An Interview: Winfried Benz of Licon mt

Winfried Benz, Managing Director of Licon mt, has observed that the implementation time required in the industry is constantly decreasing. The company is responding to this with optimized processes and an expanded range of products.

Q: Mr Benz, Licon mt has announced that it intends to focus on new markets and target groups. What are the motivations for this shift?

A: This goes hand-in-hand with our product development. In terms of the size of workpieces to be machined, we have moved from large to smaller parts in the area of twin-spindle machining centers. With our latest development, the twin spindle machining center LiFLEX II 444, the machine is optimum for parts with dimensions less than 450 mm per side. We discovered that there was also interest in the non-automotive sectors for 5-axis machining on five sides. The automotive segment, in which we currently generate 95% of our business, continues to be the main pillar of our portfolio.

How did this develop?

In the 1990s, we predominantly built special machines. We initially focused on adapting the single-purpose dial machines, which have evolved into the fully-flexible 5-axis rotary transfer machines of today. These were the mainstay of our business for quite some time, until machining centers were added. In comparison to our competitors, we were relatively late in joining this market, but we did so by introducing very large applications immediately: B-axis with 1,000 mm rotation diameters, A-axis of  1,700 mm swing diameters, as well as 900 kg load per palette. Our twin-spindle machining centers are available with X travels of up to 1,000 mm. The heavy duty HSK 100 machines used for great cutting forces came first, the medium platform with 700 mm spindle distance came next, and now we have the 450 mm machine.

It was clearly a decisive step to introduce lower volume machines into the portfolio. Do you agree?

Yes, that is correct. Rotary transfer machines are optimal for highly precise, complex workpieces with six-figure annual production volumes. Machining centers however complemented our product portfolio and also allow us to be a supplier to our existing customers if they required lower production volumes.

Is the overall trend headed towards machining centers?

That is not necessarily the case for us. In general, machines that  incorporate the ability to adapt to workpiece modifications are of course required, which is why our flexible rotary transfer machines continue to be in demand, but then we also need machines for lower production volumes.

Of your customers, 95% are from the automotive sector. Has this always been a positive?

Yes, but at the same time it has also been hard work, above all with respect to the continuous optimization of processes. Working as closely and directly with automotive manufacturers in the OEM business as we do, the benefit is that you are always immediately involved in new product lines. We can produce the latest components and encounter trends from the very start, which allows us to adapt accordingly. The effects of general economic cycles are not as strongly evident because new products always have to be manufactured.

The automotive sector is constantly evolving. Which changes have a particular impact on you?

The demands on quality and precision have been increasing significantly, particularly in Germany and especially by the high volume manufacturers. This of course drives us to strive for even greater perfection. And not only do we need to account for the constant evolution you speak of but development times are also decreasing further. We are a mid-sized company of 200 employees and although we feel that we have taken the appropriate steps, we need to continually strive for more. But we have to be careful that the pace does not increase too dramatically. Optimizing our processes is an ongoing course of action so that we can manage the impact of market changes on the company, which can be quite sudden at times.

What does this increase in pace entail exactly?

Allow me to give a specific example. A machine was ready to deliver to our customer, who then informed us that their raw materials supplier had become insolvent and a new one had not yet been found, but that they would like us to adapt the machine to the new raw work-piece. Despite this change, the original delivery date was to remain the same.

Surely this is an exceptional case?

Actually, that is almost the norm today, particularly when work-piece prototypes are required for vehicle tests. For our turnkey processes we not only supply the machine, but also fixtures and tools. We guarantee our customers will receive machines that  produce within dimensional specifications and reliable cycle times, and consequently the net output. This means we are actually involved in the process of optimizing the work-piece.

How do you manage to supply quality at competitive prices?

The strength of our development means we are able to do a great deal ourselves. We therefore constantly optimize our processes. To ensure all the final parts, such as fixtures, spindles and rotary axes, are of top quality, they are developed and manufactured in house. As a result, we have control over the technical and technological relationship between all parts of the machine tool. This means, for example, that we can optimize the required specific harmonic frequencies according to the purpose for which they are being used in every single machine. To achieve this, comprehensive machine-specific calculations and simulations are necessary, which we are now skilled in and able to verify with calculations appropriate to the actual machine. Theoretical and practical knowledge, combined with the courage to tread new paths, allows us to deliver optimal solutions to our customers on competitive terms. This also applies to the Chinese market, where it is an uphill battle at times, but we are certain this serves to strengthen our market position in the long term.

What role does the modular construction of the machines play?

This is extremely important to us in the development of our machines, but we are also very much aware of its limitations. Modules cannot be exchanged randomly and at will. The knowledge we procure from the further development of individual modules subsequently advances our entire machine tool kit. In a technological sense, this knowledge is a common thread in our module development and it is above all our customers who benefit.

Aside from the automotive sector, which other industries do you have your sights set on?

Although we are not yet actively entered in other markets, interest has been coming mainly from the construction industry and to some extent the aerospace sector. We are particularly seeing demand for twin-spindle 5-axis machines with small X strokes and high load cutting capacity. This is a niche market. For our larger twin-spindle machines, we can supply independent X, Y and Z axes, which are absolutely essential for narrow tolerances on large work-pieces.

Are you also considering production outside Germany?

Not at the moment. Our customers choose us because they trust that we will complete the entire order as a turnkey solution. In recent years, our machines have become more cost-effective through ongoing performance improvements, while Chinese machines have in fact become considerably more expensive at the same time. We will almost certainly never be able to supply a machine to China if a work-piece tolerance is the only consideration. For this reason, we will only operate in the high-end sector in the future.

How do you structure the company in such a turbulent environment?

Lean management has been implemented throughout the entire company. We have been operating under this management principle for many years and have further intensified it over the last two years. This year we want to expand our service capabilities.

How do lean management and improved service fit together?

One example is the topic of speed of response. It is not easy to have the proper worldwide service in terms of expertise required as well as quick response, because providing the right global service whilst also being fast is not always easy.

What exactly does lean management consist of at Licon mt?

A key element is that we operate according to clearly defined standard processes, even when designing customer-specific solutions. We set great store in regular communications as well as visualizing processes and process results. Our employees therefore have the opportunity to learn about workflows and processes in a general context, whether in the development or production of our products. This is an advantage when compared with larger companies where this is only possible to a limited extent given their overall size.

Is it difficult to find skilled personnel here in the region?

If very specific qualifications are required, then yes it is. Highly specialist employees have to be trained by the company itself, which we do. Aside from this, we have not had any problems finding employees with the right commercial and academic skills. I personally think that inexpensive is not an option in Germany anymore. Being capable is the way forward. Given the required response speed I mentioned, we need our employees to also be highly flexible and driven. There is a price to pay for that.

What is next for Licon mt?

We intend to offer a wide range of spin-offs from our small LiFLEX 444 twin-spindle machine featuring different spindle distances and different configurations, in both HSK 63 and HSK 100.

Are these product variations not encroaching on the territory of special machines?

Yes, they are. In the machine tool market, everyone talks about their standard machines, but for project business, which is what our forte is, it is always necessary to address and respond to customer needs.

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