Careful control17 August 2017
HBC-radiomatic has been developing and manufacturing radio systems since 1947. Today, it produces remote controls for many of the world’s leading crane companies, with a strong focus on in-house production. Will North reports.
The roots of HBC-radiomatic lie in the chance meeting of two men, Alfred Huber and Martin Brendel, in a prisoner of war camp. The company takes the HBC of its name from their initials, and that of its hometown, Crailsheim. Brendel was a qualifed electrical engineer, whilst Huber was self-taught. Together, in the desperate economy of post-war Germany, they bartered their skills for food, in tasks like repairing light bulbs.
In the late 40s and early 50s, they began to develop wireless systems, including a pioneering wireless phone, the Portafon. Wider history continued to have an important influence on the business, as they developed systems to maintain communications with isolated West Berlin.
Huber left the company in 1953, with Brendel taking full ownership and control. Today the business is owned by the Brendel family. Wolfgang Brendel, son of the founder, is CEO; his daughters Friederike Brendel and Dorothee Roels oversee technology and product management,
and commercial and business development, respectively.
When Wolfgang Brendel took over from his father, the company had 35 employees; today it has 450. Key to the company’s development has been attention to new technologies, and new markets.
The pioneering Portafon, for example, was followed by the first transistor-based mobile phones in the 1960s. Around the same time, the company was chosen to develop a storm warning system for Lake Constance.
The company’s focus on controls was boosted in the 70s by the development of the first backpack transmitter and controls. This was followed in the 1980s with the familiar ‘belly box’ design, and a move into Atex (explosive atmosphere) systems. As technology moved from transistors to microprocessors, HBC-radiomatic continued to lead the way. Brendel describes the philosophy behind having so many products by saying it is ‘better to be your own competition, than to leave gaps in the market’.
There are not many gaps left today. The company supplies the forestry, construction equipment and overhead crane sectors, building 35,000 systems a year, 12,000 of which are customised. A further 3% of systems are highly-specialised and built from scratch, rather than by using the company’s vast archive of modular options.
It handles the complexity of that production by combining in-house component manufacturing, with kanban-based lean systems. In 2016, the company produced 12 million components, and exported to 80 countries.
The company has two facilities in Crailsheim: its headquarters in the centre of town, where production focuses on specialised equipment, and a new components factory a few minutes drive away, built in the town’s outskirts when the company needed more space.
In the headquarters, smaller teams work in administration and in the development of special systems. To the untrained eye of a first time visitor, the vast array of testing and development devices is reminiscent of a science fiction movie, of a glimpse of a more high tech future.
The components factory, where the bulk of the company’s products are manufactured, is more familiar, but still remarkably wellordered. Electrical and mechanical components flow through two lines, before final assembly. Unlike many lean production facilities, HBC-radiomatic sources 90% of its components in-house, but just-intime techniques are still used to deliver these where they are needed at the start of each day.
HBC-radiomatic’s customers, both OEMs and often specialised end users, demand robust reliability. This is achieved both through careful design—each system, for example, has two completely different processors, so that conditions that cause one to fail should not affect the other—and by rigorous testing. This ranges from the simple step of leaving finished systems out on the roof of the building, through stress testing of switches and buttons, to simulations of climate extremes. The final assembly hall is ringed with dozens of different transmitters, to provide the most hostile environment possible for interference testing.
Friederike Brendel earnt her doctorate in electrical engineering with a PhD on high transfer rate radio transmission technologies, winning the Bertha Benz prize, which highlights research excellence among young female engineers.
Discussing the future of controls, she noted that within sectors like lifting, there is still a lot of equipment that could use radio remote controls but does not. At the same time, OEMs are increasingly demanding more information back from machines, both within factories for Industry 4.0 approaches to manufacturing, and on mobile machines to trace how equipment is being used.