When Georg Schwarz joined his father-in-law's company, Ludwig Engel KG, more than half a century ago, it was a modest machine shop in the market town of Schwertberg, Austria. Schwertberg remains small but Engel has grown into a global manufacturer of injection molding machines. Today the firm, now called Engel Holding GmbH, employs nearly 3,800 people in 85 countries. Group sales were $983 million in the 2007-08 fiscal year.
The Schwarz family continues to own Engel. Georg and his wife Irene, who still live in Schwertberg, go to work every day. He focuses on keeping Engel up-to-date on production and travels to the company's factories around the world. She gets involved with financial issues. Both are members of Engel's advisory board.
We're still deeply involved. I'm making, at the end, decisions about what kind of machines we're investing in for production, said Georg Schwarz, 81. Officially, he retired from day-to-day involvement six years ago, but he joked that he is half-retired.
Now Schwarz gets to travel some more to Chicago, where he enters the Plastics Hall of Fame during NPE2009. Bill Carteaux, president and chief executive officer of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., nominated Schwarz. Carteaux was a machinery executive at Demag Plastics Group before he was named to the industry association's leadership.
Engel had a humble beginning in 1945. Its founder, Ludwig Engel, did mechanical repairs and built apple presses, then got into shoe pressing machines for the footwear trade. Ludwig Engel tinkered with a small vertical machine run by a hand crank. Meanwhile, teenager Georg Schwarz had moved with his family from his native Croatia to the nearby industrial city of Linz, Austria. In Linz, Schwarz took courses in mechanical engineering.
Schwarz met Irene Engel totally by chance: They were staying at the same hotel while on vacation. They got married in 1951 and he joined her father's company. The following year, Engel came out with its first injection molding machine. Schwarz passed the examination to become a master machine fitter, then attended evening classes to gain additional commercial and business skills.
From his first days at Engel, Schwarz was interested in improving production. In 1957, he became head of sales, building up the company's global sales network.
Ludwig Engel died in 1965, and Irene and Georg Schwarz took over the management of his namesake firm.
The plan was to internationalize the company, to start business in Europe, to start business in Asia, said Schwarz. But in 1965, the company was still small, employing 380 people.
Schwarz pushed for globalization. The first move abroad was to set up a subsidiary in 1972 in Denmark. The first foreign production started about five years later, when Engel opened a Canadian factory in Guelph, Ontario.
The pace of geographic growth picked up in the 1980s, when Engel created its first Asian subsidiary in Hong Kong, then followed with two large-tonnage press plants one in St. Valentin, Austria, and the other in the United States, in York, Pa.
In 2001, Engel opened a factory in Pyongtaek, South Korea, making small and midsized machines. That was followed in 2007 by a large-press factory in Shanghai.
Engel has followed a strategy around the world of running two separate plants in each region, one dedicated to smaller machines and the other for big presses. That changed in 2008, when the machinery maker closed the plant in Guelph and incorporated its small-press operations into the York factory.
Tie bars & technology
All of the action has not been confined to global expansion. Under Schwarz, Engel has made technological progress, too. In 1968, the company began offering electronic machine controls as standard.
Engel began making robots in 1980. It made sense, Schwarz said: When you're producing injection molding machines, and the future obviously was automation. So the next logical step was to produce our own robots.
One big advance Engel's tie-barless machine came in 1990. The big open space makes it easier to use larger molds and do mold changes, and gives part-removal robots total access to the mold area.
But tie bars, the thick rods that link the platens together, perform an important function by absorbing clamping force and keeping platens parallel. Schwarz came up the idea of building injection molding machines without them.
While traveling for business, he saw companies try to use big molds in small-tonnage machines limited by the tie bars. A machine with no tie bars can handle larger-sized molds on a relatively small press saving the customer big money.
Engel started with a small tie-barless press with 30 tons of clamping force, then expanded to a full range up to 700 tons.
The company has sold more than 50,000 tie-barless injection molding machines to date.
The first all-electric tie-barless press came out in 1998.
The great flood
Through all the growth, Engel has faced challenges. The biggest happened in the summer of 2002 when a catastrophic flood hit Schwertberg.
The normally placid Aist River overflowed its banks and swept through Engel's factory, right next to the raging torrent. The water level peaked at more than 7 feet above the floor.
No one was injured, since the plant was on summer shutdown. Schwarz was in his second house in the Alps when he learned about the flood.
Driving over the mountains, he looked down on Schwertberg. It was like a sea, he recalled.
Would Engel stay in its hometown, or relocate? I was really completely shocked and could not imagine that this company could survive and produce injection molding machines in the future. But in the next hours, a lot of employees came back to help clean up, Schwarz said.
Management formed a committee to contact other Austrian manufacturers and ask if Engel could use their equipment. Engel transferred production and was ready to ship machines only about six weeks after the flood, he said.
Engel employees, joined by members of the Austrian army, cleaned the plant. They shoveled 1,000 truckloads of sand and muck. In Schwertberg, a town of about 6,500 people, they watched and waited. Finally, Schwarz stood up in the plant and made an emotional speech. Engel, he said, would stay put.
Today, a high aluminum wall separates Engel's complex from the river. Six big pumps stand ready. The headquarters plant now has a modern assembly line for some machines, and a lean, order-driven continuous flow production system.
Because of the disaster, Engel ultimately ended up a better company, Schwarz said.