The spark of FMS is ignited in Korea

A “never-ending success story”: That is how the Ecospeed machining center is best summed up. Its quality has been proven in the highly dynamic five-axis milling of large, extremely demanding aluminum components for airplanes, due in no small part to its parallel kinematic Sprint Z3 machining head. But, according to Starrag, the machines work even better together: The Ecospeed machining centers can be interlinked to form a highly productive flexible manufacturing system (FMS), with no compromises in performance. Alfred Lilla, Sales Director Aero Structures, explains how Starrag has been able to write the “never-ending success story” under the FMS banner.

Alfred Lilla, you are known as “Mr. Ecospeed”, because you were there for the birth of the parallel kinematic machining head nearly 20 years ago –which was revolutionary at the time – and because of your significant contribution to the development of the Ecospeed machining centers. How does an airframe mechanic from the now-defunct Augsburg-based aerospace company DaimlerChrysler Aerospace AG (DASA) come to develop a completely new machine concept?

Alfred Lilla: In 2000, as head of NC programming at DASA, which later became EADS, I was researching a completely new machine technology with production engineer Helmut Färber. This technology would need to be suitable for the highly productive machining of the incredibly complex structural components for the central section of the Eurofighter fuselage. As there were no suitable or effective machines on the market, we developed an HSC plant with horizontal parallel kinematics in collaboration with DS Technologie Werkzeugmaschinenbau GmbH, based in Mönchengladbach – and now a Starrag subsidiary. This invention proved to be a very good machine concept, which has developed into a highly successful Starrag product range under the Ecospeed name. Its success is down to the fact that there is no other machine tool in the world that can match its performance level.

Currently, out of more than 130 Ecospeed machines installed worldwide, 60 work in combination as an FMS. How did the 19 FMS systems – now in use around the world in the aerospace industry – come about?

Alfred Lilla: Since 2009, one of our key customers, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), has ordered a total of 12 Ecospeed machine tools for high-speed machining of large aluminum structural components. KAI ordered an FMS made up of nine Ecospeed F 2060 machines for machining wing ribs, following an analysis that revealed that they are 30 % more productive than the linked machines of any other competitor. Since 2016, KAI has been the home of one of the world’s largest Ecospeed FMS systems, with 9 machines, 4 set-up stations, 2 transfer wagons and a total of 90 pallets.

How does KAI rate the performance of this line now?

Alfred Lilla: Very highly, because the South Koreans have said themselves that they now process the wing ribs of the Airbus A350 five times faster than they could on their previous conventional machining centers. As a result, KAI – together with local suppliers – now uses Ecospeed to manufacture all Airbus A350 wing ribs. Overall, several hundred wing ribs are now produced each month for this aircraft type. It is not only the performance that is impressive, but also the high availability of the FMS, at 97 %. According to our customers, the Ecospeed technology is significantly less error-prone than machines with circular axes (AC or AB kinematics). But it was ultimately the performance and reliability that finally convinced customers across Europe, the USA and China to invest in Ecospeed FMS. In addition to Chinese companies CAC, Chengdu Aviation and AVIC Shengyang Aircraft, which have ordered 4 FMS with 20 Ecospeed F machining centers in total, an American aerospace supplier showed interest in our product range for the first time, in particular in our linked solutions.

“‘Industrie 4.0’ is not a vision for the future; it is already a reality and is ensuring a high level of reliability and effectiveness in the production process.”

Did you win the customer? 

Alfred Lilla: Yes, it is the aerospace supplier Orizon Aerostructures, which first saw an Ecospeed F 2060 in use when in the process of acquiring another company. Impressed by the performance, the aerospace supplier closely examined the FMS solution adopted by KAI, before deciding spontaneously to build a new production hall with six linked Ecospeed F 2060 machining centers. We saw success not just with the fast commissioning – which took only eight months – and the performance, but according to Orizon, the new FMS works 40% faster than comparable existing machines. Orizon therefore decided to order three more Ecospeed F 2060 machining centers, which will go into operation in 2019. The results for Orizon speak volumes for its investment in an FMS with nine Ecospeed machining centers. With consistently high availability, they are in use all year round – except for a short annual break in production of five days. The owners of the company are thrilled to be able to expand production capacity by at least 50% thanks to the new machines.

“The owners of the company are thrilled to be able to expand production capacity by at least 50 % thanks to the new machines.”

Is this technology only for large companies?

Alfred Lilla: It is true that we can count many large, well-known aerospace companies among our FMS customers. However, our customers range from the supplier Premium Aerotec, our largest and oldest regular customer with a total of 8 FMS and 20 Ecospeed machines, down to the small but perfectly formed Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus, which ordered an FMS with 2 Ecospeed F 2040. So it is clear that FMS are also suitable for small and medium-sized companies.

When you look back at the successes of FMS, what is the common denominator of all buyers of FMS – also with regard to the Starrag claim “Engineering precisely what you value”? What do FMS buyers really value and appreciate?

Alfred Lilla: The customers rely primarily on growth and safety. We meet these two wishes with significantly increased productivity, which we substantiate with average performance increases of 300 % to 500 % when compared with old conventional machines, and from 30 % to 40 % compared to new machines from competitors. Additionally, thanks to the robust technology, we can provide an extremely high system availability of > 96 %. For the majority of buyers, however, it all comes down to a rapid return on investment. We fulfil this requirement by ensuring fast, productive utilization of the FMS with fast delivery and commissioning. For example, Orizon expected its new FMS solution to be operational within just eight months, in accordance with its “letter of intent”– and we achieved just that. This also contributed to increased growth and safety.

Does digital transformation play a role in the specifications of customers? How do you meet their requirements?

Alfred Lilla: The best example of this can be seen in Korea with KAI. As its core element, the FMS features a cell controller, which automatically monitors all processes. This ensures that everything runs automatically. The user only needs to clamp the parts to be machined onto the pallets – everything else is done automatically. The cell controller controls the entire process – from the automatic loading and storage of the raw material to the unloading of the finished components. All information and resources are managed via the cell controller, which receives orders from the primary ERP system of the end customer. The cell controller ensures there is digital transparency in the factory because it centrally manages all the FMS information, which it forwards on to primary computer systems as required via standard interfaces. For us, ‘Industrie 4.0’ is not a vision for the future; it is already a reality and is ensuring a high level of reliability and effectiveness in the production process.

Are we talking about tailored solutions that only large, solvent customers can afford?

Alfred Lilla: Yes, they are tailored. We rely on the foundation of our Integrated Production System (IPS), from which the customer can select their individual ‘Industrie 4.0’ solution “à la carte”. But they are also available to medium-sized suppliers: The Starrag IPS is used as a platform for automating and digitizing production – step by step if desired. IPS ranges from individual machines, to FMS and right up to complete production lines. In contrast to other providers, we also use products developed in-house for all important components: The core element is the cell controller, developed by Starrag, which monitors FMS and production lines to ensure reliable processes. This digital icing on the cake shows not only that it can guide and control the entire production process – in conjunction with a higher-level ERP system where applicable – the cell controller also ensures digital transparency in the factory by visualizing the system status, for example. And thanks to our in-house development, we also ensure high availability when it comes to digitalization.