“I want 3D”

© Photo | TRUMPF, Claus Langer

What is so special about the third dimension ? And how do you work through a 350,000-part series ? Erhard Hujer is the man who knows

“I never got around to 2D processing” is one of your well-known quotes. You make it sound like it is a necessary evil to enter the third dimension.

It is. I never wanted anything to do with 2D processing. But customers who order 3D parts want to obtain all of their components from a single source if possible. So 2D cutting is a step in the process chain that we have to offer. That‘s why we started up our business with machines for both processing methods. While we were pushing hard for 3D processing, surprisingly, we received an increasing number of requests for 2D components, which shows that the two complement one another nicely. At all three of our facilities, next to 3D processing cells we have flatbed machines that are used for large-batch processing, particularly for parts for convertible car tops. But we do not want to expand 2D technology. There are specialized companies for those jobs — I don’t necessarily want to compete with them. Our strength is and remains large-batch 3D laser material processing.

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About Hujer Lasertechnik:

Hujer Lasertechnik specializes in 3D laser cutting and welding. The company produces large-batch production orders and prototypes.

The company’s three facilities — Lohfelden, Harsewinkel and Drolshagen — has a workforce of 180 employees. Hujer Lasertechnik mainly processes thermoformed car body parts for the automotive industry as well as parts for home appliances, commercial trucks, farm machines and equipment, and profiles for doors and windows.

Hujers machines:

The company’s machine fleet consists of 25 machines. Hujer Lasertechnik currently processes 2D and 3D components on 13 TruLaser Cell laser cutting machines, four TLC 1005 3D machines, one TLC 6005 machine and seven flatbed laser machines and a press brake.

How do you define “large batch” ?

Erhard Hujer is a specialist in 3D processing and his company currently produces large-batch production orders.

These days, we define it as up to 350,000 units per part. We have built up a production capacity that enables us to produce 50,000 parts monthly.
When it all began in 1994, we didn’t foresee this volume. At that time 3D laser processing was only used for prototype construction. In large-batch processing, parts were mechanically separated. Then came thermoformed car body parts. Serial production first emerged when automobile manufacturers made the transition to it. Now we mainly cut B-pillars, sills and side paneling for the automotive industry, but also parts
for home appliances, commercial trucks, farm machinery and equipment and profiles for doors and windows.

Although you have specialized in large-batch production, you still continue to produce prototypes. Does that pay off?

Yes, it pays off for us. We have a sophisticated system to complete these types of orders fast. The standard equipment for a prototype part costs only about 250 Euros. One day is enough to construct a prototype device and to ramp up production. In Harsewinkel, prototype production makes up about 40 percent of the total production capacity; in Drolshagen, it’s 25 percent. At our facility in Lohfelden, it is only 1 percent. Currently serial production is the strongest part of our business.

But to keep up we always have to work with the most modern machines, otherwise we don’t need to bother at all. To keep up with the pace of technological change, we replace our machines every 48 months. If we didn’t, our machine fleet would be obsolete, the machines too slow, and we would no longer be competitive.

Recently you began using your first high-end 3D machine with a disk laser, the TruLaser Cell 7040. What tipped the scales in favor of the solid-state laser?

The low power consumption was a major deciding factor for me. The machine may be more expensive than the CO2 model, but in the long run it will pay off. TRUMPF quotes a power savings of 40,000 Euros per year. But even if I only save 30,000 Euros annually per machine and add the total savings together for 10 machines, that comes to 300,000 Euros in savings.

Hujer Lasertechnik specializes in 3D laser cutting and welding.

In addition, unlike the CO2 model, which had to be serviced
at regular intervals, the laser requires no maintenance. We just have to replace the air filter units once in a while. This means no downtimes. Another benefit is improvement in the quality of the parts produced. With the solid-state laser, there is less burr formation, so that we hardly have to do any touch-up work. Lastly, the machine is extremely fast.

In your opinion, will the solid-state laser continue to become more prevalent in 3D processing?

Definitely. I predict that in the 3D area solidstate lasers will soon be used to process thermoformed parts in the thin sheet range. We use one to cut parts 2.5 millimeters thick, and for this thickness it’s ideal. For thicker sheets, the CO2 laser will continue to be the ideal solution. Also straight job shops that have to be able to work with all sheet thicknesses will continue to use the CO2 laser as a universal tool. But we will continue to invest in CO2 machines in the future. After all, we also cut commercial truck components made of 10-millimeter thick steel.

Automation is quickly reaching its limits in the 3D range. How do you deal with this fact?

Automation is a hot topic for us. The new machines are becoming faster and faster, but at some point the machine operator can’t keep up. We were already thinking about automating a machine ourselves. Technically it’s possible, but you need a great deal of space for it. This is because
first you have to connect a conveyor belt to the machine, then remove the parts again, synchronize pick-up, have them load in and unload again on the back side. That’s why I think the best solution is a suspended robot operated via a carrier system on the ceiling. Set up in front of the machine would take up too much space. We are already thinking about constructing a machine in Harsewinkel to test this concept.

The company produces large-batch production orders and prototypes.

So far you have been using rotation changers and a partition for split-station operation. How has this set-up worked for you?

We have equipped half of our 3D machines with rotation changers. We will soon be equipping the majority of our 3D machines with them to give us greater flexibility. By using the rotation changer, we now have the entire work space available. With the split station, on the other hand, we are limited to a certain part size. Also, with the rotation changer, the operator no longer has to run to the other cabin to load and unload parts.

Hujer Lasertechnik mainly processes thermoformed car body parts for the automotive industry.

How does your business model look for the long term?

We are thinking about different options, for example, remote welding. For the long term, we would like to produce complete assemblies that would involve both welding and assembly, especially of challenging car body parts like the front or the rear. Currently, we are actively pursuing
ongoing production orders that will enable us to get a foothold in that area.

You founded the Lohfelden facility right on the doorstep of a major automobile manufacturer. What came first, you or the orders?

We were there first — I opened the facility with three machines without having a solid order from our customer. A good businessman must be courageous. If you make only safe decisions, you can’t grow your company. Risk is always a part of the game. The Lohfelden facility has been in operation now for three years and we have ordered our eleventh 3D machine this fall.

We are completely satisfied.

Hujer Lasertechnik GmbH
Erhard Hujer

This article was published in fall 2010.

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