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ROLLING INTO ASIA: Two German Firms’ Timely Moves

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing

Coatings company prepares for a big transition—in India

GBneuhaus Managing Director Michael Petry, right, and his colleague Sacha Rupprecht review how the automatic pick-and-place machine works inside their factory in Neuhaus am Rennweg, Germany.

To date, GBneuhaus has only produced its nanotech-enabled coatings in Neuhaus am Rennweg, a small village in the state of Thuringia. But that’s about to change: The 28-year-old firm in June founded a company in Pune, India, and will soon begin producing its antimicrobial coating there, Managing Director Michael Petry said.

“We have the first customer in India who will send us two or three pallets of light switches, and we will produce the first batches here,” he said in a recent interview in Germany. “But for the long term, we have to build up our own manufacturing system in India.”

Petry expects to be fully operational in India by the middle of this year. “One thing I learned in India is patience,” he added. “But the market is very promising in India,” in part because of a widespread problem with hygiene.

Halogen bulbs have been GBneuhaus’ “bread and butter” business, helping it grow from 11 employees in 1990 to 120 today.

“In the early ‘90s, it was very fashionable to have these halogen lamps in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in living room ceilings,” Petry said. And of course the lamps were popular for the front of cars. His firm coated the relatively inexpensive lighting solution to add qualities, such as whiteness and brightness.

Automation—it was mostly DIY but includes a Krautzberger robot, which sprays products with complex geometries like door handles, glass tubes and light switches—let the firm scale to growing demand: “In 2009, after the world economic crisis, we had a quantity of 8 million coated lamps a year, and within two years, due to automation we did in our factory here, we were able to do 25-30 million,” he said.

Now, though, LED lights are stiff competition, “and LED will take over more and more,” he acknowledged.

Except in India and other price-sensitive markets like China.

“In the Asian market, still the main lighting is halogen lamps because they cannot sell any LED headlights in India. If you pay $4,000 for a car, you cannot afford $400 or $500 just for one LED headlight—because if something gets damaged, you have to take out the complete lighting. And with the halogen bulb, you just take out the bulb.”

This situation will last until roughly 2025, Petry predicted. By that time, “there will be other LED lights or be other technologies.”

Government agency led fact-finding tour

Petry gathered some information with the help of the State Development Corp of Thuringia. That organization’s Thuringia International Export Team took Petry and other small and midsize companies on a fact-finding tour in India in 2016, Arnulf Wulff, a senior VP at the organization, said.
GBneuhaus “came to the conclusion that India was definitely a market for them, for export and also possibly as part of their supply chain,” Wulff said. “So they decided to establish their own company and work with manufactures there.”

Part of India’s appeal, Petry said, is that a €100,000 investment in new product development will last a year there—vs two months in developed markets like the U.S. “And I would say the long-term potential in India, with 1.3 billion people, is much higher than 320 million in the United States.”
The State Development Corp of Thuringia also two years ago established the first German-Indian Roundtable of Thuringia. “Till today, they come together four times a year,” Wulff said.

Batch Size One will come into play

To plan for a future beyond the mid-’20s, GBneuhaus is investigating Batch Size One—the move to extreme customization that is also known as “Order of One.”

The firm’s sol-gel technology—a fluid coating system lets engineers create transparent coatings and very thin layers—will play a role.

“We took the chemical base and said, ‘OK, if we add colored pigments in a nanoparticle size, and if we add other nanoparticles, we change the grid of the chemical structure on the surface so we can reach different functionalities on the surface like hydrophobic and hydrophilic,” Petry said. “And we can not only work on glass but also on metal and plastics.”

The sol-gel technology is front and center with the antimicrobial coating work the company plans to do in India.

Additionally, hydrophobic coatings are needed for outdoor cameras because it makes the lenses easy to clean. That is one of three core fields in India—together with UV-block for plastics.

“Another great advantage of the sol-gel coating is that the functionalities can be combined in one coating, like antimicrobial, easy-to-clean and anti-scratch for plastic light switches,” Petry said.

Machine tool firm gears up for turnkey automation push—in China

In Samag’s factory in Saalfeld, Germany, CEO Roland Emig, left, and his colleague Christian Kleinjung discuss turnkey solutions with high degrees of automation. It’s hard to justify hiring a human when a robot that can do the same work “will work three shifts seven days a week without being out for an illness or something else,” Emig said. (Provided by Samag)

Samag recently delivered multi-spindle machining centers for an Asian maker of commercial vehicles, CEO Roland Emig said, declining to identify the customer. To get the contract, Samag partnered with Symacon, which provides a system for automating the transfer of parts from one place to another.

The customer in Asia “asked a turnkey project,” he said. “That’s part of our business.”

Saalfeld, Germany-based Samag, which employs about 850 in the group and counts BMW, Daimler and various tier 1-suppliers among its customers, actually brings in nearly half of its revenue in machine tools from projects that include turnkey automation systems that can include robotic articulation, parts handlers and transfer mechanisms for high-production work, he said. “The percentage of turnkey projects is growing, even in Asia.”

That’s because manufacturers the world over understand automation will allow them to spend a lot less on low-skilled labor—which is essential because the companies need to make new investments in training highly skilled machine operators, Emig said.

It is especially true on the automotive business “where the pressure on prices is really high” and products change about once a year, he added. “In the automotive industry, if they are focused on volume, we don’t have to convince anyone to do an automated system.”

For companies that change their products every month, automation systems are less attractive, Emig said.

But that, too, will change as tooling components become cheaper and automation gains more steam.

Grippers are a great example, he said. “The easier it is to change a gripper, and the less expensive a gripper is, the easier it will be to convince the customer with lower volumes to invest in automation systems, as well.”

It’s hard to justify hiring a human when a robot that can do the same work “will work three shifts seven days a week without being out for an illness or something else,” Emig said.

With automation, the overall savings is found in the reduction of workforce at the system, at the line. “That is the main thing,” he said, adding that it is a safe bet that the Asian commercial vehicle maker will save more than 50% of the workforce for each line per shift.

The impact of integrating automated systems into the production line is of course different for each customer.

“Some customers just take the machining center, including a robot load end area, and they transport the pieces in the company on their own to the washing machine or marking station,” Emig said.  “Others do a total integrated system,” as is the case with the Asian commercial vehicle maker.

In its work in Asia with Symacon, Samag will integrate four machines that take care of washing parts and marking them with individual serial numbers that tie each part to a particular factory, machine, day, time and line operator.

“If you have, on a regular basis, four machines on the line, you need four operators that run the machine and take the machined parts out,” he said, describing a pre-automation production line.
With automation, the same company would just need one or two operators to cover the four machines, he added.

High birth rates and rising levels of wealth in some Asian countries mean potential big business for machine tool companies and others that get set up to serve the automotive industry there, Emig said. “China is the fastest growing market” in Asia, he said. “India is just slightly behind. They will grow significantly during the next 10 years.”

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