SMOOTHING THE WAY Interview with Robert Dimmler, LISSMAC's sales director

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The Metal Processing business unit is one of four business units in LISSMAC Maschinenbau GmbH, along with Construction Technology, Plant Engineering and MT Handling. Globally, the Group employs over 400 employees at five locations in Germany, the USA, China and the United Arab Emirates.
From individual machines produced in series to custom manufactured special systems, LISSMAC’s metal processing business unit specialises in grinding and deburring solutions.
ISMR spoke with Robert Dimmler, LISSMAC’s sales director, to find out how the company has fared during the pandemic, the launch of a new machine series and his outlook on the industry going forward.


ISMR: Please give a brief introduction and background to LISSMAC and the development of its metal processing business unit?
RD: We are a mid-sized Swabian industrial company, based in southern Germany, with about 400 employees, founded in 1979 as a manufacturer of construction machinery. We then diversified into industrial applications, through an acquisition in 2000. Construction is still, however, our largest division, contributing roughly half our turnover. Our metal processing business unit is our second largest division (accounting for one third of our turnover) – it produces standard machinery for grinding and deburring and offers a comprehensive range of machines. We also produce systems for automotive handling applications in assembly lines (MT Handling division), and tailor-made machine solutions (Plant Engineering division).
How we started in grinding and deburring is an interesting story. We are a manufacturing company with our own sheet metal production e.g. laser cutting, bending, welding, machining, painting etc. So, we understand the challenges faced every day by sheet metal job shops. About twenty years ago, we were experiencing quality issues with the painting of our construction equipment parts. The oxide layer on the cutting edge, after laser cutting, caused the paint to peel off (especially in tough or harsh environments). That is why we initially looked for solutions to remove the oxide layer on parts – ideally, a solution that solved the issue in one pass.
We went to several exhibitions but could not find a solution that worked and, as cutting with nitrogen was too expensive, we started to develop our own brushing solution. We also realised that this was a common challenge for sheet metal job shops and decided to further develop our solution and launch it onto the market.
This was the origin of the first series of our SBM double-sided processing steel brushing machines, which we launched in 2003 at the EMO exhibition. It was a new working principle, with top and bottom brushes. From customer feedback, we understood that sharp edges were a real issue so we launched our first double-sided deburring/edge rounding machine at the EuroBLECH exhibition in 2004. That was how we started. The double-sided processing principle means just one pass on a part and the process is finished, so it became very popular and customers then asked us to develop solutions for heavier applications such as plasma and oxyfuel cut parts.
Over the years, we have expanded the double-sided processing SBM product range for deburring, edge rounding, oxide removal, scrap removal (deslagging) etc. In 2012, we bought the SteelMaster brand of singled-sided deburring and surface finishing machines, which gave us a surface finishing portfolio. This also gave us wet processing, as well as dry processing, capability. Since then we have two production facilities in Germany.


ISMR: Please outline any successes or achievements and the reasons for these?
RD: We started ‘from scratch’ seventeen years ago and have now become one of the leading manufacturers for deburring and grinding machines globally. In the last three years, we have grown our Metal Processing business by 20%. For us, that is a great success. In 2018, we took over the grinding and deburring machine business of the German manufacturer, Paul Ernst Maschinenfabrik GmbH, in an asset deal. As part of this we also bought the installed base of about 600 machines, so now we serve more than 3000 machines in the market (SBM, SteelMaster and Ernst machines).
Most of our customers are based in Europe. However, we started selling in the U.S. already in 2005 after meeting U.S. dealers at the EuroBLECH exhibition in 2004. Since 2009 we have our own subsidiary in the U.S. which, last year, moved into its own sales, service and production facilities in upstate New York. There are around 20 staff. The U.S. is the most important market for us outside Europe. Now, we have global sales and service networks in more than 40 countries. We are serving customers ranging from job shops to industrial manufacturers such as John Deere, Siemens, Bombardier, Marel and many other global players in different industry sectors such as construction, agriculture, vehicles, electronics, packaging, food processing, aerospace etc. We are also about to establish production in Asia. We have had a Chinese subsidiary for a couple of years (sales and service) and began production two years ago in China of construction equipment. We are now in the process of preparing deburring machine production in China for Asian markets. We expect to start production next year for the local market.
Finally, we are also launching our new SMD 3-series – a versatile deburring and grinding machine range for sheets and plates, offering edge rounding and finishing.


