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Washing machine drums as far as the eye can see. The shiny hollow parts glide high above the manufacturing facility to the next stage of the assembly process. In a separate hall, the air is full of bright, white side panels being transported over kilometers of conveyor belts and into waiting trucks. A long, steady stream of components on three different levels.
Claudia Kuckertz is not alone at the end of the production line. Thorsten Störmer stands beside her. He is responsible for steel purchasing for Miele in Gütersloh. She works in Technical Customer Support for Color at thyssenkrupp Steel Europe and has provided consultation services for Miele for the past five years. The two really get along, and that is good for both business partners. While they talk, another employee inspects each side panel. These panels are only approved for the next stage of production if they are absolutely perfect.
Störmer and Kuckertz have seen a lot of one another over the past few years. The customer support representative and the purchaser meet often to discuss concrete technical questions or work on new products. “This time, it is luckily the latter,” she says. “And the circumstances were very interesting this time around,” says Störmer, “because we not only improved on an existing material, we also developed a new product.” That product is known as pladur®Thermosafe and will soon be appearing in Miele’s household appliances.
Duisburg is an exciting place to be at the moment. For the past few years, Technology & Innovation has been working on a new idea that is just about ready to hit the market. The idea emerged at one of the regular internal workshops held by Sales and Application Technology. “We meet up with a group of our colleagues to think about the added value we could be offering our customers,” says Stefan Köhler, who works in Technical Customer Support at thyssenkrupp Steel Europe. “But we always involve the customer relatively early on to make sure that these sessions stay on target.”
Representatives from different areas then brainstorm for an entire day – and all ideas are welcome. The sessions are open, honest, and frank. “This is extremely useful for both sides. Afterwards, the group splits up into smaller committees to continue developing the ideas together with the customer. “A lot of times, the discussion revolves around finding a solution to an existing problem,” says Thomas Flöth from Application Technology in Duisburg. “In some cases, we are even able to develop an entirely new product.”
The Winkelmann Group, which Köhler has worked with for many years, provides some excellent examples in this regard. The medium-sized family-owned company is one of the leading suppliers to the automotive industry and the heating and water supply industry. The company is also a specialist in the area of flow-forming. In this process, high-pressure rollers are used at low temperatures to create complex engine and drive components from flat materials. Following a workshop with Heating and Systems Technology, which has a new production location in Poland, the idea to offer thinner versions of higher-strength materials turned into a mass-market product. “The customer now receives more meters of material per paid metric ton of steel – all at the same level of quality,” says Köhler.
In addition to producing many different standard products, thyssenkrupp Steel Europe also produces numerous special products. “The innovations we are working on are the product of the way Steel Europe’s materials expertise complements our knowledge of forming,” says Leif Peters, Managing Director of the Steeltrade division at the Winkelmann Group at the group headquarters in Ahlen. His company is no ordinary metal processor, he adds, but rather a specialist in metal forming. “We like to talk about the magic of the steel sheet.”
All you have to do is listen to friends and relatives talk to see that Miele products are seen with same kind of inner magic. It is not for nothing that this fourth-generation family-owned company is the world’s leading provider of premium household appliances. But the reason behind the development of pladur® Thermosafe, a newcomer in the product portfolio of the Color Business Unit at Steel Europe was not magic, it was pure pragmatism. The innovation was fueled by a legal regulation. According to EU law, electrical household appliances made of metal which can reach a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius or higher must be equipped with a special heat protection layer. This standard applies to all new products as of 2014. The hotter the device can get, the thicker this protection layer must be.
In order to protect the consumer, it does not matter where on the device this heat develops – whether it is on the front, rear, or sides. “That applies to the rear panel of our driers, for example,” says Störmer. “We added an additional cover made of plastic, because it does not transfer heat.” But the results of this additional layer were unsatisfactory in many regards. “Naturally, we wanted to save on material and process costs. That meant that we had to manufacture an additional component. That component required assembly as well as additional process steps.”
There was yet another disadvantage to this approach. “The appliance got quite a bit louder,” remarks Dirk Holschumacher from the development team in Kreuztal-Eichen, a district located in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the headquarters of the Color Business Unit of thyssenkrupp Steel Europe. “So we were asked if we might have an idea for a solution,” says Kuckertz during a visit to the showroom of the Development division. Here, all manner of surface-coated flat steel products are on display, including samples for facades, utility vehicles, garage doors, and household appliances, for example products from the comprehensive pladur® range. “And that’s how it unfolded,” says Holschumacher, without revealing much. “We took one of our materials and covered it in a type of foil that didn’t exist before. And that prevented the heat from being transferred.”
