Fasnacht: Those Zany Europeans!


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Most of us in the United States think of the Germans and the Swiss as relatively serious people. They are proud of their reputation for precision, and it seeps into many of their personalities and lifestyles. The trains run on time in Germany and Switzerland, for instance.

Earlier this year, as part of two separate press tours, I got to see a different side of the Germans and the Swiss. Through the years and after many trips to both countries, I’ve seen the working side of these people, and it is very impressive; they are very good manufacturers. On these recent trips, I saw them at play, and it was most revealing.

My timing for these trips coincided with an early spring carnival dating back to medieval times. It’s a celebration called Fasnacht—a long tradition of old customs intended to sweep out the winter ghosts by making loud noises and fires and parading in strange costumes. These Fasnachts occur at different times in different cities. I was privy to three variations on the celebration. Each was obviously Fasnacht, but each had its own personality.

In Schwenningen, Germany, we visited with Dr. Mathias Krauss, whose company is part of the Orca cutting group. The plant we visited specializes in precision gears, pinions and geared shafts for automotive electric motors. The plant runs these parts across 25 CNC Traub machines with a capacity of as much as 80 mm. At this plant, Fasnacht is observed by a ritual cutting of a necktie, among other traditions. Dr. Krauss showed us his remnant, and I was asked to contribute as well, which I did. Cut ties are kept neatly displayed like trophies in a shop.

Later that same day, we went to Hausach, Germany, near the Black Forest, for its Fasnacht. The inhabitants of this small village dress up in outrageous costumes and on this night performed a variation of a pub crawl through the city center. Each bar hosts a live band and the revelers go from place to place singing, dancing, eating and drinking. Luckily for the residents of Hausach, the following day has been declared a holiday.

Next, we traveled to Leistal, Switzerland. Here, iron carts are piled up to as much as 8 feet high with dry wood pulled by six to eight citizens. After dark on the appointed night, these carts are lit and dragged flaming through the streets of this charming old town.

The carts are accompanied by about 300 Chienbäse (broom-shaped pinewood torches) carried through the streets by individuals. A highlight of this fire parade is watching all this flaming stuff as it is pulled through a narrow arched gate in the city wall. To my eye, this looked like a pyromaniac’s convention, even though the Leistal Fire Department was standing by and periodically hosed down the arch. Still I had to ask myself who, way back when, thought trying to burn down their city was a good idea.

On the long ride home, I reflected on the tour. The Fasnacht celebrations were a bonus to the real intent of the press tours, each of which provided me with useful information about the state of the art in precision machine and tooling production from OEMs Index Corp. and Rego-Fix. We also visited several top-line shops that you will be able to read more about in Production Machining in the upcoming months.

The Germans and Swiss are serious about investing in technology that can help them maintain a competitive edge. In many ways, because of high social burdens and strong labor laws, they have an even larger productivity gap to make up than many other countries. Each facility we visited is determined to keep its business in the country.

I also took away from this trip an appreciation of how well the people I met blend their long-time traditions, such as Fasnacht, with a contemporary embrace of the possibilities that technology can bring to their businesses. It’s like having a foot in both the past and future. What I was able to observe is that this is not a conflict. Getting silly with Fasnacht is a perfectly acceptable counterpoint to getting serious about manufacturing. After seeing it in person, it makes sense.