STAHLWILLE is a traditional German company of the ‘mittelstand’ – the UK equivalent of a medium-sized business.
It is a family business since its establishment by Eduard Wille in 1862 in Wuppertal. Today the management of the company is independent, but the advisory committee represents the Wille family, writes Peter Brett.
Originally, the company was largely focused on making practical things in steel for domestic use - like fire tongs and pokers. However, after 1900, when the motor car was in fairly rapid expansion and development, the company turned to making the spanners, wrenches and pliers needed to maintain the new technology.
In ‘The Kontor’, the recently renovated visitor and training centre (which used to be the main office in Eduard Wille’s time), it is fascinating to see the display of the first rather heavy duty spanners made.
This was one of the most modern forges in Europe, and it was interesting to compare them with the slimmer and slicker ones made a hundred years later, where the demands of mechanics on their tools are so much greater.
Eduard Wille established the maxim that the company was committed to producing the best possible tools with the customer in mind.
The Wille family and company remain true to this maxim today – and in my view it is a much better long and medium-term business model than the exploitative venture capital approach.
STAHLWILLE has an excellent record of exporting products throughout the world. It has expertise in aerospace, automotive, renewable energies and industrial tools that puts it in a very strong position to compete with the biggest and best.
The places and the people
The Cronenberg-Wuppertal site I visited was part of the original factory and forge started by Eduard Wille, and the large redbrick building that dominates the entrance has recently been renovated and redeveloped into a light and modern training and showroom space.
What is missing is the small railway that used to run down the side of the building into the factory area behind.
As the factory is in the midst of what is now quite a developed urban area, the heavy-duty hammer forges have been moved to a more suitable site in former East Germany, and a more recent extension, built in the local vernacular of slate tiles, houses the administration.
Eduard Wille was passionate in his belief that people were the most important aspect of a progressive company, since it was they who had the ideas to develop and then make into desirable finished products.
Today the company employs more than 600 people and still manufactures in Germany. It exports to over 90 countries worldwide through a dedicated sales network that focuses on understanding the needs of the customers, and then supplying the correct and most efficient solutions.
Chris Rose, UK Sales Manager at STAHLWILLE UK, which is based in Surrey, was a great guide, and showed me not only how the company identifies issues and challenges that customers face, but also how the expert product development teams then try to develop solutions.
The obvious area to start is in the development of new ranges of torque wrenches for which STAHLWILLE is very well respected.
For me a torque wrench is a torque wrench, but it soon became clear there is much more to developing an accurate tool, with a reliable and dependable mechanism that would withstand some rough handling.
Also, as torque wrenches are becoming increasingly important in aerospace and vehicle technology - where composite materials are very sensitive to pressure on the fixings - it is vital to have a reliable tool that will ensure these materials can be used safely.
I was introduced to simple mechanical torque wrenches that seemed to do the job well, and then to electro-mechanical wrenches that took accuracy and accountability to an advanced level.
Open protocol wrenches not only did the job well, but recorded in detail and then sent the data on to a central system for ultimate accountability.
Alexander Grosser, Project Manager Industry 4.0, did a few demonstrations to show me just how advanced this system could become.
Using an augmented reality headset, a user in a production line for example could be guided towards bolts which need tightening in the correct order.
As this is done, a computer is recording the torques as they are applied and noting that they are correctly applied.
If for any reason the torque is not correct, the system notes and then stops the user so the situation can be rectified.
By basing the system on an open source platform, STAHLWILLE is hoping to encourage users to develop their own ways of managing and using the system to their own advantage.
Reading Station DAPTIQ is another system in development by STAHLWILLE that is constantly evolving, because users and R & D keep on finding out how much more potential there is in the idea.
It looks like a simple secure storage unit for tools. But the unit not only keeps the tools secure, it counts them to ensure that all the tools are present.
In modern manufacture and aerospace for example, it is too late to discover that a wrench has been left in an engine when you are about to take off. Once again, the software allows both STAHLWILLE and clients to customise the system to suit various needs.
It behoves a manufacturer of torque wrenches to have very accurate systems of recording exactly how well and accurately the wrenches are performing.
STAHLWILLE has developed a range of motorised calibration systems. The motorised bench automates the loading process, and the transducers use strain gauges to take the dozens of measurements which need to be taken into account when calibrating a torque wrench to the new ISO 6789-2:2017 standard.
TORKMASTER software records the measurements, and calculates the deviations and measurement uncertainty.
I did not realise quite how many variations there are when measuring performance.
Apparently, even the four sides of an adaptor can give different readings on the same wrench set to the same torque.
This can be tricky when you consider there must be no more than a 1% deviation for the calibration of STAHLWILLE’s most accurate torque wrench, the SENSOTORK 713 to be passed.
... And the rough stuff
Away from the refined electronic quiet of the demo centre, Chris showed me the actual manufacturing, assembly and finishing of the huge range of STAHLWILLE tools.
STAHLWILLE is not only torque wrenches; it is spanners, pliers, cutters, screwdrivers, sockets & ratchets, etc etc.
I enjoy watching ‘real’ manufacture, and STAHLWILLE has a range of heavy processes needed to make and finish a socket, as well as the capacity to assemble the delicate electronics in an electro-mechanical torque wrench and then test it.
Despite the noise of machines, the humans keep control of the factory floor, ensuring the continued production of thousands of items.
STAHLWILLE and the future
It is clear that STAHLWILLE not only has a productive and innovative past, it is looking to the future too.
I have mentioned only a few key innovations, but the company is clear that precision manufacturing in the industrial sector will only become more important.
Key areas like aerospace, automotive and renewable energy already have niche demands for tools, but again, these needs will become even more complicated and demanding - a challenge STAHLWILLE is tackling head on.