At our model shop, special parts are produced to order

Mechanics heart and soul

If you think that the model shop at Roche Rotkreuz is where you can find models to strut down the runway, you’re barking up the wrong tree. The models you see in the Rotkreuz model shop are not at all the catwalk type but rather machines of all sizes producing all manner of noise. Around the shop, workers can be seen fully concentrated on machining a workpiece, though the nine large milling machines almost seem to do the job on their own.

Appearances are deceptive, of course. Rolf Schnarwiler, head of the model shop and its twelve employees, shows us the machinery on the shop floor and explains the task of the model shop. First, he delves a little into local history: Rotkreuz used to produce far more parts in-house; the service was once part of Production but was outsourced in 1998–1999. Yet instrument development still required these specially manufactured parts. So it was decided to convert the existing prototype workshop into the model shop, and the necessary additions were made to meet the new requirements. In organizational terms, the model shop belongs to “Instrument Development,” which means that it is part of GPS (Global Platforms & Support).

But Schnarwiler and his men don’t just run a workshop for special parts. They are partners of the developers when it comes to mechanical questions. The product developers and designers turn to the model shop to order a special part they need for a new instrument they are working on.

Although today state-of-the-art CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) technology makes it possible for developers to send the exact data for the 3-D parts to the model shop, customers still discuss the job in person with the model shop staff. The mechanic can then edit the data for the part with a computer program, perform a simulation if necessary and send the data directly to one of the shop’s modern milling machines.

The model shop boasts four five-axis milling centers. Schnarwiler explains to the mechanically challenged visitor that these machines mill the workpiece with five instead of three axes, which means that the workpiece doesn’t have to be constantly repositioned. The end result is far greater accuracy in milling.

Schnarwiler is grateful that they have been able to continuously invest in modernizing the infrastructure so that the technology is always state of the art. “That’s helped us to increase efficiency and—wherever possible—to boost quality as well. Over the years, the order volume has grown steadily. But thanks to our modern equipment, we’ve been able to handle the workload with the same staffing level for the past 14 years. In fact, with some people retiring we’ve even lost some manpower.”

A good mix

The team is a good mix of experienced and younger mechanics. Basically, everyone is capable of working on all the machines and knows how to work with the computer programs. Only the lathe is more complex, and a specialist is working on it at present. Only four people can operate the 3-D printer, even though Schnarwiler, an experienced mechanic, believes that the machine is not extremely challenging. “But it’s a great addition to the other options at our disposal for producing plastic parts at very short notice,” he adds.

To work here, Schnarwiler says, you have to be a mechanic heart and soul. “We benefit from experience, so it’s important that we can share our knowledge with each other. But you also have to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in technology. We produce individual parts or very small batches. That makes the job challenging, highly interesting and diversified.”

A large number of factors come together when a new piece of equipment is being developed and designed. So the model shop employees do more than just execute an order; they also act as partners to the developers. They give serious consideration to aspects such as the choice of materials, the surface properties of a part, the required accuracy and the future production costs. Schnarwiler takes a pragmatic approach: “If we can guarantee the identical quality with a less expensive material, that can easily make a difference of half a million francs over the life of the product once it goes into production.” The model shop staff also checks the drawing documents to ensure that they are suitable for serial production further down the line.

The model shop’s clients especially appreciate its fast response times. The shop always has one staff member assigned to “express service.” In other words, he takes care of urgent requests, when a job just can’t wait for “later.” In these cases, urgent means within half a day.

In addition to mechanical production, two of the shop’s employees are employed in building functional mock-ups and prototypes. They also act as an important interface between Instrument Development and Global Operations, where our projects are transformed into products. In addition, they perform wide-ranging tests with the prototypes. Some system modules are subjected to durability testing 24 hours a day and seven days a week. This kind of endurance testing supplies important information about any potential weaknesses from wear and tear and, of course, about the life expectancy of a product.

Last year, the model shop team put in 17,000 hours of work on 112 different projects, product lines and cost centers. In the meantime, word has gotten around that the model shop team is staffed with flexible, uncomplicated and helpful professionals. So, very occasionally the model shop jumps in to help on a special assignment where external support would usually be responsible.

This happened not long ago: “If a whole filling line comes to a standstill because the people there have to wait for external support, we can’t just look the other way. So we helped them out, and the line resumed operations.” Schnarwiler smiles as he tells us: “We don’t want this to become the norm. But we’re glad to help out, provided we have the capacity and the expertise.”

Tags: Science