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Automation – A Driver of High Importance to Modern Production

Hakfelt Produktion AB is a contract manufacturer from Bräcke municipality in Sweden with capabilities in gas and laser cutting, CNC machining and welding. The cornerstones of their operations are to work strategically, and with a determined, long-term mindset.

The business is blooming at the moment: order books are full and the company employs more people than ever before: currently there are 60 people working for the family-owned company.

As said, the company is forecasting a permanent increase in the order intake. Their key customers have announced continuous increases in their businesses, meaning that Hakfelt is growing together with their customers. Automation plays a huge role in meeting the growing demand – we will get back to this later on in this article.

“We must continue working hard to maintain the good reputation Hakfelt Produktion has built up since the start of the company in 1991”, says Pontus Hakfelt, who, together with his brother Fredric, took over the company from their parents during the summer of 2019. “With the shortage of labor that prevails here in Bräcke and Jämtland in general, our responsibility is to raise interest in this modern industry, especially among the younger generation. The company continues the journey tirelessly by investing in new, high-efficiency machines and in optimizing production to keep up with our customers’ development.”

“We are optimistic about the future: we have a strong customer base and incredibly competent and loyal staff who wants to continue to develop”, Pontus continues.

The editor of the magazine Maskinoperatören is onsite at Hakfelt Produktion in Bräcke for a reason. The news about increased volumes means that the machine capacity in the cutting process needs to be increased as well. “It is crucial for us that our customers can trust us to deliver the orders on time”, states Fredric Hakfelt, the other owner of the company.

“We started building our department for CNC machining ten years ago – before that the machining process was completely outsourced. Today, the site’s CNC production consists of five multi-operation machines from OKUMA, some of which are equipped with pallet systems. We felt the increased pressure from our customers, and what turned out to be especially challenging was the fact that we did not know our machine tool utilization rates nor how much capacity we had available.”

It is a common situation among contract manufacturers that they believe they are being efficient in their processes but once educated with data, it turns out they utilize a maximum of 50-60 percent of the capacity – in many cases, even less. This is a big problem in the industry, but fortunately it is something that can be solved – with the help of automation.

Hakfelt Produktion is taking part in a project called Smart Industrial Modernization organized by IUC Z-GROUP Jämtland / Härjedalen. The project includes consulting and analyzes that are carried out on site to strengthen the company’s competitiveness with knowledge-based initiatives.

“It was like a slap in the face when we understood how relatively inefficient we were on several levels”, Fredric and Pontus describe.

“So, when it was time to tackle those inefficiencies, Covid-19 arrived. Just like other companies, we were affected as well, but bounced back relatively quickly: customers and orders came back just after a few months, and suddenly we had more orders than before the pandemic. This was probably because of Sweden not closing up like the other industrialized countries did.”

So the question was: how could we increase the capacity in the machining processes? Is our only option to invest in new, expensive machinery or are there other possibilities? It is also very difficult to find competent machine operators”, reminds Fredric and continues: “We knew that some form of automation would be a solution to our problem – we knew it increases efficiency, as we had already automated several aspects in both our sheet metal and welding processes.”

“Our most recent investment was in 2018, when we took an OKUMA 630 in use. It had “only” the automatic pallet changer, which was not sufficient to cover the volume increase in the orders from our key customers such as Bräcke Forest, Engcon, Komatsu Forest, Bucher Emhart Glass, Oilquick and Sund.”

“We started searching for a solution. We had actually heard about Fastems before, and knew that they had various solutions to offer. I had not been in contact with them yet, but after speaking with our machine supplier Stenbergs, we were recommended to contact Henrik Brodén from Fastems”, Fredric says. “All this resulted in a slightly unique, but a very efficient entity consisting of a cost-efficient and simple automation solution called Flexible Pallet Container (FPC), to which we docked our OKUMA. The system has room for ten pallets and even though it is small, it is a fully automated FMS.”

We will dive deeper into the solution in the upcoming paragraphs, explaining how Henrik Brodén together with his team used creativity and commitment to come up with this solution, that is not the usual kind but indeed highly beneficial for Hakfelt Produktion.

Fastems’ solution

Automated production is crucial for Swedish engineering companies to have a steady foothold now and in the future. When automation and robotics are utilized efficiently, it is possible for the Swedish manufacturers to compete with basically anyone – even on the global scale.

At the Finnish factory automation provider Fastems, the everyday life runs around productivity, comprising of CNC automation reducing setup times close to zero. The company’s mantra 8760 – the hours in a year – acts as a driver for each and every aspect of their operations.

