Tool manufacturers holding up
well despite a difficult environment
Based on a very good year in 2013, manufacturers of tools and clamping fixtures are expecting a four per cent increase in turnover in 2014. According to the Precision Tools Association in the German Engineering Federation (VDMA), this is due to the good prospects in the main customer industries, i.e. motor vehicle manufacturing and mechanical engineering. One stumbling block could be the regimented supply of raw materials for hard metal machining tools. During the forthcoming AMB, International Exhibition for Metal Working, which be held in Stuttgart from 16 to 20 September 2014, the main technology topic among tool manufacturers will be the "machine of the future" for "Industry 4.0", digitalisation of production.
The practical experts in companies concur with this optimistic annual forecast by their Association, albeit with a certain amount of scepticism. "We consider an increase of this magnitude as highly likely," said, for example, Gerhard Knienieder, a member of the Board of Management of Präzisionswerkzeuge-Fabrik Emuge-Werk Richard Glimpel GmbH & Co.KG in Lauf an der Pegnitz. This view is also shared, in principle, by Marcus Nolting, Head of Export & Marketing at Helmut Diebold GmbH & Co.KG, Jungingen, a specialist for tool-holding fixtures. In his opinion, 2014 will primarily be characterised by two developments: "The German and American economy will also maintain the high level from 2013 in 2014." However, he qualifies this statement: "Development in emerging countries will suffer from a massive change in interest rate policy. This means that markets which are still booming at present in 2014 can expect a dramatic flight of capital and, thus, stagnation in growth." To the extent to which the USA, in particular, will turn the interest rate screw, capital will flow out of emerging countries and will then no longer be available there for investments. According to Nolting's estimate, emerging countries will also follow the interest policy of the USA, a move which will again make investments more expensive. Nolting believes that this could have serious impacts on exports and undermine the optimistic forecast by the German Engineering Federation.
However, Lothar Horn, Managing Director of Hartmetall-Werkzeugfabrik Paul Horn GmbH in Tübingen, and Chairman of the VDMA Precision Tools Association, bases his optimistic view, in particular, on the predicted growth in every important mechanical engineering country. He is expecting worldwide turnover in the mechanical engineering industry to rise by a good five per cent: "The demand for tools will therefore probably increase." He is supported in his estimate by VDMA President Dr. Reinhold Festge who is forecasting growth of three per cent for the German mechanical engineering industry in 2014. This would represent a record production volume of €203 billion. Festge also said: "The key to growth in the German mechanical engineering and plant construction industry lies in established markets, especially in Europe." One important aspect for Lothar Horn is the "broad base which can substantially reduce dependence on a few growth markets."
The VDMA representatives are also optimistic about the automobile industry which is anticipating an increase of three per cent in worldwide production. It is also pleasing to note here that the problem companies in the European automobile industry will probably start to recover. Horn's conclusion: "The reluctance to invest, which was displayed by many companies in 2013 and primarily affected manufacturers of chucking tools in our industry, will therefore probably abate to a considerable extent in 2014."
Tungsten carbide is
and will remain in short supply
However, the VDMA Precision Tools Association regards material supply as a potential danger. Horn mentions here as an example the basic hard metal material ammonium paratung-state (APT): "Its price increased by one third to around $400 per tonne between the start of 2013 and the middle of the year." Full hard metal tools and indexable inserts are now mostly made of tungsten carbide (over 90 per cent). HSS tools, which are highly resistant to heat and wear, also contain a high proportion of tungsten. The German Raw Materials Agency (DERA) therefore reached a critical conclusion in a current study relating primarily to the situation in the tool industry: analyses show that a supply deficit could also lead to higher price and delivery risks in the near future.
Tool manufacturers depend, in particular, on China as the largest producer of intermediate tungsten products. Lothar Horn: "Chinese export quotas and taxes are hampering free trade." He is therefore hoping for the market-regulating effect of some new mine projects outside China, which are currently being constructed or are being planned. This is also urgently required since there are already clear indications that deposits currently being extracted in Canada will be exhausted in the next few years. Conclusion: "Although dependence on China will drop slightly in future, tungsten will also definitely remain in short supply during the next few years." Unfortunately, there are no substi-tute materials in sight. Approaches from the start of the 1990s have failed. The tool industry must therefore make even greater efforts in future to find efficient tool concepts. One successful approach is the VDMA "BlueCompetence" Initiative which also compiles and describes sustainable, resource-conserving solutions in the area of tools on its Internet platform.
also affecting the tool industry
Increased efficiency is therefore the demand in all areas. One way to achieve this objec-tive is Industry 4.0, the next industrial revolution. Although the initial hype has already died down again, the technology behind Industry 4.0, i.e. networking of all resources involved in the product development process, will probably be the main topic at the forthcoming AMB exhibition in Stuttgart in September 2014. Even though it does not appear to have caught on properly in factory halls, as recently revealed in a survey con-ducted by the Saarbrücken-based IT firm Fistec among mechanical engineering, plant manufacturing and component producing companies. According to this survey, managers currently estimate the relevance of Industry 4.0 as "moderate". Although opportunities are available, companies are still finding their way. This situation will change con-siderably in the next five years. In other words, everyone is already in the starting blocks.
Another interesting result which confirms the previous suppositions: the relevance of Industry 4.0 will rise as products become more complex. For example, only one quarter of component manufacturers are devoting themselves to this topic. The corresponding figure for mechanical engineering companies is 50 per cent while every plant manufac-turer is dealing with this topic. In particular, the connection of the shop floor level (vertical integration) offers the greatest potential along with product engineering. Optimisation of production rather than integration is the focal point for many companies. Fistec Director Karl Friedrich Schmidt, a member of the Executive Committee of the VDMA Software Association, one of the promotional supporters of AMB Stuttgart: "Companies are hoping that the spangest effects will be in the improvement in reaction speed. Transparency and user-friendliness are regarded more as a necessary condition for the desired improvement effects. Other action areas such as security, employee qualification or research are considered to be a necessary precondition."
from 16 to 20 September 2014, Fair ground Stuttgart (Germany)
Source: Messe Stuttgart