The many developers of the Fusion

A machine is never the product of a single genius – it is the result of teamwork. In the case of the 2019-launched Fusion die-casting system, a global network of Bühler employees, customers, suppliers, and academic partners worked together to determine what was needed to bring die-casting technologies to a new level of performance. The Fusion team spared no effort to gather valuable feedback – and the results speak for themselves.

The many developers of the Fusion

One after another came forward, sticking their colored post-it to the wall, some with small drawings and others with only text. The keywords: Drawer principle for maintenance, fall protection, accessibility for cleaning. The scene is reminiscent of group projects at university. But the stakeholders are experienced supply chain managers, sales staff and service technicians, and the occasion is a “design thinking” workshop for developing the new Fusion die-casting solution that was presented to the market in June. Few of them have ever designed such a machine, but still their task is essential to the project. “If we were only a group of developers, we would be inclined to see the topic from a very technical perspective,” says Christoph Ziltener, who supervises the development of the Fusion as Project Manager. 

This is why he and his team sought help right from the start, from Bühler employees from other units and geographic regions as well as from customers, suppliers and academic partners. Every perspective counts. The goal was for the Fusion to become the most user-friendly, safest, most attractive and, above all most efficient die-casting machine, so external input was just as important as internal.

Setting priorities

In many companies, it used to be normal to develop a machine in isolation, in the utmost secrecy, after all they wanted to protect their intellectual property. A countertrend can be seen especially from agile software development, and traditional industries are following suit. The key is to be as close to the market as possible during the development process through close collaboration with customers and partners. “It doesn’t do anyone good if after four years a finished product is launched on the market that no one actually needs or wants to buy,” says Marco Tobler, Bühler Fusion Product Manager.

The risk is not only being unable to deliver functions the market needs, but also to include functions no one expected and that customers can’t use. “The widely supported collaboration takes us out of our internal engineering perspective and helps us set priorities,” says Tobler. As such, the goal isn’t to develop the fanciest machine, either, but a machine tailored to the needs of the market offering the best price-performance ratio. 

Attractive workplace

Machines may be a technical thing, but it is people who operate them. That is why these people have to share their input during the development phase. How easy is it to perform maintenance and cleaning? How quickly can the operator working on the casting cell get an overview of the processes? The user must not be disregarded in product development. Especially when thinking long-term: As a workplace foundries are not the most attractive for drawing talents. “A lot of people associate die casting with dirt, smoke, and heat,” says Matjaz Turk, Technical Manager of the LTH Castings Group. “To change that, we need attractive equipment and a workplace where employees can feel safe and comfortable.”

The Slovenian location of LTH was involved in the project right from the start, as the first market requirements were compiled, later for feedback workshops and finally as test customer for the first Fusion 140 in a foundry. The developers regularly traveled to LTH in Ljubljana. In an iterative process, meaning repeated feedback rounds, they confronted LTH with project progress and design concepts.

From the operator, to the technologist, to the technical manager, everyone always had valuable input which we were able to incorporate into correction rounds.

Christoph Ziltener, Project Manager Fusion

The development team went to a lot of trouble to put themselves into the machine operators’ shoes. “Together, we cleaned a die-casting machine for a local customer to learn for ourselves where the difficulties lie and what causes problems doing this job,” says Ziltener.

Product design as added value

But actually overturning existing concepts required a partner from outside the industry, unprejudiced by die casting. The product designers at Formfabrik in Zurich, Switzerland may be unable to operate die-casting machines, but they are used to seeing things from the customer’s perspective. They were a driving force for change in the Fusion project. “When asked why they do something, many customers answered: ‘Because we’ve always done it that way,’” explains Product Designer Christoph Jaun from Formfabrik. “We ask critical questions and try to sense if it is really good to continue in the same way, or is there a better solution? Maybe there are newer aspects to consider?”

While it’s hard to imagine developing consumer goods without product designers, they are less common in industrial projects according to Jaun. “It pleases me that the project teams in mechanical engineering are more and more often noticing the added value design can offer.” Added value, that means shedding old habits and placing the focus on improved user friendliness and productivity.

Internationally positioned

Fusion isn’t the child of one single developer, and it has more than one nationality, too. The project was managed from the Bühler headquarters in Uzwil, but two additional development centers in the US and China were also closely involved. The goal was to produce and deliver the same machines in the same quality in every region, right from day one. Two video conferences were held each week, one with the colleagues in the US and the other with the colleagues in China. “The greatest challenge in communication was living in different time zones,” says Phil Rozema, in charge of the Bühler project on American soil.

But the pros outweigh the cons. The regions gave valuable insights into the local markets, as illustrated by an example. Fort Recovery Industries, the test customer in the US, had very specific requirements for connecting the machine to its own molding tool that were not covered by the modular concept. “This helped us see a gap in the concept and to close that gap for the future,” says Rozema. With the active support of the regions, the obvious solution was to build not just one but three machines for customer tests: one on each continent. Each of the test machines contains parts made by local suppliers. “We consciously decided to take advantage of the local supply chains for each test machine,” says Ziltener. Now, in a second step, the team is currently deciding which parts will be delivered by which suppliers based on criteria such as costs, risk and quality. “Being able to compare the three test versions gives us great potential to build the best quality at the lowest price when it comes to series production,” states Ziltener. Plus, this parallel approach ensured that local departments such as purchasing and assembly were also involved in the project early on.

Collaboration at its best

It wasn’t always easy. “While building the test machines, we were often confronted with design changes from Uzwil and had to respond last-minute,” says Wei Xie, Project Member from Wuxi, China. “This made good communication critical. I could fully depend on the team in Uzwil.” For Marco Tobler, the intense international collaboration was definitely worth it. Of course it’s more work to maintain such a large collaboration network, but it’s also more sustainable. We learned from three machines while covering three different markets before going into production.”

The collaborative approach to developing the Fusion ensured that the machine reflects market needs. That became clear with the positive feedback from customers at two large trade fairs. The project team is currently in the process of incorporating the latest insights from the test machines into the final product design, and it will continue to rely on the international network going forward. “Everyone is responsible for the product in their own way and has made a vital contribution to the project’s success,” says Tobler.

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