Everybody knows Wittmann's robots. But after three acquisitions in as many years, the Austrian company Wittmann KunststoffgerÃ¤te GmbH has grown into a broad-line auxiliary equipment maker.
The most recent deal just closed. Wittmann's U.S. unit, Wittmann Robot & Automation Systems Inc., announced in mid-April it had purchased Capitol Temptrol Inc. of Centerbrook, Conn., a maker of water chillers. In 2000 the company bought granulator maker CMB of Oyonnex, France. In 1999 Wittmann picked up Nucon Systems Inc., a company in Richmond Hill, Ontario, that makes loaders, vacuum loaders, dryers and other materials-handling equipment.
Founded in 1975 by Werner Wittmann to make basic flow regulators for mold-chilling water, the company steadily expanded worldwide, opening facilities in Germany, France, Spain, Taiwan, Hungary and Mexico, among others. Wittmann bought a German robot business in 1988.
Wittmann opened a U.S. operation in 1986 and began making robots in Torrington in 1993.
Ask Michael Wittmann, Werner's son and chief executive officer of the U.S. operation, the reason for the aggressive acquisition move. He gives a one-word answer: Conair.
``We actually admired Conair to a certain degree, because it was tough for us, just as a very specialty supplier of automation, to compete against them,'' Wittmann said during an interview in Torrington.
Pittsburgh-based Conair Group was very good at marketing, he said. And they did package deals, while Wittmann had - just robots.
``They bundled things together. For example, they were selling material-handling systems and dryers and then, the robot actually was very discounted, because they had the margin on all the other products.''
That was the mid-1990s. U.S. molders were becoming more open to robots, but they still liked a deal. ``One-stop supplier'' was entering the business lexicon. Wittmann was still the new kid.
``It takes some time to get your name out and get a good reputation. It works slowly,'' he said. ``At that point we made a decision that it's tough to compete against them if we have just one special product. So it makes sense, long-term, to really supply the complete package.''
David Preusse, vice president of sales and marketing, said it was a challenge.
``It was frustrating, because we always had a superior product,'' he said. ``But when you got boxed out, so to speak, by a package deal, that made a lot of sense'' to add companies.
Wittmann said operations in some markets, such as Brazil, can be justified with robot sales alone. But the United States called for a broader approach - especially as Wittmann boosted its investment in Torrington.
The company expanded its initial building in Torrington several times. Finally, in 2000, Wittmann built a 40,000-square-foot assembly and U.S. headquarters. Seventy-five people work there today, skilled workers who make each robot, end-of-arm tooling package and other automation systems according to specific customer requirements.
Wittmann has added granulators and materials-handling equipment in the building.
Officials declined to give U.S. sales information. Last year, Plastics News reported that Wittmann's Austrian parent company generated total annual sales of about $110 million and employed 580.
While the U.S. robot market has been good to Wittmann, U.S. processors still lag other parts of the world in automation, Michael Wittmann said. In the United States, robots are running on about 28 percent of injection presses. ``In Western Europe, it's something like 38 percent. And in Southeast Asia, particularly Japan, it's more like 48 percent.''
Now U.S. molders are facing intense pressure to do something to fight back as work moves to low-wage countries like Mexico or China. Some molders have closed.
Wittmann said robots must be used in a thoughtful manner, not just to slash labor costs.
``There will be more and more applications where molders are using automation to perform secondary operations. This is coming, but it's just an evolution. But first you do the simple things, just pick-and-place operations. Then you go to the next step.''
Too many molders try to go all the way too quickly. ``Unfortunately, some molders try to automate the most complicated jobs first, because it's an easier justification for it from a dollar standpoint. But I believe, actually, that can be quite wrong,'' he said.
Robot makers have felt the sting of depressed sales of new injection presses. But Preusse thinks new machine sales will pick up.
``And there's plenty of existing molding machines in America that may need robots. They have ongoing developments, such as insert molding,'' he said. ``You really can't easily compete in a global market, or even a local market, without the use of automation.''
This fall, Wittmann Robot & Automation Systems will undergo a changing of the guard. After seven years in the United States, Michael Wittmann will return to company headquarters in Lichblaustrasse, Austria. Preusse will become president in Torrington.
One-stop shopping means Wittmann will clash directly against Conair and ACS Group, formerly known as AEC, in Wood Dale, Ill. But Preusse said one-stop shopping suits Wittmann well. ``It means we are in touch with the molder for whatever their needs are.''
Here is a sampling of recent new products from Wittmann:
* The Tempro Basic 195 mold-temperature controller, recently introduced to the North American market. According to Shawn Tuell, product manager, the key feature is the ability to operate in either standard positive-pressure-flow mode - where the water is pushed through the system - or negative-pressure flow, when the water is sucked back out. Removing water is required when there are leaks or a cracked mold, or for quicker mold changes. The water is returned to the unit's tank.
Most conventional pumps generate only positive flow, Tuell said.
The compact 195 weighs only 105 pounds. All units come with a Y-strainer filter on the water-supply connection to prevent particles from entering the tank and clogging the pump.
Prices for the standard unit start at $1,750; an upgrade to a 1-horsepower pump sells for $1,875.
* The FlowCon microprocessor-controlled water-flow regulator can control eight different cooling zones, monitoring the temperature of each cooling circuit and regulating flow based on the temperature set point by opening and closing an electromagnetic solenoid valve. It can store seven different mold setups.
* CMB Wittmann added an optional rear chute to the MS 1435 granulator. The second chute makes it easy to feed in long, wide or thin trim scrap, with no need for pre-cutting the pieces or buying a larger machine. The company makes the granulators in Oyonnax, then finishes the machines and does electrical work in Torrington. The Connecticut plant also can build special-size hoppers.
Profiles directly enter the cutting chamber on the down stroke. The soundproof granulator runs as 400 revolutions per minute.
* Nucon Wittmann has introduced another size of its portable Drymax dryer and conveying systems, the 60-100-PDC. The unit is designed for small machine runs with throughputs up to 50 pounds per hour. The machine dries and loads materials in a closed-loop system, linked to a molding machine. The Drymax has a twin-bed desiccant dryer design, with high-capacity, molecular sieves.
* The Nucon Wittmann 800 vacuum loaders are designed for small machines, just-in-time loading and minimum throughputs for additives. Two new models, the 806 and 810, offer 0.15- and 0.30-cubic foot capacity, respectively. They are available with single- or dual-material inlets, and as either a central vacuum receiver or an integral motor loader. A modular design gives for fast, tool-free clean-out when required, and allows for capacity expansion.
* The CMB Wittmann Regulo 612, a beside-the-press granulator, boasts a low feed height of only 50 inches to allow for automatic feeding from a sprue-picker robot, conveyor or hand-feeding. The soundproof granulator runs at low speeds of 236 rpm.