VDL Belgium became a member of VDL Group in 1986. At that time it was known as AED Denies and was an automotive seat supplier to Volvo and Peugeot. In 1988 they moved to Aalst near Brussels and it was there that we met the Managing Director Mr. Marco Van Tongeren, his future successor Mr. Danny Dee Rouck and the Technical Director Mr. Salvatore Abraini. Thanks to Mr. Abraini's Italian origins we could have some conversation in Italian too.
Van Tongeren told us about the fire in 2000 that almost destroyed the factory and how at one point of time the company was thinking of abandoning the whole operation rather than restarting from zero. Fortunately they decided to restart and specialize in exhaust system manufacturing with Scania and Volvo as their main Customers.
Today the company has a 16,000 m2 manufacturing facility with 100 employees. It is the first company within the Group located outside the Dutch borders. VDL is operating as a Tier1 supplier of fully assembled exhaust systems to most of the European truck and bus manufacturers or as a Tier2 supplier of bent, end-formed, cut and welded components to other Tier1 suppliers. VDL's vast experience and modern manufacturing facility allows it to serve customers from a variety of industries each with different requirements by offering best service in terms of quality, cost and timely deliveries.
To our question "What does it mean to be a supplier to such important companies and what are the essential factors required to be considered for such production? Marco Van Tongeren answers "Cost, quality and delivery - these are the three most important aspects of our products. We manufacture custom made components starting from 3D drawings received from the customers. The parts we manufacture are getting more complex day-by day".
"We already had 15 years of 2D laser cutting experience when we started our discussions about laser cutting of bent tubes with the BLM GROUP. At that time, BLM's 5 axis laser cutting machine was dedicated to cutting bent tubes and that we needed, but we were not convinced that its productivity was sufficient to satisfy our requirement. Then BLM presented LT-FREE and we decided to move forward and invest in this system".
Abraini adds, "The biggest advantage of LT-FREE is the possibility of working with two robots and two tables for positioning the components. This maximizes the use of the fiber laser by permitting the loading / unloading operations to occur without interrupting the cutting process".
There are many important advantages of using the LT-FREE system; "may be the cost of a single operation has not changed much but the advantage in terms of time and quality are huge". At this point M. Van Tongeren shows us a bent tubular component with four laser cut openings at 90° to each other , additional cuts on one end and a miter cut on the opposite end and explains that previously this part was manufactured in six different manufacturing using traditional fabrication techniques. Now with LT-FREE only three steps are required. "With LT-FREE we are faster, deliver cleaner parts with better quality and save costs on things like dedicated fixtures to hold the component in different traditional processes" concludes Van Tongeren.
"Our production process has changed with LT-FREE it is more efficient. In some cases we were able to save up to 50% on costs compared to our old methods.
Everyone in VDL appreciates LT-FREE's ability to cut almost any type of component and the flexibility it offers. "LT-FREE has drastically reduced our set-up time and this is a very strong point for LT-FREE, even compared with other similar systems on the market". They show us another component which earlier required seven different manufacturing steps; now those are reduced to three: cut to length, bend and cutting on LT-FREE after bending. The level of flexibility offered by LT-FREE with two handling robots is unparalleled in the industry. This flexibility means always finding a solution to the processing requirements of any given component.
Talking about the user-friendliness, M. Van Tongeren says "the initial period was difficult, none of the people working on the system had any experience with this type of laser and it was not simple to work on a system that is completely different compared to the ones we were used to. On one side was the traditional methods and on the other side was some familiarity with laser sheet cutting, but laser tube cutting is another story because tube is tube and it has its own peculiarities, two different worlds".
Abraini gives an example that shows the flexibility and short set-up times the system achieved for them. "We had to develop a new component that required six different cutting operations. We started at 8 AM in the morning and in five hours, at 1PM, we had even finished the production of the pilot lot. With traditional method that required the design and manufacturing of different fixtures, we would have needed three days to have the same result".
"With LT-FREE in five hours and with much better quality" underlines Van Tongeren.
Abraini touches another interesting aspect: "Customers ask for tight dimensional tolerances on their components. We have seen that the tolerance capabilities of the LT-FREE system to properly cut a bent tube are essentially the same as required by the customers. In short, if the bent component is sufficiently accurate to be cut on LT-FREE, then we are sure that it will also be acceptable to the customer. So LT-FREE also works as a "quality inspector" and thus makes an important contribution to the overall process quality. There is one operator who operates the bending machine and the LT-FREE, so if he does not bend the tubes properly, he only has to deal with the problem in the successive step".
About relations with BLM GROUP, M. Van Tongeren thinks it is a mutually beneficial relationship. "BLM turned out to be a reliable partner who listens to customers. LT-FREE is a new product and like every new product it has to go through the improvement cycle in general and also as far as our specific requirements are concerned. BLM was always there to help, improve and solve the problems that we faced". Definitely there is mutual interest in this case because a customer like VDL can contribute a lot to the overall improvement process.