Steinbeis experts from Pforzheim and Optik-Elektro Huber develop innovative manufacturing process

There are two marked trends occurring in many fields of technology at the moment. The first is a significant shift toward miniaturization, and the other is higher levels of integrated technical functions within products. This goes hand in hand with a need for ultimate quality and functionality, especially in sensitive areas such as the aerospace industry and medical technology. The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Production and Organization in Pforzheim and Optik-Elektro Huber have successfully met these requirements: Their joint project has been honored with the 2019 Steinbeis Foundation Transfer Award – the Löhn Award.

Huber, an optical electronics company from Enzberg near the Baden-Wuerttemberg city of Mühlacker, is specialized in the production of small batches of highly complex mechanical parts used in aerospace and medical technology. For example, it produces components used in valves required to operate impeccably at temperatures as low as -100°C. It is not possible to use elastomer seals at such temperatures and as a result metal functional surfaces are needed to achieve the right seals, which typically involve tightly positioning metal on metal. This is only achievable if surfaces offer minimal levels of roughness and ultimate precision.

To meet such requirements, Huber joined forces with the Pforzheim-based Steinbeis Transfer Center for Production and Organization to develop a new process that would help eliminate the possibility of a variety of processes negatively impacting surfaces – from machining to final packaging before shipping.

Their fully automated solution revolves around an autonomous manufacturing cell that processes components individually in order to avoid potential damage inflicted on surfaces by parts accidentally bumping into to one another – without having a detrimental impact on the overall process. At the heart of the unit lies a new kind of cleansing system which allows factors with an influence on cleansing to be taken into account (temperature, cleansing time, mechanical support, and chemical use). The system works in such a way that despite having to use extremely environmentally friendly cleaning agents, all required processes can take place in parallel to component machining. This safeguards ultimate quality standards at a minimal cost.

In addition to developing the technology behind the system and setting it up, the project partners planned a commercialization strategy to extend the new technology’s potential field of application; this strategy is now being systematically implemented. The project has allowed both partners to demonstrate how an overarching approach to problem-solving and close collaboration between science and business can result in innovative technologies and concepts capable of securing competitiveness in the long term. Achieving this through the project has been honored by the Steinbeis Foundation Transfer Award – the Löhn Award.

An interview with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Herbert Emmerich and Thilo Huber

Hello Mr. Huber. You have been specializing in the production of miniaturized mechanical components for many years now. What were the challenges you faced when you turned to the expertise of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Production and Organization in 2017?

We were working on complex components with extremely demanding surface requirements; with some parts we had really high reject rates, which were a result of the processes after milling and the nature of the part-handling process. We needed to find different ways to restrict or eliminate any possibility of external impacts influencing our automated process. Another more general issue was the throughput time for overall batches to go through all of the processes, because of the nature of our production and batch sizes. We needed to find a new method that would allow us to map the features of a production island in such a way that we could significantly reduce slack time between different stages of the processes, and thus reduce overall throughput times.

Turning to you, Professor Emmerich, your role model for implementing the project that has now received the Transfer Award came from the world of nature: raw eggs. I think you’ll need to explain that one to us!

Special requirements need special solutions. I really do think I can compare the optical electronics made by Huber to raw eggs. Get the slightest thing wrong and it’s impossible to avoid breaking them or producing rejects. The permissible roughness depths we deal with are sometimes less than one micrometer, so the only way to handle parts safely or avoid damage is to process each part individually. It goes without saying that you can’t process parts in sets with others, especially with supercritical cleaning processes. I don’t think anyone would come up with the idea of putting loose sets of raw eggs through a cleaning device.

The project has now resulted in a prototype that is ready for use. Mr. Huber: In what ways are you already benefiting from this innovative development?

The prototype helps us in a number of ways. We’re currently using the system to carry out further testing on process stability and make improvements. Of course, we also want to use this testing to identify any other potential areas of improvement and then apply what we identify directly to the next machines. That means we could use the machine in production right now if we wanted to. We’re pleased to see that a number of potential customers have already become aware of the system through our publicity and they’ve been asking us about delivery times and when the technology will be available.

Professor Emmerich: Could you give us a sneak preview of the future? What potential is there for your project overall once the prototype phase has been completed?

Our objectives focus on two main areas. Naturally, on the one hand we want to bolster our competitiveness by using these systems in our own production, but we also want to demonstrate to our customers that we allow both parties to be successful with our innovative solutions. On top of that, we also want to think beyond the here and now, so we intend to position the system as our own product on the market in combination with powerful producers of tooling machines. So as you can tell, we won’t get bored.


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Herbert Emmerich (author)
Steinbeis Transfer Center for Production and Organization (Pforzheim)

Thilo Huber
Managing Director
Optik-Elektro Huber GmbH (Mühlacker)