the most is a highly automated production cell that was brought into service in the midst of the crisis. “This is where plastic components are also produced that are installed in state-of-the-art car air springs. We expect order volumes for these high-tech components to rise considerably in the next few months,” says LKH Managing Director Volker Hindermann. Other changes are less visible, but potentially even more sustainable. For example, the process of digitalization – both between customers and LKH and in internal processes – was carried forward vigorously during the crisis.
SPORTY OR COMFORTABLE
Air springs are increasingly replacing traditional spring-based damper systems in cars so drivers can adjust the suspension to their preference. Air springs can also improve the safety of high-powered, heavy vehicles on a sustainable basis – while achieving several kilograms of weight savings on every vehicle.
LKH has worked with a system supplier to develop and implement new technical solutions. These include plastic and hybrid parts with up to over 50 per cent glass fibre reinforcement that feature complex, asymmetrical geometries and satisfy extremely tight tolerances. The requirements of downstream processes such as hot gas welding were also taken into account in the engineering phase. Although mould engineering and process simulation were suitably demanding, the project was completed in line with its tight and precise schedule and the very first samples were given top marks.
SHIFTING GEAR WITH FLEXIBILITY
Although production volumes dropped at LKH, too, there was also some growth among its customer base, given the mix of sectors it serves. This was the case in the packaging segment, for instance. At first, customer orders in this sector were changing on an almost daily basis. Following some consultation, the situation was handled on a flexible basis and, in some cases, by manufacturing for stock. LKH also boosted its capacities so it could take on orders from other plastics processors who were struggling during the crisis. It already had the necessary expertise, such as analysing and evaluating third-party injection moulds.
LKH has been a leading proponent of digitalization among medium-sized enterprises since long before COVID-19 showed up. However, the pace of development has now received an enormous boost across all process levels and in all corporate functions. For example, the manufacturing execution system (MES) Hydra has been rolled out throughout the company and networked with the SAP data management system, which means the highly automated production cells can be used more efficiently and the company can respond faster to disruption.
The management and lifecycle files of the injection moulds are now compiled digitally and intermeshed with SAP. The resultant digital mould book makes it easier to coordinate order planning with mould maintenance. “One of the reasons we can really rapidly implement projects like these, along with staff training, is that we have outstanding automation expertise in the Friedhelm Loh Group. The same applies to SAP operations,” explains LKH Managing Director Hindermann.
LOWERING RISKS, INCREASING SPEED
This is also reflected in the feasibility analyses that are carried out for customer enquiries. A grid of likely results is compiled automatically based on material parameters from the internal LKH database and other sources and taking into account data for the planned injection mould and many possible machine setting parameters. This is a reliable way of checking feasibility and identifying the anticipated critical points, cycle times and other factors. Using this method, the customer and LKH can make the right decisions at an early stage. During the process, LKH staff delve deep into the component design the customer has developed or into the downstream processing of the component, looking for ways the components might be optimised.
“We want to understand the processes at least as well as our customers do. This gives us the opportunity to enhance their performance,” says Hindermann, outlining the ultimate aim. Pursuing digitalization thus helps establish dependable processes by reducing risks before the project starts and ramping up speed from the outset.
USING THE TIME BUFFER
Organisational improvements go hand-in-hand with rapid technological development. To ensure close intermeshing with the customer’s organisation, LKH has located the entire project execution process – from the initial customer contact through to dispatch – with the sales team.
“We have got on top of this unique situation. Instead of shutting down lots of activities and watching the crisis unfold around us, we’ve used the time to prepare for the future. That will benefit our customers in both current and future projects. The present situation has acted like a catalyst for issues we had started on before the crisis. We’re also continuing along this road and are planning another highly automated production cell so we can make greater use of foam technologies, among other things,” says Hindermann in summary.