How many parts manufacturers can claim that their workpieces will fly to the moon? Endutec, a twelve-man operation based near Lake Chiemsee in Germany, decided to reach for the stars: they milled 30 parts that were initially said to be unmillable. These components are now an integral part of the "Mission to the Moon," the first German lunar mission.
It's the year 2104. The spaceship Covenant is on its trajectory to a distant planet. Upon landing, the crew believes itself to have arrived on a habitable paradise. Maggie Faris sets out to explore unknown territory with the Audi lunar quattro. However, the crew soon realizes that it is trapped on a sinister world.
While most science fiction vehicles originate from the creative pen of Hollywood, the movie "Alien: Covenant” is an exception. The Audi lunar quattro moon rover is very much a reality and is set to play a key role in an actual mission to the moon. Half a century has passed since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Now, the new German aerospace start-up PTScientists from Berlin aims to return to the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Together with its partners, the company has developed the ALINA lunar lander and the Audi lunar quattro moon rover.
Andreas Flieher, Endutec
For manufacturing the moon rover components, the team of developers initially approached established manufacturers in the aerospace industry, who declared the parts to be unproducible. It wasn’t until talking with Endutec near Lake Chiemsee that PTScientists found willing ears. The custom machine manufacturer normally produces high-precision manipulators for the semiconductor industry and has built up a further mainstay with its own automation concept. "It quickly became clear to us that this was a unique opportunity, and we simply had to say yes," says Andreas Flieher, managing director of Endutec.
He set about implementing the project together with his partner Michael Hascher and a team of design engineers and milling machine operators. They faced three major challenges.
The concerns expressed by the aerospace companies proved to be true: the design had to be modified to make the components millable at all. "All of the walls are very thin, because in the aerospace sector every gram counts," explains Flieher. One need only consider the current lunar freight costs, which start at 800 000 euros per kilogram.
Secondly, the deadline of just under two months was extremely tight. This is nothing new in the lunar mission business; NASA also faced enormous deadline pressure after John F. Kennedy announced his intention to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Thirdly, the extremely long production times of up to 14 hours had to be implemented with existing capacities and despite full order books. "The only way was to exploit nights and weekends using our own automation technology,” says Flieher. "This included our assembly robot in combination with StateMonitor from HEIDENHAIN, which actively informs us about the statuses of our machines."
Endutec set a clear goal for itself and scheduled the lunar project accordingly. "To achieve anything, you have to know exactly what you want, think the steps through, and then finally get going. The danger is turning back halfway when difficulties arise," says Flieher. But turning back is out of the question for this managing director. He's too ambitious for that. "As a business owner, you strive to make the best of any situation. I like to tackle challenges and achieve something."
By the time the lunar vehicle parts entered production, the team at Endutec had a clear plan. During the day, the staff worked on orders from existing customers. As evening approached, they clamped the blanks for the moon rover parts into the automation system, particularly those parts requiring long run times. The robot would then load the parts at night and on the weekend.
"Of course, unattended operation doesn't always go smoothly," says Flieher. "I remember a situation when the machine reached its coolant minimum on the weekend. Without StateMonitor's push notification, we would have lost two production days." The active notification provided by the MDA software significantly eases the workload. Flieher explains: "In the past, we used to have a webcam installed in the machine. So, to check the machine status, I had to actively dial in. This meant I was constantly under stress in the evenings and on weekends."
From the very beginning of Endutec, Flieher and Hascher gave a lot of thought to the automation and digitalization of processes. They started out as an engineering firm in 2009 after the company they had previously worked for shut its doors during the financial crisis. Three years later, they set up their own production plant, including their own recipe for automation, which they now sell to other companies.
"We use a combination of technologies; that is, automated machine loading with our robot system and the monitoring capability provided by StateMonitor. That makes us efficient,” says Flieher, who is convinced of the positive effects that automation has on the work of his employees. They can do their jobs in a much more relaxed manner because they can concentrate on more qualitative tasks or even sometimes leave work earlier.
Endutec has discovered how to take advantage of the digital revolution. This is because the best way to get a return after investing in machines is by fully utilizing available capacities. "In this area as well, we used StateMonitor to identify hidden potential and increase machine utilization," says Flieher. It's how a twelve-man company manages to achieve something extraordinary alongside their everyday tasks. "This project really motivated every one of our employees. After all, how many people can claim to have made workpieces that will fly to the moon?"