Doing what comes naturally

Feb. 17, 2017
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Werner Wittmann, founder and president of Wittmann Kunststoffgeräte GmbH, Vienna, is a machinery aficionado who loves to think about ways to produce equipment more efficiently. He is a tinkerer, a thinker and a man continuing a journey that started in 1976.

At age 76, Wittmann certainly has no plans of slowing down. He remains involved with various design departments in the company, said his son, Michael Wittmann, who leads the company as its GM.

At the K show in Germany in October, Werner Wittmann shared his insights with Plastics Machinery Magazine Managing Editor Angie DeRosa.

How did starting the company with the water flow regulators prepare you for where you wanted to go?

Wittmann: Of course, I did not have the vision that in 40 years I wanted to have a molding machine factory and a totally integrated company. You cannot have such visions. I had a lot of experience in marketing and sales. Obviously, step by step, I widened our program rather quickly because water flow regulators were not enough. We needed mold temperature controllers. Once we had mold temperature controllers, then we had the chance to go into the robot business by purchasing a company in Germany.

In 1985, I started to work on the U.S. market. Before that [we had] an agent, but then [we had] our own company. It was clear that we needed broader programs. So then we purchased Nucon [in Canada] for loaders; then we widened into dryers and, finally, I had the chance to purchase a company for granulators. In 2008, the purchase of Battenfeld was a good chance for us because we really were able to round it out.

Why did you decide to buy Battenfeld?

Wittmann: Because we already had a very good market with our own product, the robots and all the other auxiliaries. The [injection molding machine] still is the heart of the production, obviously. I had said that one day that we would have to widen our offerings, that we would have to have the machines. Then, came this possibility with Battenfeld. If it wouldn't have been Battenfeld, perhaps one day it would have been another company.

How did you go about handling the existing customer base for Battenfeld?

Wittmann: You have to give them the confidence that you'll do a good job; that you will take good care of them; that you'll supply modern technologies.

What did you do to make the Battenfeld acquisition work for Wittmann?

Wittmann: One of the keys was motivation of the people. We also took some steps to modernize the program immediately. Our electric machine was the first development, the EcoPower, which at that time Battenfeld had electric machines up to 300 metric tons, but the machines were not completely manufactured in-house. Battenfeld had excellent knowledge of electric-driven machines. So it was a logical and successful step to present the EcoPower series at Fakuma 2009. The second thing was that Battenfeld always was known for large machines. These machines had been built in Germany. However, in 2008, the largest machine Battenfeld could deliver was a hydraulic machine with a clamping force of 650 metric tons. So, we said you also have to have a large machine up to 1,600 tons, now 2,000 metric tons. This was the second step. We had to modernize the Micro-System machine, which had the leading technology for micromolding. But it had a separate control, and I said, "Look, this is crazy. We have worldwide sales. We have to integrate the same control."

The group celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016. Is there any innovation that you are particularly proud of?

Wittmann: There are many, many innovations. On the molding machine side, we finished our new hydraulic machine series, the SmartPower, which is really very important because hydraulic machines still are the most important line we have. We invest a lot in the integration of controls, with Industry 4.0, and part of this development is the new control, the B8, plus the R9 robot control. These are controls so you can see optically that they fit together. They have the same buttons. We have set up logical programming, which for me is important, so that [you are] not losing the connection for the operator to their old control. You don't want to lose the connection for someone who knows, let's say, our machine control, the B6, and you want to make it convenient that the operator can jump to the B8. We have applied the same idea on the robot side.

What are the advantages of the hydraulics versus electrics? Electrics seem to have been getting so much attention.

Wittmann: That is correct. But in my opinion, with the new hydraulic machines, which are equipped with a combination of fast responding servomotors with high-performance, fixed-displacement pumps, you come, from the power efficiency standpoint, very close to electric. Of course, fully electric might be a little more efficient, but these machines are also more expensive, while the hydraulic machine, it's simply a hydraulic cylinder with one seal. Even after many years, you can exchange that seal and then it's like new. I would not say that the electric machine is not good; obviously, there is a need for it, and that is why we made it as the priority first machine when we took over Battenfeld. The only great advantage of the electric machines compared to the hydraulic machines is that you have all parallel movements already as standard. But I think that the modern, servo-hydraulic machines, you cannot compare them to the design of the old hydraulic machine. It's a totally different machine.

