The collective eyebrows of the plastics machinery industry were raised by the blockbuster news in mid-March that Wittmann KunststoffgerÃ¤te GmbH, a robot and auxiliary equipment maker, would buy the Battenfeld injection molding press business.
Wittmann has relationships with injection press companies as an auxiliary supplier. Now, executives wondered, why was Wittmann buying a struggling competitor, in a global market already flooded with too many presses?
Asked about the chatter, Werner Wittmann responded with some dry humor. ``I'm actually very pleased with the reaction of all the machinery manufacturers, that they take so much worry about this. And I think it's a good sign because if we wouldn't be a major subject, then I would have made a big mistake purchasing it,'' he said. ``If nobody would talk, something is wrong.''
Wittmann thinks he made the right decision to create what he calls the world's first company that can provide a fully integrated range of products for injection molding. His Vienna, Austria-based company bought the insolvent Battenfeld Kunststoffmaschinen GmbH of Kottingbrunn, Austria, on April 1. Terms were not disclosed.
``Of course, I analyzed the figures. I analyzed the situation of the products. I analyzed it from different points, including the technical standards of the machine. And clearly I'm convinced that it's a sound company,'' he said.
The unassuming mechanical engineer, who founded Wittmann KunststoffgerÃ¤te in 1976 and is its president, explained plans for Battenfeld during an April 19 interview at Chinaplas in Shanghai.
Officials at some competing press makers suggest they will give the cold shoulder to Wittmann robots and auxiliaries. Werner Wittmann concedes that may happen.
``But I think that finally, it's always the customer who decides and not somebody else,'' he said.
Wittmann added that his company often simply supplies a robot to injection press companies without any involvement in the entire project. ``So I cannot personally understand where there should be the big conflict for us now to have the molding machine, too,'' he said.
He also pointed out that Wittmann KunststoffgerÃ¤te has always grown by acquisition. The company started out as a maker of water-flow regulators for mold-chilling water, and mold-temperature controllers. In 1983, it bought a robot maker that was its agent in Germany. The move to a broad-line auxiliaries player came later, as Wittmann picked up the brands of Nucon, CMB, Capitol Temptrol to add materials-handling systems, granulators and chillers.
Wittmann expanded around the world.
Werner Wittmann said the challenge today is how to keep growing. Buying Battenfeld was one answer. ``Now we can really quote the complete package,'' he said. ``This is quite interesting, especially in markets like China, where you often are lacking a lot of good technical people when you set up your company. Then it's always good to have specifically one partner, one service team, one company where you can go and who solves your problem.''
The Austrian company opened a factory in Kunshan, China, in 2005, after selling there for several years. At first, about 80 percent of Kunshan sales were to global companies with plants in China, with only a small amount of business from domestic companies. But now it's about 50-50. ``A big part of the growth comes now from the local companies, which is really due to all of our efforts to work hard with a local sales team in these markets,'' he said. In the background, robots quickly snapped back and forth in the Chinaplas booth.
Wittmann's ownership of Battenfeld ends a rocky few years for the injection press company, which was one of the European pioneers of important technologies like gas-assisted molding, water-assist, all-electric machines and micromolding. Battenfeld also was an early supplier to target injection molded polycarbonate windows for cars, using its experience with big Battenfeld machines built in Meinerzhagen, Germany.
In 2005, owner SMS GmbH closed Meinerzhagen, leaving the company with only Kottingbrunn, which only builds machines with up to 1,000 metric tonnes of clamping force. SMS officials regularly complained that Battenfeld was losing money. The following year, the German industrial conglomerate sold Battenfeld to German private equity firm Adcuram Industriekapital AG.
Things got chaotic late last year, when Adcuram said it sold Battenfeld to another private equity company. Management of the machinery maker responded by saying the unexpected sale could close the company down. Battenfeld filed for insolvency Jan. 3, then Adcuram abruptly called off the sale.
Battenfeld was kept on life support, thanks to loans from the Austrian government and several banks. Published reports in Austria said Battenfeld could have closed for good if no new owner had stepped in.
Under Wittmann, Battenfeld now employs about 400 people in Kottingbrunn, down from 470 before the sale, plus another 150 at subsidiary operations.
Having too many employees - some of them holdovers from the days of two Battenfeld press factories - was one of the company's major problems, according to Werner Wittmann.
``We can take it over with really reduced costs of these personnel,'' he said.
He thinks closing Meinerzhagen was a mistake. ``This is also one of the reasons that Battenfeld finally had these problems,'' Wittmann said.
The new ownership plans to fix that problem. Wittmann would give no solid timetable, but he wants Battenfeld to become a full-range player again.
``Let's say, medium-term, we are planning again to go back into this field. We have to, because there is quite some business which requires bigger machines, and then you also get their smaller ones. So I don't want to give that up,'' he said.