C 12 | C 32 | C 400 U | HS flex | SEPO AG | Precision manufacturing for laser and medical technology
Oliver Oberdanner, CEO of SEPO AG, makes quite clear how important it is to appreciate the workforce: "Without people, the best machine is useless." The basic idea of recognizing and promoting the potential and strengths of each individual is one of SEPO AG's success secrets.
The Swiss family business has its origins in a small workshop which Oberdanner's father founded in 1988 in Bad Ragaz. Amongst other things, the trained mechanic made fishing articles. A sign on the company building that SEPO moved into in 2006 recalls this early stage. "That was already the second move to a larger hall – and it won't be the last one," adds Oliver Oberdanner. He is currently planning a sustainable new building that will provide enough space for the machinery, a canteen, working areas and somewhere to wind down. "The modern world of work is moving further and further away from the way past generations viewed it. There is a demand for less routine and more responsibility." The CEO sums up this attitude: "We expect things of our employees, but in return we also offer them certain degrees of freedom and we have confidence in their intrinsic motivation." He has been steadily developing this way of looking at things since he took full control of the company together with his wife Danielle Oberdanner. "She looks after the administration, human resources and the accounts. I'm responsible for the production, quality assurance and customer contacts."
Over the past 32 years, the one-man business has grown into a manufacturer of mechanical precision parts used in medical and laser technology, textile machinery, audio and acoustic components, electronics production and sports equipment. "Entry into new industries was only possible with the right machines," says Oberdanner. In 2012 he decided to purchase a 5-axis milling machine from another manufacturer. "We were convinced by the 5-axis concept, but not by the machine we bought back then," recalls the company boss. "So we searched the market, and came across Hermle. Above all, the consistently positive feedback on reliability and service made us curious." A C 30 U from Maschinenfabrik Berthold Hermle AG, which has been in operation since 2014, was followed in 2015 by a C 32 U to replace the problem-prone 5-axis machine from another supplier. The CEO identifies the advantages of the Hermle machines: "Not only were we able to manufacture faster because we only needed two set-up phases instead of five, but also more precisely. This brought us new and more demanding orders." To increase capacity, he invested in a Hermle machining centre again two years later; this time it was a C 400 U.
Added value that adds value
"Even though the investment was high, it paid off rapidly, and the plant is worth it," says Oberdanner. "With the Hermle machine we were able to secure more orders. We profit considerably from the productivity, the tolerance fidelity and the quality," adds the CEO. The same applies to the service. "The Hermle technicians are always available and they produce solutions and replacement parts in no time." Especially for a small family-owned company, this is an absolute must. "If the machine is standing still, we are losing orders."
Currently, there is no question of standing still at SEPO. While other companies have had to capitulate in the face of the Corona crisis, the 5-axis precision machines enable Oliver Oberdanner and his team to keep going, while the automation option allows for larger output quantities. The CEO explains: "We entered the automation business with the HS flex system for the C 400 U." That was not part of the plan when the machining centre was purchased. But the plant ran so well that the order numbers increased and Oberdanner saw that automation would make sense. Christian Simon, Area Sales Manager of Hermle (Schweiz) AG, recalls: "Within a year of the purchase, SEPO approached us with the query as to whether it was possible to automate the C 400 U retrospectively." Satisfying this wish proved tricky simply because of the limited space available. "It was complicated, but not impossible. We supplemented the machine with an HS flex system including two storage modules," adds Simon. According to Oberdanner, Hermle executed the task in the best possible way – and was always available when user errors caused brief downtimes. "But since we learned exactly how to operate the plant, it's been running perfectly," adds the CEO. It is operated via Hermle's proprietary HACS software (Hermle Automation Control System). HACS calculates running times and tool requirements in advance and clearly displays relevant data such as work and sequence plans, operator tasks and tool tables. "Intuitive operation means less organizational downtime for us and therefore increased productivity," says Oberdanner.
The next step: Robot automation
With HS flex automation, SEPO can prepare up to 40 pallets of 240 x 320 millimetres each for unmanned production. "However, in 70% of cases we process significantly smaller blanks", Oberdanner notes. In view of this he decided to invest in a smaller machine and ordered a C 12 U in 2018. The C 12 U is the smallest of Hermle's High-Performance line machining centres, and it was combined with the RS05 robot system. "The order book was so full that we were able to reckon with a capacity utilization of around 80% in advance. That had a positive influence on the decision-making process, naturally enough," he relates. A further plus point is that the order management uses the same software as the HS flex system. As the SEPO team was already familiar with the HACS software, commissioning the robot automation was fast and smooth.
The robot automation means that Oberdanner can produce precision parts in series – even unattended, overnight and on weekends. Especially in the current situation, this means that SEPO is very well placed. "We were awarded a comprehensive contract for manufacturing components for ventilators. This is where the machine's dynamic milling comes into play, with fast and perfect transitioning," emphasises Oberdanner. 10% to 20% of the blanks are made of plastic, and most of the rest are aluminium. Depending on the size and shape of the part, running times range from 60 seconds to 1½ hours. Whatever part is involved, at the end of the processing they all fulfil the most stringent specifications in terms of precision and appearance.
With the sudden increase in demand for medical devices and the resulting extra orders, SEPO has even had to recruit new staff. "It is a problem finding qualified specialists in Switzerland as well. Before the pandemic it was practically impossible. But here, too, the Hermle machines had a positive effect. With our modern machinery, we not only awaken the interest of young people, but also demonstrate that each individual can develop her or his potential here," explains Oberdanner – and that is what he calls the 'spirit of Hermle'. Nevertheless, he knows that the technology alone is not enough: "Mutual respect, cooperativeness and equal opportunities are essentials for a motivated team." 33 people are currently working at SEPO – in 2018 there were 12.
The owner of the company sums things up like this: "In recent years we have developed incredibly fast. The Hermle plant has also played a significant role here." Thanks to the high precision and dimensional accuracy, SEPO was able to gain new customers and accept larger order volumes through automated procedures. "The quality of the 5-axis machining centres, coupled with service and automation solutions from a single source, gives us the assurance that we can guarantee to meet our customers' requirements."