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Machine tool click orders – vision or reality? Print E-mail
Written by Ganesh   
Wednesday, 06 February 2008
The long march from the World Wide Web to the workshop
Frankfurt am Main: There’s nothing you can’t find on the World Wide Web – even machine tools. Actual purchases, however, are still being handled by conventional means, since machine tools are and remain consultancy-intensive. The internet is, of course, also used intensively, but almost solely for online services like tele-maintenance or for customer bonding.

Fred Schlauberg is fed up: he’s just sent off his online order for the urgently needed precision tools, and then a rush order from his most important customer flickers onto his screen. He can, of course, retrospectively upsize the tool order he’s just placed, but when he feeds the order into his production schedule, his system flags an alarm: nothing doing this week. The production operation is already up against the limits of its capacity.

Schlauberg is the proprietor of a mid-tier component vendor, not least for the furniture industry. His speciality: customised stainless steel tubing for designer chairs in out-of-the-ordinary shapes and geometries, bent ready for mounting, polished and provided with all the functionally relevant attachment boreholes, threads and features. What you can do for tools, he reasons, ought to work for machines as well. So he immediately starts searching on the internet. What he hopes to find is a professional, fully integrated trading platform with all the advantages and options offered by realtime data, user-friendly evaluation tools and fast click orders.

Service platform utilises internet options

But machine tools from the internet are something for the futurologists as yet. However, what has long since been common practice are online services for remote diagnostics or predictive maintenance. Chiron, for instance, a machining centre manufacturer based in Tuttlingen, has since 2001, in an alliance with Siemens, been developing appropriate services based on EPS Network Services for online machine analytics and tele-maintenance over the internet. For this purpose, Siemens has created a service platform that utilises the options provided by the internet to enable the data of the machine tools connected to be accessed from any desired location.

Experience at Chiron has shown that malfunctions at machine tools can be diagnosed via the internet within 15 minutes by properly trained personnel using EP-Dynamic. The EPS services enable the response time in the event of a malfunction to be significantly minimised, with concomitant gains in terms of machine availability. Software errors can be remedied immediately using tele-maintenance. In the case of hardware and mechanical defects, an appropriate repair job can be initiated.

The new EP-Performance package from Siemens now also provides services for cyclical status monitoring, permitting long-term trend analyses to be drawn up for machinery performance. Wear and tear on axles and spindles can be detected at an early stage, for example, enabling maintenance and spares procurement to be run on a status-dependent basis.

Brave new machine tool world?

The front-runners among Germany’s machine tool sector indubitably include Gildemeister AG in Bielefeld, which back in 1998 premiered its first machines with internet access as a standard feature. Board Chairperson Dr. Rüdiger Kapitza stated back in 2001: “Besides our net service, e-business is nowadays an important constituent of our operations.” It is only a question of time, he adds, before what are called “click orders” become common practice in the machine tool sector as well, at least for standard machines.

The sector’s own association, the VDW (Association of German Machine Tool Factories) had significantly more reservations back then. The then VDW Chairperson Berndt Heller, whose main job was Managing Director of Gebr. Heller Maschinenfabrik GmbH in Nürtingen, speaking back in 2001, was relatively dismissive about the idea of “internet selling”, because “each of our machines needs personal consultancy meetings”. However, not all the possibilities on offer are being exploited as yet. Carl Martin Welcker, the current VDW Chairperson and a Managing Partner of Alfred H. Schütte GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne, sees possibilities for using the internet in the context of production operations or machinery procurement primarily in terms of online service and spare parts orders. In his estimation, the future possibilities like part and assembly purchasing, and in handling business processes. As a trading platform for machine tools, he believes, the internet is suitable “only for ultra-simple standard machines”. Otherwise, says Welcker, “the advantages and disadvantages for customers cannot be properly identified”.

A customer communication tool and an additional sales channel

For more than a decade now, the Trumpf Group has been using the internet as a marketing tool and an information channel in its dealings with actual and prospective customers. What’s a rather newer development, says Dr.-Ing. Mathias Kammüller, Managing Director of Trumpf GmbH + Co. KG and Chairperson of the Machine Tools/Electric Tools Division, responsible for production, quality management and sales of machine tools, “is using the internet for purchasing purposes. For a good five years now, catalogue orders for indirect materials have been processed electronically. By introducing a harmonised procurement platform in the group, while at the same time consolidating our vendor base, we have cut our procurement costs significantly – by more than 30 per cent in some merchandise categories.”

Trumpf’s managing director is also sceptical when it comes to a trading platform for machine tools, let alone online shopping: “ We don’t use the internet for selling machines, nor are we planning to do so in the future. Purchasing complex machinery, which our machine tools definitely are, is consultancy-intensive. Conceiving systems that meet customers’ individual requirements to optimum effect is a task where our experienced salespeople are simply indispensable.” And the relationship of mutual trust that field sales staff build up with their customers over what are often long years of consultancy and support, would hardly be possible via purely online contacts.

Nonetheless, the web will continue to be upgraded as a sales support tool. One option is interactive product configurators, that indicate which options and automation components go with which machine. Significant growth is anticipated for online sales of less consultancy-intensive products: “Our customer portal is already receiving plenty of hits, and for our service operations, in particular, is an indispensable medium.“

METAV + “wire” + “tube” – an ideal combination

Temper fraying, Fred Schlauberg abandons his internet search – he hasn’t found out very much, let alone found what he was looking for. Once again, he has to handle his rush order by improvising and “squeezing it in” with the machines he has available. But he does have one hope: the METAV 2008 in Düsseldorf is imminent, this time even in conjunction with two other trade fairs being held simultaneously: the “wire” – the international trade fair for wires an cables – and the “Tube” – the international trade fair for tubing and piping. A combined profile that matches his target group precisely.

A good thing he’s long since booked a hotel in Düsseldorf online for himself and his production team. This sort of sales over the internet works fine, after all. And at the real marketplace that is METAV 2008, Fred Schlauberg is now certain, he will also find the right machine for his needs.

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