Fastems is a company that works to streamline the customer’s processes by first understanding the production as a whole, aiming to find the possible bottlenecks, and then utilizing a large product portfolio to meet the needs of the customer.

“With efficient automation, we can, together with our customers, create well-developed automated processes that turn into business opportunities”, says Henrik Brodén, Sales Manager at Fastems AB.

“Today we can offer a complete solution where Fastems takes 100% responsibility for the automation. With proprietary software, we can control the entire process of robotic part handling operations as well as pallet and fixture handling via crane in an FMS systems. In addition, we can integrate various other processes such as tool management (external tool magazines), AGVs, robots, transport rails, etc. Everything is controlled by our own software MMS, which is the “nervous system” of production, often integrated with customer’s ERP and TDM systems. Starting from a single stand-alone machine, like here at Hakfelt, to connecting several machines with one solution, and finally integrating entire factories – our broad competence and long history on the field allow us to meet every need of our customers, even the most complex ones”, says Henrik. “Currently we are also investing in slightly simpler, modular solutions to provide the automation benefits also for the smaller factories and entities.”

The story of Hakfelt Produktion and Fastems started with an email in February 2021

Henrik Brodén is of course present in the meeting in Bräcke to talk about the solution that was implemented at Hakfelt Produktion’s site.

“The customer’s requirements and goals were reported by Fredric Hakfelt. The starting point for the project was to find a solution to streamline an already existing multi-operational machine with an efficient pallet system. It was really important to take every aspect of the customer’s production into consideration”, says Henrik.

Supervisor Tommy Birgersson, Henrik Brodén from Fastems AB and machine operator Oskar Löfgren.

Usually when writing and reading about Fastems’ products, the articles cover the automation of completely new machines and solutions. In these cases, the company has usually invested in a complete system with a high level of automation. When it comes to Hakfelt Produktion, the solution found was a little different: automating an existing OKUMA multi-operational machine that had been in production since 2018.

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“The demand has increased notably, and Hakfelt needed more spindle hours per day – this is where we from Fastems came into the picture. After coming up with a solid basis for the project together with Fredric Hakfelt and his team, we ended up integrating our FPC with the machine tool for more efficient production, shorter set-up times and above all, more spindle hours per day”, says Henrik Brodén. “And, naturally, more questions came up during the project: is it feasible since the machine was bought as a stand-alone, etc. After the investigation we ended up hooking off the doors of the machine APC, and manufacturing a new front plate to enable the crane arm to reach the machine.”

Technical facts about and around automation

Flexible Pallet Container is an FPC-1500 with a 10-pallet capacity. FPC can be easily expanded to run 3 machine tools and store up to 30 pallets, which means that you can scale the system at your own pace. The system is controlled by Fastems’ MMS: MMS is a software that, among others, plans the jobs, ensures that the machine is used in the best possible way, and is “one step ahead”, letting the operator know when e.g. the tools must be maintained – all this resulting in higher efficiency and less loss on valuable machining time.

The machine operator Oskar Löfgren shows a machined component.

“The fun thing was that we basically contacted each other at the same time: me trying to find out the possible interest in automation and Hakfelt to get help in finding a solution. Everything happened very quickly – from the first contact to the project handover in approximately 4 months”, explains Henrik Brodén.

Summary

So today, when we take a look back, we see a very successful project where all parties are very satisfied.

“We trusted Henrik and his team at Fastems fully – from planning to start-up, installation to commissioning. We really recommend investigating on utilizing existing machine tools with FPC. It was also a much cheaper solution than investing in new machinery – not to mention the increased capacity the solution brought to our shopfloor. This ingenious solution enables us to increase our competitiveness, keep our delivery times stable, and retain jobs in Sweden”, conclude the brothers Fredric and Pontus Hakfelt.

There is always something to discuss when it comes to improving productivity and profitability. Oskar, Henrik and Fredric trust the automation system to streamline and increase the number of production hours per day. Going from machine tool with automatic pallet changer to a 10-pallet system that can be expanded brings an interesting change that is definitely the next step towards higher productivity.

Finally, we ask the machine operator Oskar Löfgren what he thinks. “The system is very efficient and the software that controls the automation is not only simple but also much smarter and advanced than the machine controls that I have come across before. It was easy to learn. To me, it really seems that this is the right automation solution for our future needs as well.”

“Our set-up times have decreased 50%, we have more spindle hours and higher output per manned shift. The utilization rates of unmanned shifts during evenings, nights and weekends have also increased. “


The original article was published in Swedish in Maskinoperatören Nr 6 | September 2021

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