Rolf Peter Ditter knows all about global competition, but he remains bullish on manufacturing in Germany, high wages and all. The reason is the highly skilled people working at Ditter Plastic GmbH + Co. KG.
Ditter Plastic employs 700 and expects 2007 sales of 65 million euros ($85 million), large by the standard of family- owned German custom injection molders. Automotive accounts for about two-thirds of that total - including a host of complex auto parts that require multicomponent molding with metal inserts.
Ditter, the managing director, said basic costs for technical molding are similar around the world, such as land and advanced presses. A plant anywhere can be set up to mold automatically.
``But I need, for our products, to have specialists, and these specialists you will not find around the world,'' he said.
Ditter Plastic also runs very lean, with only 12 sales people and no middle management.
``We have two kinds of employees, the specialists and the workers. We have nothing in the middle,'' he said. The company can do all the research in-house, including rapid prototyping and stereolithography.
An enthusiastic man who displays his collection of paintings at his plants, Rolf Ditter led a tour of the headquarters plant in Haslach - where the company this year will install a clean room for medical molding. Another operation in nearby Hausach combines almost no direct labor on a highly automated molding floor with an extensive assembly and testing operation to make Ditter Plastic's well-known automotive dashboard assemblies, such as controls for car stereos and heating and air conditioning climate controls.
Ditter Plastic runs five molding plants, two each in Haslach and Hausach, small towns in Germany's Black Forest region. The processor also has a plant in Meissen, near Dresden.
Ditter Plastic runs 110 injection molding machines, in clamping forces from 30-600 metric tons. Automotive accounts for 68 percent of sales. The rest comes from industrial electronics, building and construction, sanitation products and military work.
Each location has a complete materials-testing laboratory to check incoming resin.
Plungers to robots
Ditter and Martin Schneider, director of technical sales, showed off some sophisticated parts, a sampling of the more than 5,000 different injection molded items produced by the company. They include completely assembled radio and climate-control modules for car dashboards; insert molded parts that combine housings of two, three and four materials with electrical connectors; and light sensors with tiny molded-in optical lenses. Many of the multicomponent switches, connectors and parts with lenses run automatically.
The customer list covers the major European and global automotive players, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volkswagen, plus other well-known firms like Grohe shower heads.
Paying homage to the company's humble beginnings, an original plunger machine sits in the Haslach lobby. Rolf's father, Udo Ditter, went into business in the 1930s by making a stylish line of cigarette holders. He founded Ditter Plastic in 1947 to make gears and other precision parts for the Black Forest's clock industry. In-mold labeling of clock parts began in 1951. After the Berlin Wall fell, and Germany became united, Ditter Plastic opened a factory in the eastern city of Meissen in 1990.
Udo Ditter died in 1966 in a car accident.
Rolf Ditter spent time as a watchmaker, and then worked in banking and finance, before he joined the family business in 1975.
Ditter Plastic got its first robots in the 1970s. Today, robots run on about 60 percent of the presses in Haslach. The other plants have a robot on every machine.
Automation is one way to offset labor costs, but Ditter said it's the only way to make complex, high-precision parts.
An example is a work cell making a car windshield-wiper motor, at the headquarters plant. The glass-filled polybutylene terephthalate part has 10 metal inserts. First, a six-axis Staubli robot removes the inserts from a rotary loading table and places them into the mold. After molding the housing and a gasket, the robot removes the part and places it into a fixture that checks the voltage and measures the dimensions. After a blue liquid is automatically applied to a few areas to close the tiny gap between plastic and metal parts, a robot deposits the finished part onto a conveyor.
Finally, an employee - the only person who runs the work cell - puts the parts into a shipping container. The worker also places inserts onto the loading table to start the process.
Making the mold
Ditter is a big fan of Arburg injection presses, made by its Black Forest neighbor of Arburg GmbH + Co. KG in Lossburg. Other brands used by the molder include Netstal, Krauss-Maffei and KlÃ¶ckner Ferromatik.
But Rolf Ditter is an even bigger fan of well-made molds. He pointed proudly to a mold Ditter made in 1986 that has turned out some 5 million parts, a control box for fuel-injection pumps. The highly abrasive material is 50 percent glass-filled PBT. The mold is still going strong.
``A good tool, a perfect-built tool, you can run on an old injection molding machine and you have good parts. When you have a bad tool, you can have one of the most modern machines and you have bad parts,'' he said.
Nearly all the company's molds are equipped with mold and cavity-pressure sensors.
Big changes are scheduled this year for the headquarters plant, which will get its first clean room, equipped with new Arburg and Netstal injection presses. Ditter said one product will be tiny cameras that are inserted into the body during surgery - playing on the company's strengths in precision optical molding.
Ditter and Schneider moved the factory tour on to the Hausach operations - for a look at how a leading German processor does assembly and automated molding. In both buildings, just four people oversee 20 presses, two for quality control and two to change tools. Parts get automatically sorted into bins.
Hausach is a center for complete manufacturing of climate control and audio controls for cars, including an extensive department for painting, screen printing and laser etching.
Workers assemble the buttons, gears, switches and housings into the completed product, ready to go into a car.
Ditter Plastic uses some vision systems to check part quality, but the act of people looking at parts remains very important. ``A camera goes up to a certain point, and then it's a human eye that's much better,'' Ditter said. ``We have parts we check five or six times.''
People who visually check parts get switched to a new job every two hours, to avoid eye strain. Rolf Ditter said it's part of keeping employees fresh and attentive - and keeping manufacturing strong in Germany.