“Component quality” is a buzzword often mentioned in gear manufacturing. However, at Humbel Gear Technology in Switzerland, it is particularly important: The gears and transmission components developed and produced here are used in motor sports or serve as prototypes to enhance electric drives—extremely challenging fields of application with rather small batch sizes. A “standard” measure of component quality is not enough in this case. The Swiss specialists have recently expanded their machine inventory to include a VL 4 vertical turning center from EMAG. Ultimately, the integrated pick-up automation system was decisive in making their investment decision: At Humbel, it provides a boost in productivity and at the same time guarantees the required component quality in the main machining operation. After the first few months in operation, the Swiss specialists were “surprised by the machine’s stability and performance.”
When asked to describe the company’s particular expertise and unique selling points in a nutshell, Alex Humbel, General Manager at Humbel Gear Technology, doesn’t think twice: “‘Precision’ is the deciding word for us. At our main location in Switzerland, we produce very sophisticated gears and transmission components, which really require the highest quality.” Simply listing the industries in which its customers operate already hints at the reason for this: Humbel gears are, for example, used in Formula 1 and Formula E, in aerospace, in various fields of mechanical engineering and even as prototypes for new electric cars. Perfect surfaces and high component stability are essential—not massive unit volumes: Batch sizes of 200 parts are the higher end for the Swiss location. The company essentially distinguishes itself by a high level of vertical integration, including all the relevant processes from turning, gear cutting, and grinding to cubic machining and electrical discharge machining all the way to hardening. “We have developed into a highly specialized, full-service provider and, in addition to customer and application-specific manufacturing, we also offer gear development,” concludes Alex Humbel to sum up the development of the family-owned business, which was founded as a “gear factory” back in 1928.
Centralized Automation Solution
The specialists have recently invested in several machines from EMAG: Three of them are installed at the two subsidiaries in Romania and in the Czech Republic. A fourth machine is located at the main location in Kradolf, Switzerland, about 20 kilometers from St. Gallen. The fact that this is a VL 4 pick-up turning center may surprise industry experts. After all, this machine is more often used to process large batch sizes. In contrast, at Humbel, the VL 4 is used to soft machine only about 50 to 200 flange components, before the next component change. Why did Humbel decide to invest in this machine? “We have already been using EMAG technology for quite some time,” says the Managing Director. “Above all, it is the integrated pick-up automation system that convinced us. This approach enables us to increase our productivity even with smaller unit volumes. At the end of the day, once the machine has been configured, the overall process requires little manpower and still runs reliably. Moreover, the EMAG automation solution is designed in as simple a manner as possible. Many alternative automation concepts from other suppliers seem more complicated to us than the EMAG solution and therefore also too fault-prone.”
Turning Provides the Basis for Quality
The required component quality also played a part in the investment decision, because the turning center must establish an ideal basis in the main machining operation for all subsequent processes. “If we obtain a high quality at this stage, it is easier to design the subsequent grinding processes and thus to guarantee perfect results,” says Pascal Wanner, responsible for implementing the technology in EMAG machines at the Humbel Group. “We are able to guarantee this initial quality in the process with the VL 4.” Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Humbel frequently is facing material challenges. For example, the motor sport components are manufactured from high-alloy case-hardened steels, which are relatively difficult to machine. In this and similar contexts, the specialists benefit from the machine’s additional configuration details. For instance, the machine base made from Mineralit® polymer concrete reduces vibrations during the milling process and thus ensures longer tool lives. Additionally, the main spindle is fastened to the front of the machine with a compound slide rest and enables dynamic movement in the X and Z-axes. The 12-post tool turret is also suited for driven tools and features very short indexing times. “The machine’s stability and performance surprised us. Our infeeds and feed rates are actually higher than we expected,” comments Pascal Wanner.
The Machine Fits the Strategy
The compact VL 4 including the O-belt automation and Fanuc CNC control unit have been in use at Humbel since April 2018. EMAG’s sales partner Suvema AG, headquartered in Biberist, Switzerland, provided targeted advice regarding equipment and configuration. The company has been handling the sales of EMAG manufacturing systems in the alpine republic since 2016. “We highly value comprehensive service and also know the requirements of the local production industry. Based on this, we are able to more effectively introduce EMAG technology to the market,” explains Daniele Corso of Suvema AG. The fact that the gear and transmission specialists at Humbel are satisfied with the overall performance of their new machine is evident considering the investments in a VL 3-DUO turning center and VL 8 for the Romanian location as well as a VL 8 and a VMC 450 (yet to be delivered) for the Czech location. “Especially in Switzerland, our strategy remains to produce particularly sophisticated components,” says Alex Humbel. “However, we do not only consider ourselves to be a manufacturer of single parts, but we also have an eye on complete transmission assemblies for the future—for example, in the areas of motor sports and e-mobility. The flexibility and cost-effectiveness of the VL 4 open up all kinds of opportunities for us.”