Dark Forests & Terrible Swamps

Steinkamp Werkzeug-und Formenbau

On a visit to a Haas user in Northern Germany, CNC Machining’s roving reporter Matt Bailey not only learnt something about the history of the English monarchy, but also saw how a family-owned engineering company is using American technology to maintain its lead in the mold and die industry.

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“Dark Forests” and “Terrible Swamps”

These were the lasting impressions made by the area of Neidersachsen on the Roman historian Tacitus, as noted in his publication Germania.

Perhaps his foreboding description helped to perpetuate doubts amongst the leaders of Rome’s imperialist army, partly explaining why the marauding legions never managed to conquer the territory during their march across Europe. Instead, they retreated back beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers and contented themselves to trade with, rather than fight, the inhabitants of this seemingly impenetrable land.

To the modern, English-speaking world, the Federal State of Neidersachsen is Lower Saxony, the area of Germany around and including the city of Hanover. Of course, Hanover is best known to anyone in the precision engineering and machine tool industries as the venue for the biennial machine tool and manufacturing technology exhibition, EMO. But to my English compatriots and me, Hanover has a more regal significance. A quick explanation is in order:

If your knowledge of history is anything like mine, it may surprise you to know that the blood of the English and Hanoverian monarchies is forever mixed, thanks, indirectly, to the tyranny of Henry VIII. Unfortunately, even for those with an interest in the genealogy of the English crown, there isn’t sufficient space here to give a full explanation of how a German became King of England. Suffice it to say that due to a marital link between the two royal families, protestant Hanoverian Georg Ludwig was, in accordance with the Act of Settlement, 52nd in line to the English throne, and although he spoke no English, his blue-blooded status and his suitable religious colors enabled him to leapfrog many more legitimate candidates to take his place on the English throne as George I, the House of Hanover’s first King.

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Fascinating, I’m sure you’ll agree, but not the intended subject of this report.

The House of Steinkamp

Fortunately, during my visit to the small town of Espelkamp, home of Steinkamp Werkzeug-und Formenbau, I didn’t come across too many dark forests or terrible swamps. Nor did I knowingly bump into any ex-members of the Hanoverian royal family. What I did come across was a very warm welcome from a company that’s fighting for its corner in the mold and die industry with as much vigour as its ancient ancestors mustered against the invading Romans.

Steinkamp Werkzeug-und Formenbau was established in 1970 in Espelkamp, Germany, by Ingolf Steinkamp, a toolmaker and engineer who remains today as the company CEO.

Steinkamp’s founding premise was to machine and manufacture three-dimensional dies for blow molding, injection molding and foam molding operations. Although the company’s activities have diversified, its original remit still constitutes its core business today, more than 30 years later.

These days, the Steinkamp operation has a staff of 140, including some 120 skilled machinists and precision engineers. Although the Germany-based operation is by far the largest, the company also maintains a successful presence in the USA, based in Erlanger, Kentucky.

Thirty years is a long time building molds and dies. The company’s prodigious experience is obviously highly regarded, as evidenced by its list of blue-chip manufacturing customers, including Johnson Controls, Mannesmann Automotive, Lemforder and Mollerplast.

“We also have many customers within the ZF group, and we do a lot of work for BASF,” says Lars Steinkamp, son of Ingolf. “In fact, ZF and BASF combined account for roughly 50% of our current business.”

Many of Steinkamp’s customers are automotive OEMs and first-tier suppliers. As anyone familiar with the high standards of world-class auto companies will tell you, achieving and keeping a place as a preferred supplier is no mean feat.

Over time, Steinkamp has capitalised on its hard-earned goodwill, becoming involved in machining prototype and development components for new models of prestige automobiles.

One of the company’s latest projects is supplying essential mold components for the active suspension system of the new Mercedes Benz CL, including blow molds for the bellows, rubber- and metal-injection molds for the vibration dampers and foam molds for the suspension support struts.

“Over the years we’ve expanded our machining capability,” says Steinkamp, “but mold and die is our priority. The largest die we make is 20,000 pounds; the smallest is just 20 pounds.”