When you engineered the new hydraulic machines, what was most important to improve?

Wittmann: Our main focus for the new hydraulic machine series was to improve it considerably with regard to the energy consumption, the noise level and the speed and to come as near as possible to the electric machines with regard to these features. We have also increased the diagonal distance between the tie bars of the machines.

The second issue was to develop a machine that would be considerably less expensive than the electric machine series due to a less complex technology on the one hand and the intention to use the design of the electric EcoPower for the servo-hydraulic SmartPower as much possible on the other hand. Basically, we designed the hydraulic machine based on the existing parameters, but we took the chance to integrate the two series — the electric EcoPower and the new servo-hydraulic SmartPower, more or less into one integrated design. Thus, we managed to use a lot of parts both for the EcoPower and the SmartPower, beginning with the basic frame and the housing up to the electrics or the amplifier system, as well as the control unit. The only features which are different are the clamping unit and the injection unit. This is a production issue, but it's very important, because, for example, a particular robot may have a different vertical axis, but the basic robot structure is the same. From a production issue, it for me was really very important that we integrated the two series.

There has been so much fanfare about Industry 4.0. Do you think it's overblown?

Wittmann: Of course, it's overblown. Everybody talks about it and many people don't know what it really is. In our company, we are not talking of Industry 4.0; we are talking of Wittmann 4.0 as an important element for integration. The fact is it makes sense to integrate the data of the complete machine cell. That means Wittmann 4.0 transforms the injection molding machine into a control terminal for robots and peripherals such as temperature controllers, water flow regulators, gravimetric blenders, which are communicating with the machine via a single IP address. Thus, the machine is the central element, and operation and data storage are realized via the machine control.

In a company like Wittmann Battenfeld that is integrated, how do you manage upgrades at a pace that allows you to stay on track with the demands of the market?

Wittmann: We are not looking at the quantities; it's the quality. It's really, "How are we developing sustainable base designs, like on the machine series?" After having finished the development of the servo-hydraulic SmartPower machine series in standard version, we simply have to also modify the two-color, the multicomponent machine into the new machine series based on the same production technique. So, it doesn't mean that we have to make five new machines; no, we have to make this project because it's really important that with the new machine base and new machine design we have, we can supply everything the customer likes, starting from single material to multicomponent, to whatever.

We are not in the computer business where they tell you after three years, sorry, this is not supported. We are in the machine business, and our customers expect that for 10, 15, 20 years, they can use the machine, logically. So it's a different approach.

The company introduced flow production, modernizing its facilities with a focus on economical machine manufacturing. Why was this so important for the company?

Wittmann: I know that we had to really invest a lot in modern machine tools; in the production technology; and so on. We could improve our planning process and have a better overview of the machines in production. Moreover, flow production helps us to apply lean management tools efficiently. These are the production methods we introduced for robots and all peripheral products already many years ago and which made us very competitive.

You were able to groom Michael to head the company. What does that mean to you?

Wittmann: It means that I am very happy because not all fathers have a son who is able to run a company. Michael is really in charge there, and I am very happy and he really runs the company now completely, all sales and also development. My other son, Thomas, is running our Hungarian production company. My daughter, Karin, is a doctor and takes care of our health.

What do you want your legacy to be in this industry?

Wittmann: I'm not really thinking about that, sorry. I just want to enjoy my life and enjoy my work. That is it. I'm simply enjoying what I do. That is what I like to do, that is why I still do it. I feel I can do a good job in a certain field, and I definitely do not intervene in the work of Michael. Our company is big enough that there is room for both of us to work full speed in order to bring our company forward. But I don't do it so that I can say, "Look what I have done."