LOSSBURG, GERMANY — Herbert Kraibühler started out at as a teenage apprentice at Arburg GmbH + Co. KG and over the next 50 years in Lossburg, the local boy drawn to anything mechanical rose to become an internationally known expert in injection molding technology.
“My thinking is Arburg, and that's my life. Very simple,” Kraibühler said.
His last day at the company was March 31. At his final big Arburg event — Technology Days on March 19-22 — Kraibühler got almost as much attention as all the machinery and robots running at the annual extravaganza. He led his final tour for members of the trade press, pausing frequently to spell out key moments in Arburg's 90-year history, on display at Arburg's Evolution exhibit.
Kraibühler, 64, the managing director of technology and engineering, turned the press tour over to his successor, Heinz Gaub, as they stood at the final history exhibit, the Freeformer additive manufacturing machine. It was a symbolic nod the future: the Freeformer represents a new horizon for the company.
Kraibühler and a colleague, Eberhard Duffner, led the development of Freeformer. Arburg's owners, the Hehl family, signed off on the investment about 10 years ago.
Kraibühler's career started out modestly. He was 14 years old when he walked into Arburg to begin an apprenticeship. Now he walks out as man who embodies the age-old German tradition of hands-on work paired with classroom training for young people.
Germany is an export powerhouse, especially for industrial machinery like plastics equipment like Arburg's. The apprenticeship program is a big reason.
“Yes it is,” Kraibühler said. “In my special case, it really was from step-to-step a continuous experience beginning with mechanical things.”
Fifty years is a long time. So Kraibühler paused to think when asked what he did his first day as a young apprentice. He laughed. “Oh, we have to file! That was the start, I remember. In the first day, we started filing. And I think it was about three months, or four months. Every day we start with filing,” he said, gripping an imaginary tool and moving his arms back and forth.
A hometown guy, he grew up in a tiny town near Lossburg. His father ran a small farm as a hobby. Kraibühler grew up tinkering with farm equipment.
“I'm a technician,” he said. “The young years for me, let's say, was doing, with tools and everything. That's my world.”
After his apprenticeship, he got a degree in precision engineering, focused on machinery, from the University of Karlsruhe. He joined Arburg full time in 1972 in the product development department. He moved up, and took the top technology spot in 1996.
Kraibühler can point to several milestone developments during his time at Arburg, including the Selogica control system, the electric Allrounder, and now the Freeformer.
Arburg's Freeformer uses a rapid discharge unit with a patented nozzle that opens and closes up to 100 times a second, metering out small droplets of liquid plastic to build up a part.
“About 10 years ago, we looked in different details in our market. And we saw this special market, prototyping,” he recalled. “And our feeling was, that would be in the future an important part of production for plastics. And so the philosophy from Arburg was, we start a second field of business.”
A small group analyzed the technology, looking at existing patents. They made a report and went to discuss it with the Hehls. The family owners said to go ahead. Arburg began with the patent on the droplet innovation in 2006.
The recession in 2008 and 2009 delayed the Freeformer's development.
“Then at the end of 2009, when the economy came up, we really started in strong development, in the beginning of 2010,” Kraibühler said.
Kraibühler and his successor, Gaub, both say a family-owned machinery maker has the advantage of a long-term outlook. That isn't always the case in a company owned by private equity, they believe.
“The experience that I have with the Hehl family, is we have an excellent situation for freedom in development and a continual realization from ideas,” Kraibühler said. “I think that's the base of our daily work philosophy.”
Arburg even has invested in some offbeat technologies beyond plastics, such as the molding of leather goods and ceramics.
Although it's now a larger company, Arburg is a good example of the German Mittelstand, where family owners make the decisions, Gaub said: “It's certainly the strength and backbone of our industry. Definitely. Especially in machinery and mechanical sectors.”
Gaub said a well-planned succession also is very “Mittelstand.” He officially joined Arburg in mid-2013 and has worked closely with Kraibühler for nine months.
“It's very typical mindset for family businesses that they invest in a smooth transition of key functions in a company,” Gaub said. “In large corporations when you come into a new position, the predecessor often has been gone for some time, and you find an empty office and have to dig your way into the details. And in many times you don't have the time for the details, from the factory, the technology and the people.”
Gaub studied mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin, where he specialized in production technology. He then earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering and machine design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Gaub worked at grinding machinery producer K Jung GmbH and lubrication technology company Willy Vogel AG, before moving to the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) in Berlin, and serving as an independent consultant.
Meanwhile, as he retires, Kraibühler plans to do more bicycle riding, from his vacation home on Lake Constance. He got a chain saw as a present, and likes to cut wood for a fireplace at the lake house.
“Now I hope I have more time for this, not in a hurry but in a more relaxed situation,” he said.
He is looking forward to traveling the world with his wife, now in a more leisurely fashion instead of rushing from factory to factory.
He will continue to be consultant for Arburg, including helping with the commercial launch of the Freeformer.
Eugen Hehl, Arburg's partner, has mixed, but strong, emotions.
“It's a crying and a laughing high,” he said. “Crying because he's leaving and laughing because Mr. Kraibühler will stay here as a consultant to the board of management.”