Germany’s Machine Tools On The Up Again

Duesseldorf on the Rhein, often called the business capital of the Ruhr industrial area, is the traditional German home of that country’s machine tool industry fair called METAV, which stands for something like Metall Verarbeitung, or simply, metalworking.

Duesseldorf on the Rhein, often called the business capital of the Ruhr industrial area, is the traditional German home of that country’s machine tool industry fair called METAV, which stands for something like Metall Verarbeitung, or simply, metalworking. Organized by the German Association of Machine Tool Builders (VDW), it is regarded by some as a local show, but I’m pretty sure that there are many countries that would love to have an international show that was anywhere near as big. Practically every notable international machine tool builder was represented.

So what were the Germans showing interest in during METAV? Well, one could not help but notice that anywhere there was a mill-turning center cutting metal, there were machine shop managers, tooling engineers, machine operators and apprentices crowding the stand as if the King himself (I mean Elvis) had appeared.

When you see what today’s mill-turning center from the stables of Index-Werke, Monforts, Boehringer, and Weisser and Gildemeister can do, it makes you wonder whether we need machining centers anymore. It is certainly a viable argument if your six-sided gizmo with every cross hole, profiled cavity, contour-milled profile imaginable can be machined comfortably—in one hit—from barstock of up to 4 or 5 inches diameter.

At the show, it was also noticeable that the sliding head automatics from Tornos and Gildemeister, as well as the Citizens and other Far Eastern manufacturers, are getting bigger. Many of these companies are up to 32 mm bar—that’s 1 1/4 inches—and you can machine some pretty complicated components on one of those!

One reason the Germans were crowding the stands of mill-turn or multitasking machine tools was a regenerated fear of the East. I don’t mean there is a new cold war starting up in Europe, but the temptation of low labor and infrastructure costs of the new European Union members—countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary—is causing many OEMs and European automotive Tier One suppliers to not only transfer know-how, but also production, eastwards. This growing threat has woken up a lot of West European subcontractors to the benefits of mill-turning centers and multitasking machine tools.

Take Emag for example: It pioneered the pick-up spindle turning center and now makes pick-up spindle machines that will mill and grind. Emag has added on hard turning and grinding and will even deliver a turn and (laser) weld. So you can turn and weld on one pick-up spindle machine using an Nd:YAG laser.

Interestingly, the growing Emag group just added the German SW Schwaebische Werkzeugmaschinen machine tool builder, which specializes in systems for machining prismatic components—gearbox housings, transmission housings and the like. So Emag’s pick-up-spindle expertise for machining everything inside a gearbox can now be combined with systems for machining the housings, too.

Machine shops in Europe must get leaner, meaner and fitter if they want to be successful in stemming the flow of work outside of their existing territories. The latest machine tools can cut down direct labor costs. Once those labor costs margins are down to a few percent or lower, then the machine shop’s customers have to concentrate more on comparing logistics and the convenience of having the turned parts supplier just downtown at their beck and call.

One final note about the METAV show: It seems to have coincided with an upturn in forecast orders for German machine tool producers. The organizers, the VDW, announced a rise in orders of 25 percent for German machine tool building during the first four months of 2004. Metalcutting machine tool orders, said the VDW, rose by 18 percent, while metalforming machine tool orders jumped by 45 percent. German domestic orders have been rising since March—perhaps reflecting a new round of investment by Germany’s machining subcontractors.