In conversation with Thomas Trendle

Fraunhofer IAF does research in the field of natural sciences. Which role does precision mechanics play here?

We manufacture prototypes for our researchers. Depending on the project or challenge, our colleagues ask us to produce certain precision components or modules or sometimes simply to solve a problem. We receive technical drawings and manufacture the corresponding parts with our machines.

What are your specific tasks as team leader and trainer?

I am the link between the scientists and the machines. Our researchers often have an idea without exactly knowing how to solve it technically. This is where I come into play. I confirm the technical feasibility and support the development. Apart from technical advice, I make sure that material is available, that the machine park is in good shape, and I am also in charge of the vocational training of industrial mechanics.

How does the collaboration with the researchers proceed—what is the process from an idea to a finished piece?

There are several ways. Ideally, the research departments approach us with a technical drawing; mostly a 3D construction model. On the basis of the drawing, I confirm the feasibility—whether, the component can be produced at all and whether it would then function. Often, my colleagues also approach me with a tangible problem or simply an idea of which they do not know how to realize it. Then we sit together, construct the single parts and create a solution together. As soon as we are presented with the final CAD data, we set up our CNC programs and manufacture the parts. If we are unable to manufacture particular pieces ourselves, due to the size or the production method required, we cooperate with external companies to find the ideal solution.

© Fraunhofer IAF

What are the special challenges of precision mechanics at the institute?

Since we only produce prototypes, every piece is a new challenge. We manufacture everything that you can’t buy off the shelf. This is exactly what makes this workplace so interesting. Besides, we regularly have to deal with exotic materials. We process molybdenum, niobium, ceramics, tungsten, tantalum, etc. You always have to get to know new materials first and develop a feeling for them. This is really exciting. It is very rare to have such a variety of different materials and such a spectrum of different pieces in one workplace.

If we look at the development of precision mechanics, how has it changed over the course of the last years and decades?

the computer has found its way into precision mechanics, too. The classical drafter with the drawing board doesn’t exist anymore. The construction and development of the pieces happens in the computer with the help of CAD programs. Based on 3D models, we create the programs for our machines at the so-called CAM workplace. Precision mechanics, too, spend the bulk of their time in front of a computer, creating programs, recording and updating customer data—a classical change from the workbench to an office workplace.

Our pieces become smaller and more precise, the modules become constantly more complex. Precision mechanics has become even more precise in the last years. This has only been possible thanks to modern machinery, the latest tools for this field, and the best measuring equipment.

In your department, you train industrial mechanics. What does the training focus on?

The tasks are very diverse. The training starts with an introduction to the crafting skills and conventional works. Lathe operation, milling, drilling, filing, these are all part of the basic knowledge of an industrial mechanic. Afterwards, we introduce our apprentices to CNC technology, so that they learn how to work with the latest technologies here and so that they are well prepared for the working environment. Our apprentices also learn how to work with special computer programs: They work with CAD data and create programs for our machines.

Who is this training suitable for?

The apprenticeship to become an industrial mechanic is suitable for everyone who enjoys tinkering. Since we handle very fine parts, manual skills are an advantage, as well as technical understanding and good spatial perception. It’s easier if you can imagine what the finished piece will look like based on a technical drawing, and then develop ideas on how to manufacture it.

© Fraunhofer IAF

What is the biggest difference between an apprenticeship at Fraunhofer IAF compared to an apprenticeship in a company in the private sector?

The biggest difference is probably that we manufacture a great variety of pieces, and these are only prototypes. At IAF, no piece is like another. And every one of them is a new challenge that requires new ideas and approaches. However, this exactly is the fun and special appeal about this work. Furthermore, we come into contact with very different materials. In conventional companies, they usually produce series; there are work schedules, a defined workflow, and very many repeat parts. We have to plan and rethink anew every time. Our trainees already have the opportunity to suggest their own ideas to contribute to a positive result.

What do you particularly appreciate about Freiburg and its surroundings?

The historical center is beautiful and I would not want to miss the atmosphere of a student city, either. The border triangle is ideal for excursions and short trips and you can quickly get to Switzerland, France and Italy. Everything is close by. And, for me personally, Freiburg is the perfect starting point for my motorbike tours.

What has been your personal highlight at Fraunhofer IAF so far?

It is difficult to pick a single event, because for me, there are highlights all the time. It is incredibly interesting to work here. I learn something new every day and I am constantly amazed by the results of the research departments—be they devices to detect substances or measurements or data transmissions. There are so many highlights, I can hardly list them all. And it makes me very proud to be part of it with my work. Furthermore, the opportunities we have here are special: We obtain outstanding results with the smallest tools. For instance, we work with milling cutters with a diameter of only 0.06 mm, that is, six hundredths, about the strength of a hair. To work with such small tools is a real challenge.

How would you describe Fraunhofer IAF briefly in three words?

Motivation—Solution-orientation—Team work

Fraunhofer IAF is a cooperation of highly motivated teams that are all enjoy and are very interested in finding solutions to problems and obtaining the best results together.

Thomas Trendle is team leader of precision mechanics and, as a trainer, supervises the industrial mechanics in training. He has been working for Fraunhofer IAF since 2015 and is responsible for the production of the single parts, components and modules by order of the scientific departments of the institute.

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