Lars Steinkamp is the product manager of the family-owned business. As such, he is closely involved with the design and manufacturing operations, as well as having a significant say in what constitutes the company’s machine shop. With obvious pride he lists the current armoury:

“We have more than 40 CNC machining centres, nine conventional milling machines, 11 four-axis machines, four five-axis machines, four high-speed machining centres, some nine CNC turning centres, 10 EDM machines, six grinding machines and 22 CAD/CAM workstations.”

Included amongst this formidable array are 15 Haas-built CNC machines, 12 in Germany and three at the company’s U.S. plant.

“We were the very first company in Germany to buy Haas machines,” states Steinkamp. “Every time we are in the market for a machine we look at all the alternatives. There are a number of reasons why we keep buying Haas, including the cost/performance relationship and, just as importantly, the ease of use.

“One of the reasons why the Haas machines are so simple to use is because the control is easy to learn. This is very important here in Germany. Like all around the world, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find skilled people. Many of the features of the Haas control enable new or inexperienced operators to learn programming very quickly.”

However, as anyone machining molds and dies will know, some of the machining operations necessary for achieving complex 3D surfaces are almost impossible to program at the control, even a Haas control. To eliminate the mind-blowing complexities of the problem, Steinkamp has a software armoury that’s almost as impressive as its array of machine tool hardware.

“We have seven seats of CATIA,” says Steinkamp. “We also have two Pro/Engineer workstations, 13 seats of Mastercam and one seat of AutoCAD. Consequently, we can either design the component from scratch and generate the CNC program, or we can accept the drawing file from the customer and take it from there.”

5-Axis Vertical

The latest arrival in Steinkamp’s Espelkamp machine shop is a new Haas VF-6TR (trunnion) vertical machining centre, purchased and installed early last year.

“We needed a new, large 5-axis machining centre for some of the heavier mold and die jobs. We chose the Haas VF-6TR for its capabilities, but also because we were very familiar with Haas machines, and we were very happy with their capabilities,” says Steinkamp. “Also, the price and the specifications of the machine are much better than the alternatives available.”

As the name suggests, the Haas VF-6TR is based on the very successful Haas VF-6 vertical machining centre platform. The standard table has been replaced with a dual-axis trunnion table enabling full, simultaneous five-axis machining or the incremental positioning of a part to almost any angle – ideal for machining the complex shapes and surfaces found in mold and die work.

However, during my visit, Steinkamp’s VF-6TR wasn’t machining mold and die work. Instead, it was busy machining a run of components for a prototype motorcar suspension system being built by ZF Fahrwerktechnik.

“As I said before, ZF is a very important customer for us,” says Steinkamp. “The VF-6TR is a very capable steel-cutting machine, so we’re using it to turn out this short-run prototype job.”

Two solid blocks of 42 CrMo 4V steel are loaded simultaneously on opposite sides of a cube fixture mounted on the VF-6TR’s trunnion table, and five sides are machined on each. The partly finished left- and right-sided components are unloaded from the VF-6TR for manual operations, including tapping and removing surplus material. The tapped and cleaned pairs are then transferred to the company’s 20-hp Haas VF-0E, where the sixth side is machined. Finally, the parts are finished manually before being quality checked on a coordinate measuring machine.

“Because the part is a prototype, we are only making about 200 left- and 200 right-sided components,” says Steinkamp. “This is typical of the non-mold and die development work we are involved in. The volumes are not high, but every time we machine a new part, we have to produce the design, the CAM programme and the fixture. It’s very valuable business.”

Where Romans Fear to Tread

The local Haas Technical Centre (distributor) provides the support for Steinkamp’s Haas machines, and Lars Steinkamp is delighted with the service. “Our local service engineers have a lot of experience with Haas machines, gained from when the Haas product range was first launched in Europe.”

Regular readers of CNC Machining will know that the Haas Europe headquarters was opened in Brussels in early 2001. Since then, the company has been busy appointing and setting up Haas Technical Centres all over the European continent.

Like all other Haas Technical Centres, the German outlets employ teams of Haas factory-trained sales and service engineers dedicated to providing the extraordinary service which Haas customers worldwide have come to expect. Unlike Rome’s easily frightened legionaries, however, “dark forests and terrible swamps” hold little fear for this particular army’s front line.