Zwick Roell testXpo
As a first-timer to the Zwick Roell testXpo, it was difficult to second-guess what a materials testing summit would offer TCT Magazine readers, but I am happy to report that the two-day event was as relevant as it was enjoyable.
The event was held at the company's university campus-like headquarters in the south-west German city of Ulm on the River Danube, home to Ulm Minster, the 14th-century cathedral that mercifully survived the World War II bombings that flattened much of the city centre.
Hats off to Zwick Roell for coordinating the hundreds of visitors that flew in from dozens of destinations into Munich on the afternoon of October 14th - no easy task. Passengers from London Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham were driven to Ulm where we were deposited at our hotels and instructed to be ready in reception after a short breather for a tour of the city and then dinner at the Zunfthaus - a guildhall used by the town's fishermen. Having completed a solid night's sleep after filling up on the German staples of beer, bread and meat, we trundled with our bags back to the coach the next morning and drove to Zwick Headquarters.
Zwick Roell prides itself on nurturing its staff, many of whom are local or attended Ulm University or both. This is something Zwick manager Roland Eisenlauer - our tour guide the night before - was keen to state at dinner, that Zwick likes to make the most of Ulm's own talent, himself born and bred near to the town.
Eisenlauer explained that Zwick receives absolutely no government funding and finances all its research and development and internships itself. As a medium-sized company, it misses out on the benefits afforded to small firms and it also does not receive the same benefits as large industrial brands such as BMW, but the company does not consider this a hindrance. Eisenlauer put it simply that when the company has a good year, it will expand, if it does not, it continues as normal. As such, the campus has been steadily growing around the original "farmhouse" where Zwick was founded 150 years ago, building a village-like space of old and new structures with plenty of green spaces.
3D scanning and contactless measurement
We were split into groups of eight or so for the tour of the site, which is where visitors got a real taste for the materials testing industry. The 3D technology the materials testing sector relies on the most is 3D scanning and metrology. Contactless measuring is essential in many tests conducted for numerous industries including automotive, aerospace, medical and dental - key additive manufacturing and 3D printing technology growth areas.
The first 3D scanning technologies we came across were in the automotive testing department, with metrology technologies from GOM being implemented for the optical measuring of metals within heat chambers, logging how the materials change with heat and various pressures. More GOM interfaces were applied in hydraulic testing and were applied for retrofitting components and entire machines at Zwick.
3D scanning technology comes into its own in component testing. GOM Aramis crack testing metrology was being utilised for measuring fractures in windscreen glass, with Zwick's own software calculating the impact of a dummy head as it made contact with the glass sheet. Such measuring technology is also key in creep testing, which logs the change in shape of components over a medium-long term of pressure and heat change - particularly important in aerospace manufacturing and engineering.
In the Testing for Life zone, visitors came into contact with Zwick's impressive Zwick Junior scheme, a programme inviting school leavers and students to come to Zwick to get to grips with the technology, life on the factory floor and the responsibility involved in being part of a materials testing team. Zwick Junior participants earn money on the scheme which sees them put in charge of running their own facility, producing products and marketing them on their own and it is something the company is very proud of.
Throughout the site tour there were numerous stands from familiar-named companies including TCT Show + Personalize exhibitor Hexagon Metrology, Olympus, GOM and Dantec Dynamics, which we browsed before heading into the medical testing department. There, PrecisionLine Vario laserXtens technology was being put to use for the laser measurement of stents as we walked around. This section showed items such as hip joints, dentures, syringes and bone screws being flexed, wobbled and subjected to different temperatures and liquids under the precise supervision of Zwick's software and machinery. Every test result was recorded on Zwck's own software and every machine, robot and computer was monitored by an eagle-eyed expert.
Growth and investment
Our tour guides were quizzed over the company’s growing investment in robotics and the impact this would have on employment, to which they replied that machine testing and the use of robotics ensures a more accurate result. If Zwick wants to stay ahead of its competitors then it needs to be up to date as a company, therefore the use of robotics is a better safeguard for jobs than continuing with old-fashioned methods.
After lunch - which was an eye-opener as it saw every overseas guest seated beer hall-style in a marquee for another lovely meal - it was time for industrialists to go to their chosen stations to investigate certain tests and technologies further, while the press filed into a press conference with Zwick Marketing Manager Alan Thomas, CEO Dr Jan Stefan Roell, Academia Industry Manager Robert Strehle and Robotics Product Manager Robert Kaifler.
Opening the press conference, Thomas declared Zwick Roell as a "clear market leader", with its systems being increasingly adopted by big-name companies all over the world. Roell expanded on this by explaining the company's expansion plans, both in terms of applications and industries, and in terms of geography.
"Growth this year has not been as big as I wanted it to be. I knew this was going to be a difficult year, but the last quarter was doing better and we have modest, stronger growth for 2014. Overall, when you look at the whole industry, it is doing better," the CEO stated.
But even though Zwick Roell has been fighting strong financial headwinds in Europe, coupled with the global economic downturn, the company has ploughed on with serious investment and expansion ventures.
Zwick's acquisition of Messphysik in 2006 has continued to pay dividends for the organisation. Founded in 1983, the Austrian company specialises in optical measurement, with "laser knowhow", as Roell described it. The company's expertise is particularly important in advanced creep testing - a major part of Zwick Roell's operation.
"As a business we are interested in learning more, so we integrate tech knowhow. We know we cannot do this all by ourselves," Roell explained.
China and emerging markets
The CEO went on to discuss Zwick Roell's recent expansion activities, which has taken the company into key emerging markets China, India, Brazil and Mexico.
"We have new factories in China and in Brazil and our Indian sales and service company is growing strongly, located in the German Centre in Delhi. We have invested in India and also Mexico this year. The automotive industry is booming in Mexico thanks to the North America Free Trade Agreement," Roell stated.
When quizzed about the company's intentions for Chinese expansion, Roell was frank: "In China we will develop different products. We are not going to China to lower production costs. I don't believe in that. I go to China because I feel China will not send their money to Ulm and there we will develop a new product range and we might export this if it is successful. People can then see by the brand that it is either Chinese or from Ulm."
"I feel we need to be in China," Roell stated.
He went on to discuss Europe and had surprisingly optimistic news to impart, despite the seemingly impenetrable economic gloom hanging over the region according to the mainstream media.
"This year, business was a little slower in Europe. We like our Italian friends and we support them and we asked our Italian friends to come here with us. Italy is slow but we support them. We have special projects and things for our Italian partners," he said.
Roell explained it is important to remember that looking at the European economy as a whole is not indicative of how specific nations, markets and industries are performing in relation to Zwick.
"You need to look at the data and extrapolate," he said," For example, France s not doing well but this is our best year in France in terms of aerospace. And nuclear is good in the UK. The automotive sector is doing better along with plastic composites. Southern Europe is slower, yes. And there is lower growth in China, but it's still our second-biggest market. Turkey is good, the UK is good. This all requires a specific view."
With new products rolling off the production line, thriving internship programmes, a wide and successful roll call of household-name customers and overseas expansion, Zwick Roell is certainly a European industrial success story. Its increased adoption of 3D scanning and laser metrology technologies proves that the 3D sector has a firm place in the materials testing industry, whether additive manufacturing will become a part of this industry remains to be seen but in the meanwhile, big names in the 3D scanning technologies are proving to be an indispensible part of this important, mostly unseen sector.