“We followed the parts”
What do you do when you lose a big order? Move to a region where potential customers are located! That’s what LST president Ludger Meier was thinking and so he set up a new site right in the heart of the German automobile industry.
Hövelhof and Schwäbisch Gmünd are 450 kilometers apart. Why did you found a second plant so far to the south?
Ludger Meier: We acquired a 3D laser machine for Hövelhof. It had been developed especially for us and, at the time, was our largest single investment. We used it to cut large bodywork panels for the automotive industry. We lost orders when one of our customers went bankrupt. The machine was not being used to capacity with the remaining jobs, which is why we determined where the orders had actually gone. That turned out to be southern Germany. Th is led to us thinking it might be a good idea to move the machine — in search of the lost orders. We had already contemplated moving to the Stuttgart metropolitan area since so many automobile manufacturers are based there. In actual fact we intended to rent factory premises but couldn’t find anything suitable. That is why we decided to have our own plant built. Production commenced in June 2005. The initial floor area was 1,500 square meters — and today we have already expanded to 6,000 square meters.
Being so close to the customer means enormous investments and harbors a high risk. How did you cope with this?
Ludger Meier: I really thought we had enough orders to make a start, but things didn’t always go exactly as planned. For example, I knew the CEO of an Austrian company that we used to supply from Hövelhof. And when we moved south he said, “I’ll give you enough work to run one machine at full capacity”. Today he is no longer the company’s president and he never fully utilized the machine. Naturally you have to deal with setbacks like this. What’s more, I thought to myself, if I use a compass to draw a circle with a radius of 100 kilometers, with Schwäbisch Gmünd in the center, that circle would include Audi, Porsche, BMW and Mercedes. I had high expectations, but our customers turned out to be the manufacturers’ suppliers. And actually, our next door neighbor then fed us with plenty of orders. He used to purchase the parts from a supplier located 100 kilometers away. We were able to score by being so close.
How did you ensure that the standards achieved in the north were transferred to the south?
Ludger Meier: I only took this risk because I found people who were prepared to move down here. It was important to transfer to the south all the expertise that we had amassed up north over the years. This was possible only with qualified staff. I have an excellent employee in our current plant manager Waldemar Makowski. He had acquired experience in machine operation, programming and jig manufacturing. And he was prepared to move here with his future wife.
Waldemar Makowski: I asked for two weeks to think about it. Then we looked to see whether we could imagine living down here at all. As far as mentalities go, people from the eastern part of Westphalia get on quite well with the folks in Swabia, so we decided to give it a go. And today we feel right at home here.
Nonetheless a courageous decision …
Waldemar Makowski: I said to myself: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. What can go wrong if you can move back north again? And it was always clear that we could return to Hövelhof if things didn’t worked out here. In hindsight, it has been worthwhile and everything is running smoothly. But things were tough at the beginning, of course — both in private life and in terms of the business.
Ludger Meier: Together with Mr. Makowski, a machine operator, a jig maker and a programmer moved here. They covered all the disciplines needed to manufacture faultless components. Bids, shipping notes and invoices continued to be issued from Hövelhof, however. Today this location is autonomous, the exception is accounting.
What is the reason for this clear separation?
Ludger Meier: The main reason was the ability to respond swiftly. And it’s not such a bad idea to have a salesman who speaks the broad Swabian dialect. He will be able to create rapport sooner than somebody from Westphalia.
Is there a big difference in customer structures at the two locations?
Ludger Meier: Yes, at Schwäbisch Gmünd 99 percent of our work is for the automotive industry. In Hövelhof we deal with all kinds of industries and products. They include farm equipment builders, housings for controls and computers, rolling stock, the furniture industry, shipbuilding and equipment construction. I think it’s important not to be overly dependent on one customer or one industry. This is something I have always taken to heart. As a rule, the mix of sectors we serve tends to level out the usual seasonal fluctuations and the ups and downs experienced by certain industries.
What is the difference between the parts manufactured by LST South and LST North?
Ludger Meier: Down here in the south we produce small batches and prototypes and supply the spare parts trade. At our main plant we use our 3D laser machines to manufacture large volumes — up to 350,000 items a year. There are ten machines there that cut long production runs such as B pillars. Moreover, producing assemblies enjoys a high ranking at the factory in the north. This means there is a pronounced tendency towards 2D laser cutting: bending, milling, joining and processing tubes with the laser.
You use TRUMPF machines at both locations. Why?
Ludger Meier: We started working with TRUMPF more than 25 years ago. Back then I set myself up in business together with a partner. We thought to ourselves: “Laser cutting. That seems to be the key to the future !” So we rang up TRUMPF and two days later told their representative that the two of us wanted to buy a laser machine. A handshake sealed the deal for our first unit. The sales manager at that time said: “We need young people like you. If you have any trouble getting a loan for the machine, then we’ll take it back. It won’t cost you a penny.” Since then TRUMPF has always been a reliable partner.
What plans do you have for these two successful LST locations?
Ludger Meier: I would like LST to continue to be a family business in the future. My son Florian joined us last January. He wrote his final paper at TRUMPF on the subject of joining and he gained huge amounts of experience while he was working in the welding laboratory there.
Does this mean that LST is contemplating laser welding?
Florian Meier: Technologically, this would naturally be the next logical step for us to take. But it means teaching our customers a great deal. Laser welding is a relatively new process. We know its advantages but frequently our customers are still unaware of the many things it can do. They design their parts conventionally and continue to think in conventional terms and have yet to realize the potential it holds.
Contact us: MastersofSheetMetal@trumpf.com
This article war first published in winter 2014.