Lateral Thinking in Mechanical Engineering

Industry 4.0 and future forms of manufacturing are on everyone’s lips. High-tech is the name of the game. But that is only half the truth – mechanical engineering is confronted with several other challenges. Horst Gusterhuber, CEO of Roxa Technologies, talks about success, technology and the best of both worlds.

Digitalisation as far as the eye can reach. Everything has to be smart. This also applies to the industry sector. In addition to speed, flexibility is becoming more and more important. Increasingly intelligent components, seamless communication and networking are just a few of the requirements. “That alone won’t cut it,” says Horst Gusterhuber, CEO of the Austrian mechanical engineering company Roxa Technologies. We asked why this is the case and what else is required.

Aircraft maintenance, the finishing of automotive parts, the draining of a storage unit for honey – these are just a few examples on offer. Roxa Technologies develops machines for a wide range of applications. Mr Gusterhuber, how does it all fit together?

Taking a closer look, you will find that we are highly specialised. Our work always focuses on automated motion sequences, which cannot be optimally or sufficiently executed by means of conventional cranes or robotics. Take, for example, the handling of relatively lightweight components across major distances. This is where a special-purpose solution quickly starts to shine.

Does that mean that lightweight components cannot be moved with an “off the shelf” crane?

Generally speaking, of course they can. But it frequently does not pay off to do so. Classic crane construction is about thinking in tonnes. This ignores the fact, however, that 80% of the loads that have to be manipulated in today’s industry weigh less than 500 kilograms. In other words, a crane weighing several tonnes is used to shift a few hundred kilograms – and that is just not economic. Added to this we have topics such as special load geometries, severely limited space – think of ceiling heights, galvanic separation, or special tools that must be positioned with extreme precision from second to second. In our case, the focus is on the “know-how” – you won’t find solutions like these in a catalogue.

Know-how in terms of development and practical technology application are therefore at the core?

Seen from the technological perspective, almost everything is already possible today. This also applies to industrial mechanical engineering. All the required technologies are in place – it’s only a matter of what you do with them. Just having a bunch of cool components at your disposal won’t lead to an amazing machine. The interplay is the decisive factor, as is what the customer really needs. This has to be thought out together. And in this case, less is frequently more.

Does that mean that major achievements in mechanical engineering do not always have to be measured in superlatives?

The big picture is what really counts – as opposed to a few features for that special “bling” experience. What’s the use of being the proud owner of a sports car, when you ultimately spend most of the time driving it on bad roads or country lanes? Industry 4.0 is a good example in this regard. There is a lot of talk about digitalisation, self-adapting production and lot size 1. While perfectly legitimate in some fields, the majority of the industry is nevertheless concerned with entirely different topics such as efficiency, reliability and features one really uses. Digitalisation can contribute – but it isn’t everything. Creativity and implementation ideas are often more important than bits and bytes.

This is a view probably not shared by all engineers. Does mechanical engineering not require a certain degree of love for technology?

I am not in love with technology, but with its precise application. This is the challenge we face today. “Reduced to the max” – that is where it really gets exciting! A lightweight load-bearing construction, a special wire rope, or an uncommon solution, transferred from an entirely different field into an industrial application. This is what beauty in mechanical engineering is about for me. Design plays a major role in this context but is always coupled with a perfect interplay of form and function.

You mentioned creativity and ideas – does that not go without saying?

Not necessarily. There is a lot of leeways. With regard to mechanical engineering, we work with the modular systems of various manufacturers. We use them to assemble our units – piece by piece, one component after the other, system by system. For most tasks, you have already come up with a solution – this is the individual experience that every design engineer brings to the table. This is important and we wouldn’t want to miss out on it. And now it really starts to get interesting. This is where passion begins – because not every solution is the best solution. You need courage to challenge yourself. This is the spark from which true innovation is born.

“Nothing is set in stone” is, therefore, a good starting point for you?

That’s the best start into a project. We are pleased if we can render our customers speechless. We want to think laterally, to be outside of the box, to surprise and astound – this is what we see as success and the part we enjoy most. It is why we outsourced the machine construction, even though we sell entire systems, and are therefore the manufacturer in the sense of the machinery directive for our customers. We have the overall responsibility. We nevertheless decided to concentrate on engineering and commissioning. The construction of the systems is handled by our partner Kostwein from Carinthia. They execute all our machines in cooperation with us.

That’s unusual – why did you opt for this approach?

The solutions we develop and sell are special-purpose machines from the field of “half-robotics”. They are manipulators – a term from the field of lifting appliances and crane technology. It focuses on ‘manipulation’, i.e. the movement of a wide range of loads. “Half-robotics”, the preliminary stage to the classic robot, has developed into an interesting niche of its own. This is our profession. It requires a lot of creative potential because it is continuously about individual tasks. This is what we want to focus on – this is what we make time for. The final machine assembly is in best hands at Kostwein – that’s their speciality. This teamwork has paid off for us on all sides.

One topic is currently occupying the entire mechanical engineering segment – delivery shortfalls on the supplier side. Are you also affected?

There are probably only a few mechanical engineering companies out there that are not affected. Especially electrical components are in some cases unobtainable. And to a certain extent, it cannot even be said when they will be made available again. This applies to major, renowned suppliers as well as to small ones. A wealth of ideas and creativity, however, can help you out even here. There are countless solutions for every technical task at hand, and a lot of them can be realised in a different fashion. We already take this into consideration during construction. First, we have a look at the components that are available and then we work with them.

Does this mean that one has to reinvent “the wheel” every single time?

Luckily, this is not the case. Electronic components are the ones primarily affected. You are, however, addressing an important issue: mechanics, the origin of mechanical engineering. Those wishing to ensure “movement” – manipulators is the catchword we are looking for here – must not lose track of this fact. Continuously more IT in machines frequently pushes mechanical know-how into the background. At first glance, this is understandable because software can be adapted via the click of a mouse. Furthermore, one receives a lot of data from every manufacturing section via direct access – a plus for the management. This is the benefit of digitalisation, which creates flexibility. But this is precisely what is turning mechanical engineers more and more into programmers. And it can have a detrimental effect on the core competency. Of course, we rely on digitalisation. That is a ‘must’ today. We know, however, what our core competency, our USP, and our secret to success is: creative engineering. The absolutely perfect solution is our declared goal – this is what drives us. And in this regard we have made the experience that the first idea is in most cases far from the best one – applying lateral thinking to mechanical engineering pays off every time!

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