ISMR: What are your views on the current global business climate for sheet metal professionals? What about the climate in 2021?
RD:
There is no doubt that this year has been challenging for all of us, starting in March when COVID-19 swept across Europe and lockdowns started. When it started, nobody knew what would happen or how long this would last. But the effect has proved to be long-lasting and will affect our lives significantly into next year.
Business-wise, we enjoyed a very good start to 2020 but then the impact, due to COVID-19, was significant. Companies stopped investing in new machinery while circumstances were so uncertain, especially during the lockdown period. This affected a lot of manufacturers – nobody could travel to see customers. COVID also affected the global economy more or less overnight. For three months from March, our order intake dropped drastically compared to our plan/budget. However, from June this year, as travel opened up between the German-speaking countries, business recovered to better levels. However, our exports were still down. For the last three months, I am pleased to say, business has returned to normal for us and we hope that it will remain like this. Project business means you take a longer-term view and order books can be full for a year with project work (i.e. for some of our other divisions). Our construction business was doing well also in the first three quarters – these factors will sustain our overall business result so that we can register reasonable results at the end of the year. 
In summary, results this year for us will not be too bad as we started the year with a good order backlog and had a good start and end of the year. I believe that next year will be a bit more challenging for many manufacturers, especially if they do not have the order backlog to protect them. Government programmes may not also be there to protect/support them. Of course, we hope for a vaccine but it may take time for this to be distributed and for confidence to return to the market.


ISMR: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your company’s operations and which steps have you taken in response?
RD:
One of our main aims is to maintain the health our employees, customers and suppliers. So we took several hygiene measures such as hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing, and we separated production shifts so that different shifts did not meet each other. We also sent people into home Office initially, to comply with new guidelines. We furloughed our staff and used the German government Kurzarbeit scheme to reduce our production capacity to 80%. We also initiated a four-day working week for our production. We even sent some of our sales guys on Kurzarbeit during the lockdown period. Sales activities were diverted into maintaining our CRM database and identifying new prospects etc.
We also had to consider how to keep in touch with our customers and how to present our products in this new environment. So, we started launching more digital activities and created a virtual exhibition,to display our products to our customers. We also arranged online demos and video conferences so that we could interact with our customers. We substantially improved our online presence and activity over this time. The challenge was to stay connected to our customers.
We also maintained our service throughout lockdown, if customers needed it. We can send parts within 24 hours from our central parts facility in Europe.


ISMR: What is your strategic and technical focus for the company right now?
RD:
Our international activities have been affected by the COVID crisis as we cannot travel, but this will not change our fundamental strategy on international activities. We also have plans to expand our production activity abroad e.g. the plans we have for production in China next year.
Technically, we are focusing on various new products in the construction technology and in the metal processing business. We are about to launch our new SMD 3-series, which is a new rotary head machine. We presented the first model last year during the Blechexpo exhibition in Stuttgart but this year we have now built a complete range of these machines, in seven different configurations to comply with the various customer requirements. We were going to launch this range at EuroBLECH this year, but that exhibition was cancelled so we are now launching it ourselves online and through webinars and virtual Open Days/Houses.
One area that we are focusing on for the near future is automation and Industry 4.0. We want to be ready to integrate our machines into existing production lines for sheet metal fabrication. We are already supplying automation solutions of deburring machines, to replace manual handling with, for example automated loading and unloading capability. Many cutting systems already feature automation systems, so customers are asking us how to integrate grinding and deburring processes into these automated lines or cells. Deburring still mainly uses a manual handling process, which can be time-consuming and costly, so it makes sense to address this. Customers also require more and better data exchange to optimise material and data flow in their production. We will be making announcements on further products and services as we pursue this goal.


ISMR: Which trends, challenges and opportunities do you see in sheet metal surface finishing and deburring markets?
RD:
We have seen trends change over the years. When we first started, seventeen years ago, one of the first questions from customers was ‘Why should I deburr?’ Nowadays, deburring technology is a well-established technology in modern and high-quality production processes. It is crucial for customers producing high-quality parts. One of the main arguments for buying deburring technology is to improve or maintain part quality. The trend here is that deburring has become a really integrated part of modern sheet metal processes and operations.
The next trend that we see is further integration into the production process, in combination with automation and Industry 4.0. The opportunities we see are in smart production, or smart factories – the integration of production processes, and how we handle and share data with pre-processors and post-processors in the deburring machines. You can implement features that make the operator’s life easier and the machine then becomes more responsible for the processing result as you increase automation levels. This is a challenge, and also an opportunity.
We have also seen the share of stainless steel part deburring increase (in thin gauges) over the years. Stainless steel is now a very popular material with specific requirements in deburring, edge rounding and finish. Many materials can be processed in our machines, such as stainless steel, mild steel, aluminium, copper, titanium etc.


ISMR: Are there any products/technologies that you have released or are releasing this year that you would like to discuss?
RD:
Yes, we are launching our new SMD-3 series of machines this year - a versatile deburring and grinding machine range for sheets and plates, offering outstanding results on the edge and on surface.
We also offer our high efficient SBM product range of double-sided processing machines. The main benefit of the double-sided process is that you pass your part just once into the machine and all edges are processed, saving from 60-80% of processing time compared to single-side or manual processing.
Different machine sizes can handle different part sizes – from parts the size of a coin to up to 2m-wide parts. We offer single-sided and double-sided solutions, edge finishing and surface finishing solutions.


ISMR: Thank you for your time.


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