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Efficient Processes and Resource Efficiency – a Goal, an Opportunity, and a Challenge

An interview with Steinbeis expert Prof. Dr.-Ing. Michael Kaufeld

The emergence of new materials is impacting many areas. On the one hand they influence the actual products they go into, but on the other, they also require new ways (of thinking) to develop tools and tool technologies. TRANSFER magazine spoke to Steinbeis Entrepreneur and tool expert Professor Dr.-Ing. Michael Kaufeld about the important aspects of this and the role played by digital solutions.

Hello Professor Kaufeld. What new demands are being placed on machine tools in the wake of recently developed materials?

When new materials are developed, ensuring they succeed requires concerted effort – early – and interaction between different technologies and sectors of industry. The reason this is so important is that component features are inextricably linked not only to their material properties, but also to manufacturing and (ongoing) processing techniques. Materials, process technology, and design must work together successfully. The kinds of topics this touches on at the moment include lightweight metallic materials, fiber composites, technical textiles, additive materials offering the possibility to create multi-material designs, sustainability, resource efficiency, circular materials and, more recently, functional surfaces.

For machine makers, this means that process improvements have to be carried out on materials that are more difficult to machine, such as high-strength metals, but at the same time, components need to become more intricate. This increasingly requires expertise when to comes to things like the behavior of materials and components, fixture and tool design, but also the procedures that are used to quickly enhance processes during order fulfillment. It’s becoming increasingly important for machine makers to understand processes, because people of course want turnkey solutions.

I believe there will be increasing demand for so-called hybrid machines and manufacturing systems. This means systems will have to combine very different technologies in order to carry out end-to-end processing and inspection. So machine manufacturers have to become familiar with new and complementary technologies. For example, to deliver all component properties, in addition to requiring the actual printing system, additive manufacturing also needs all downstream stages of the process, such as heat treatment, surface finishing, and mechanical post-processing, as well as the required integral aspects of process security, such as conducting checks on component composition.

The challenges arising from the aspect of sustainability are also forcing mechanical engineering to think more about new materials and manufacturing processes other than those it was previously familiar with. Examples include titanium aluminides as extremely low-weight, high-strength lightweight construction materials. Large components used to be milled from conventional titanium alloys, but now additive manufacturing is paving the way for the production of zero-defect components in high volumes.

I believe that overall, the processing parameters that are subsequently selected in component manufacture can have a strong influence on the properties of highly advanced materials. This is a particular challenge to mechanical engineers to look more closely into material properties and how these interact with process parameters, and to identify solutions in order to ensure they deliver the required properties in series production.

In what ways are new materials influencing the development of tool technologies? What opportunities and risks do you see here?

With workpieces increasingly being manufactured from light metals and the kinds of high-strength ferrous alloys that are suitable for thin-walled structures, on the one hand this means cutting materials need long service lives, and on the other hand, those cutting tools must safeguard the required component standards at significantly higher speeds. Among other things, this calls for lightweight tool designs – topology-optimized design – often in conjunction with tool design spanning several geometric factors.

It’s increasingly important that tool manufacturers consider how tools influence component and material properties. This applies not only to traditional machining and aspects such as cutting design, but also to the actual machining process, which involves using tools like lasers and water jets.

What can be done to address these challenges, especially for SMEs?

The way I see it, it’s particularly important for SMEs – but also for larger companies – not only to face up to the new requirements being placed on them, but also to proactively act as technology scouts, so to speak. To adapt and match in-house product development to products on the horizon, it’s important to spot them and their “material and design peculiarities” at an early stage. Of course, SMEs only have a limited ability to do this in day-to-day business, so it helps to be selective about the conferences and trade shows you go to, or make regular use of “innovation and trend consultations” offered by third parties, such as the experts in the Steinbeis Network.

What kind of issues occupy your customers at the moment and what can your Steinbeis Enterprise do to help them?

I’d name three areas as examples: Lightweight design, which is also receiving a shot in the arm from electric vehicles, means that lots of components have to be made out of light metals. This brings an onus with it, but also an opportunity to really “rev up” machining processes, particularly with intricate and flexible designs. This leads to some fairly special challenges when it comes to tools, which is an area we help with to determine suitable processing parameters.

The second example goes back to emerging developments in wireless technology. In this area, measuring devices need to be developed with components that are increasingly compact and intricate. This leads to machining processes involving tools with diameters of less than 0.3 millimeters. In this area, we help optimize the entire process chain, from the machine to the tool, application parameters, and quality assurance.

The third example underscores how important it is for firms to regularly consider whether they can tap into processing technologies used in other industries and apply them to their own markets. For us, this is specifically about using waterjet cutting, which people in dental technology will be familiar with when they work with hard materials.

Thinking now about digital technology, what role will digitech play in solving the challenges of material processing, today and in the future?

I see digital transformation not only as an opportunity when it comes to monitoring processes, but also for material and component properties during processing. For instance, weight optimizations lead to reduced safety factors in design, which inevitably results in an increased risk of errors and failures. This is where use can be made of smart sensors, many of which are already available on the market. That said, the problem at the moment is smart logging, evaluation, and interpreting signals. There are lots of instances at the moment of applications being offered with references to AI, which are actually mainly about improving existing evaluations, handling large volumes of data, and smart end devices. There’s still a huge amount of work to do when it comes to the really meaningful interpretation of data and resulting impacts on machines and processes, and it mustn’t be forgotten that at the end of the day, this has to be compatible with what happens in the workshop. The focus must always be on the goal of improving process and resource efficiency, which I see as a tremendous opportunity, but also a challenge.


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Michael Kaufeld (interviewee)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Manufacturing Technology & Machine Tools (Horgau)

Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Consulting Center High-Pressure Waterjet Technology (Horgau)