The new curved rear panel has a stylish look and a comfortable feel. For Miele, aesthetic considerations are just as important as high technical standards. It is no wonder that some of their models have won awards for design.
Weight, on the other hand, does not play a role for white goods. “Quite the contrary, a washing machine has to be heavy so that it doesn’t move during the spin cycle,” says Michael Schulte-Zweckel. He is Claudia Kuckertz’ business counterpart and, as Sales Team Leader, supervises operations for Miele. “For our customers in the household appliances sector, technical parameters are as important as fast processing and delivery.”
The automotive industry is a different story entirely. Here components cannot be light enough – without compromising strength and toughness, of course. thyssenkrupp Steel Europe has developed special materials such as manganese-boron steel, a material used by Winkelmann to produce flex plates. “The customer can use our specialized material – and their expertise – to form a complete component with very little loss of material,” explains Stefan Köhler. “Take the vibration damper for example. The turntable, the poly-V profile, or the area that the belt runs over, are manufactured without cutting action using a single disc. It doesn’t have any screws or any unnecessary weld seams.”
That means fewer process steps and a reduction in weight and material. “As a customer, that means you save on money, and the car that this element will become a part of saves on gas thanks to its lighter engine component.” The companies in the Winkelmann Group deliver their end products to renowned OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) in the industry, where they are installed in almost every engine and drive.
Components such as these must remain balanced, even at high rates of rotation. They have to run smoothly even when the engine hits top speeds. “Winkelmann uses either precision steel strip, a specialized strip produced by Hoesch Hohenlimburg, or hot-rolled strip produced in Duisburg that meets the necessary tolerances,” says Köhler. It is important to know that multiple steel discs – which serve as the initial shape for many components – are punched out in a pattern diagonal to the direction in which the hot-rolled strip is moving. “It is like baking. You want to get as many cookies as possible of the same thickness from the rolled-out dough. But with cookies, a deviation of 0.2 millimeters doesn’t make much of a difference. With steel strips it does.”
Products from customers such as Winkelmann are at the cutting-edge of what is technically possible, so suppliers must be able to hold up their end of the deal. “Our customers’ standards for their material have risen dramatically,” says Martin Metzing, serves together with his Steel Europe sales team. “We are constantly investing in the maintenance and modernization of our systems to fulfill the expectations of our customers. This is the only way to ensure that we can comply with the strict tolerance and crowning specifications of our customers.”
Miele has extremely high standards as well, but at the headquarters in Gütersloh, Thorsten Störmer is very enthusiastic. “For our material, we need a supplier with proven, reliable processes who can work within the specified limits. Not everyone is up to the task. And we need contacts like Ms. Kuckertz with a high level of technological knowledge and the ability to respond quickly and in a structured manner.” For example, two years ago: “We were selected as a development partner for a specific product. Miele is particularly focused on color tone and level of gloss. The company’s white is brighter and glossier than the whites of other manufacturers,” says Kuckertz. “Resistance to mechanical abrasion, chemical agents and fading are both very important properties as well.”
Supplier and customer need to share a trusting, professional partnership. “And they need to be patient with one another,” says Störmer. “Process and product innovations need time. On top of that, they go through rigorous testing, so the process can take years. Suppliers looking for a quick sale aren’t the right fit for us.” Steel Europe provides Miele with high-quality steel of different types and qualities – from standard steels to specialized products. That is characteristic of the partnership itself – and things have been that way for years.
Steel Europe is one of the largest and most important suppliers to the Winkelmann Group. The thyssenkrupp Steel Service Center in Dąbrowa Górnicza, Poland, supplies the company with additional products. “We have solved a lot of problems together over the years,” says Martin Metzing. “That builds the basis for the best type of partnership.” Köhler adds, “Our task is to take a relatively simple product and continue to increase the value of that product.” That starts out with small quantities, then increases to larger quantities. The products are designed to be reproduced over and over again at affordable prices. Entering new markets can be difficult, but it is worth the work for everyone involved.