It's my job to be creative.
Henning Schanz, Design Engineer in the Business Unit Plastics at FIPA in the expert interview.
Henning Schanz took his first step into the world of design early on while playing with Fischertechnik in his childhood bedroom. At that time, he already had good powers of spatial imagination. He continued to indulge his interest in technology during his engineering degree. Because of his major field of study of “automation technology”, Henning did not follow the typical career path of a design engineer but rather – as he says – is more of a “career shifter” in the industry.
Today he works as a design engineer in the Plastics Business Unit at FIPA GmbH in Ismaning. His expertise as a design engineer extends to customer-specific gripper applications for the plastics industry with a focus on the automotive industry. He also can’t rid himself of his passion for design tasks when tinkering about on his own motorcycle. Whether at home or at work: his creativity is in demand.
Hello Henning, Thank you very much for taking time out for this interview. What does a typical workday as a design engineer at FIPA look like?
Henning Schanz: At FIPA we design and sell gripper systems and the associated components. As a design engineer, I am involved in the project process on a daily basis and build gripper systems according to the wishes of our customers. Generally what happens is that a customer will ask us to make them a system. Before I begin with the design, the field service and technical sales department determine the customer data based on a list of questions as well as the basic conditions. The customer also generally sends through a specification sheet. I get this information and based on it I create a calculation. We then offer the customer the gripper.
I haven’t built anything yet, just submitted a concept in writing. This is important because both the customer and I know what we are talking about this way. We compare the expectations and collect suggestions for improvements. As I design complex systems as a rule, we require the approval of the customer. Once I have received the approval, we then go on to build the gripper.
When is a gripper system simple? What is it that makes it complex or complicated?
Henning Schanz: I don’t have to design anything for more simple systems, which for example are made up of three grippers and a suction cup. I pass this directly on to assembly in these cases. It gets more complicated for components that aren’t able to be gripped. This may be because parts are not allowed to be gripped in certain places, as they are hot or sensitive at these spots. Or because there is not enough space on the tool for the gripper. Sometimes we have to integrate additional functions or additional movements into the grippers. There’s something like this on my table at the moment. Here a part for an automobile windscreen wiper is removed from the tool. This is relatively hard to handle as it is reflective all over, which means it is metalized. As a rule, we are not allowed to touch visible or functional surfaces that are reflective.
Have you found a solution for gripping reflective parts?
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Henning Schanz: Yes, there are often surfaces that are metalized but afterwards they are not visible surfaces. We are allowed to touch these, and so I made use of this fact. This was also made more difficult by the fact that the parts can barely be removed, as the tool did not open wide enough. The geometry here was quite a challenge. We used special gripping elements to allow us to grip parts without damaging the metalized surfaces. Another challenge was the additional function that was integrated into the gripper. This function cannot be controlled, because there are not enough pneumatic valves available on the robot. I had to use a few tricks for the control technology and add a few additional components.
Finding new gripper solutions for the most varied application areas in the plastics industry requires a great degree of creativity. Are there any methods or techniques you can use to be creative in this case?
Henning Schanz: Often it is the routine that helps the most. In many case the answer is right in front of your nose and simply needs to be implemented. Our system is a construction kit system. The construction kit is the tool of the trade that I use every day. When I design a gripper, the first thing I do is to try to use the standard components and my own datasets as far as possible. At some point, you can’t go any further using our construction kit and you must design something else – such as a customer-specific tool or a special tool, for example.
This is made more difficult, as in many cases I can’t say beforehand how much this special part will cost. Sometimes small pre-designs help to correctly calculate the offer for the customer. These situations are hard nuts to crack. It is my job to be creative. I have to do it every day. From my own experience I can say that a change of scenery helps to think of new ideas. Sometimes, I simply need the distance.
What was the last project where distance helped clear your mind for a new idea?
Henning Schanz: We recently had a project where small contact sheets had to be inserted for an injection mold. In this case they were gold contact sheets that had to be loaded beforehand into the machine. This was the only way that the robot could lift them up with the right grippers and place them into the corresponding tool. To enable the gripper to grip the sheets – without colliding with other objects – the sheets had to be placed ready at the appropriate distance.
I didn’t know how to do this to start with. There were a few standard solutions, but they were not satisfactory overall. Even after a lot of work had been put into them, they still weren’t exactly right. On my way home in the car I hit upon the solution. The next morning I sketched both solutions by hand – the new one and the old and unsatisfactory one – and sent them to the customer, who then ordered the new solution.
On the basis of the sketch?
Henning Schanz: Yes! I then discussed it with the customer on the telephone. He also thought the second solution was better. I even learnt something during the processes, as the customer mentioned a few solutions that I hadn’t known of.
Grippers for plastic in various sizes from the current FIPA product range.
How important is input from outside for a design engineer?
Henning Schanz: Extremely important. I’ve made it a rule to attend trade fairs from time to time and have a look around. I look at specific stands because I know I will find specific solutions there. But I also just wander around the trade fair and have a look at what types of solutions are out there. The Internet also offers an enormous wealth of input. People have an unbelievable amount of ideas on video portals. What also shouldn’t be underestimated are representatives who show you new things. I don’t use everything, but there are sometimes things that I need at specific times. If I have a block, I also ask my colleagues if they have any new ideas.
Keyword: new ideas. Are there any developments in vacuum technology over the next few years that will be exciting for you?
Henning Schanz: Of course! Electric drives for examples. We work with pneumatics a lot at FIPA. But generating a vacuum requires a lot of energy. Compressed air has its advantages, but it does hit its limits in some areas. Compressed air is wonderful for jobs where something needs to be clamped permanently. However if something needs to be quickly moved back and forth, electric drives are more energy-efficient.
To generate the pressurized air, naturally, air needs to be compressed with the compressor. This is a process that involves a lot of loss. A large amount of heat is released in the process. Moreover, this operates as a fully pressurized system. The cylinder is operated with full pressure for this back and forth movement even if less pressure would be sufficient. This is not readjusted, because control technology is complicated and expensive. If the whole thing were controlled electronically, the efficiency would be better. For example, an actuator has a regulator already integrated and can also control the power. You only use as much energy as is necessary.
In your daily life, do you have the time to follow such developments in vacuum and gripper technology and try out new things?
Henning Schanz: Yes, naturally FIPA supports this and leaves room to experiment. We have already discovered things, which means we have several patents already under our name. For example I developed a shape that can be used to clamp a cylindrical part in a sheet. We often had this application case. There are some things that we can’t immediately implement. Because we build grippers ourselves, it is worthwhile to experiment, because we can see what components we need.
Have you always been passionate about discovering and thinking through new ideas?
Henning Schanz: I really enjoy designing. I played with things like Fischertechnik even as a child. Later I designed and built tools for motorcycles. For example a special clamp I could use to remove valve parts; or a support for removing the housing. I used to be passionate about riding motorcycles. I’ve had a machine lying in parts in my cellar for many years that I want to put together – I just don’t have the time. I think that’s the case for many designer engineers: We’ve made our passions or even a hobby into a career.
Thank you very much for the interview!