At the age of 64, Walter Sticht passed his company on to his sons and started over from scratch. He had previously managed his company for 36 years and was particularly successful with high-performance automations for large-scale production in the automotive and fittings industries. “But then I wanted to do something different. I asked myself how automation can be used for small runs.”
When Sticht says “small runs,” he means products with a production volume of less than one million per year. “It was clear that variety and customization were becoming increasingly important in industry – that the trend was shifting toward smaller runs that need to be produced just in time.”
That was in 2008. Today, Sticht’s new company STICHT Technologie GmbH is one of Europe’s leading providers of automation technology. The company is headquartered in Hagenberg, Austria, with production facilities located in Germany – in Schlangenbad, near Frankfurt. The choice of location was meant to be a statement: “I’m no do-gooder, but if European industry is to survive, we need affordable production methods that are profitable in high-wage countries, too, such as Germany and Austria – even for smaller runs.” This is Sticht’s mission.
Always keep production in mind
He has a philosophy, too. “It can’t always be about taking a finished product and only then developing fast, affordable automated production for it. The process needs to be considered beforehand!” says Sticht. “For me, product development and production go hand in hand. When designing a product, you have to keep the subsequent automation in mind.”
An order from Audi gave Sticht the opportunity to put his philosophy into action. Audi had a new gear shift tower – a component that transmits the driver’s shifting motion to the shift fork.
When designing a product, you have to keep the subsequent automation in mind.
Walter Sticht, Founder of the STICHT Technologie GmbH
The car maker contracted Sticht to design the gear shift tower and to develop an automated solution for its production. It quickly became clear that only an intelligent sheet metal design with a tube would be feasible, using a forming process and welding the individual parts with laser light.
The solution is ready!
Sticht has years of experience with lasers: he was using solid-state and CO2 lasers as early as the 1980s, as these are much easier to automate than other welding methods. “But in all that time, I never found a single laser system on the market that was suitable for automation. There simply weren’t any. So we bought the beam sources, the optics, and so on, and always built our own laser systems, which we then integrated into the overall system” – a laborious process for Sticht.
The STICHT automation solution requires only one operator. (Photo: Martin Leissl)
The four different workpiece holders follow an endless loop that automatically positions them in the processing cell. (Photo: Martin Leissl)
The laser executes a different welding program for each workpiece holder. (Photo: Martin Leissl)
While the operator is prepping one workpiece holder, the next one can go back into the processing cell. (Photo: Martin Leissl)
After a total of four passes and 80 seconds, the gear shift tower is ready for delivery. (Photo: Martin Leissl)
With the Audi contract, Sticht gave the laser systems market another chance and hit upon the TruLaser Cell 3000. “Finally: a modular and flexible laser system! It’s completely free and accessible on the left and right, allowing us to easily integrate our automation. That saved a lot of effort – and money, too. The TruLaser Cell 3000 is produced on a large scale, making it quite a bit less expensive than a self-developed system.” A further advantage is that the laser system makes it possible to implement different welding processes without having to reconfigure the machine. “Automation thrives on processes being broken down into multiple steps. The gear shift tower consists of six individual parts that have to be welded. To facilitate this, we defined four different welding tasks that we execute in sequence.”
Walter Sticht founded his first company, which now operates under the name STIWA Group, in 1972. With 1,300 employees at four sites, it is one of the leading experts in product development and high-performance automation.
STICHT Technologie GmbH
After Walter Sticht handed the STIWA Group over to his sons in 2011, he founded STICHT Technologie GmbH, where he specializes in automation systems for smaller runs. The company designs automation solutions for the manufacturing industry for large-scale production parts (e.g. the automotive, fittings and electrical industries), as well as developing these products and taking on the role of large-scale producer.
The process goes like this: an employee positions the individual components of the gear shift tower on a workpiece holder, which is then automatically positioned in the processing cell. While the processing program begins to load, a laser scanner checks whether all the parts are properly in place.
Then the disk laser begins the first round of welding, and just a moment later, the workpiece returns to the machine operator. The operator needs only a few seconds to position it on the next workpiece holder. Now comes the next welding step. This procedure is repeated two more times; in between, without impacting the cycle time, an integrated TruMark 5010 marks the workpiece in two stages, adding an individual serial number and a 2D barcode for automatic readability.
After a total of four passes and a processing time of 80 seconds, the gear shift tower is ready for delivery. But the machine operator needn’t wait until every processing step is complete: while one workpiece holder is in the cell, he can already be prepping the next one. “Each workpiece holder is identified online via a special system, and tells the processing head which welding process to execute now,” explains Sticht.
Short handover time
The engineers at STICHT Technologie also developed the software themselves. “The laser can’t start up unless the workpiece is in the correct position, so a fast handshake is very important for the interface between the laser machine and our automation system. Together with TRUMPF, we cut this handover time down to less than 0.5 seconds,” says Sticht.
The software for this consists of various functional components and merely needs to be parameterized for the respective welding tasks. “This makes the system very flexible so it can, in principle, also be easily reprogrammed for other products.” Audi found the overall solution to be so convincing that it contracted Sticht as a tier 1 supplier straightaway. “Now we manufacture the gear shift towers here ourselves and supply up to 200,000 units per year.”
The Video on the Homepage of STICHT Technologie GmbH shows how the STICHT automation system welds the gear shift towers for Audi.: