Wood, water and a tradition of iron working all come together in the village of Oberkochen, 100km east of Stuttgart. This is the home of the company known throughout the world as Leitz GmbH & Co KG.
When he founded his company in a small workshop here in 1876, Albert Leitz could surely have had no idea of what was to develop from his hand craft, and water powered machinery, with which he produced tools for the extensive woodworking industry growing up in this richly forested area of Germany.
Early products for Mr Leitz were hand tools such as drills, knives and axes. Tools for water-powered machines soon followed and then, with the advent of electrically powered machines, new demands were placed on tools in terms of wear and stress.
Now the family-owned Leitz business claims to be the world’s largest supplier of tools for the wood and wood-related market, offering a vast range of tungsten carbide and diamond tipped tools, some of which even carry memory chips.
“Our core business was always in wood and wood products,says Christoph Bollinger, managing director with responsibility for sales and marketing. “We have production facilities in Germany, Austria, Italy, Finland, France, Belgium, the UK, Turkey, Brazil, the US and China and 180 service stations [sharpening and repair centres] worldwide. That is why we say we are ‘globally localised’.The Brazilian office, opened in 1979, was the group’s first venture outside Europe.
“The company’s turnover amounts to a total of more than €500m, 50% of which is in the woodworking and 50% in the metal working sectors and we employ over 6,000 people,says Mr Bollinger.
The Leitz Group specialises in machine tools for processing wood and panels, as well as plastics, and has many subsidiaries. It employs around 3,500 people.
The holding company is the Leitz Association and the Leitz Group forms one of two divisions of the Association. The other is Leitz Metalworking Technology (LMT) GmbH & Co KG, also based in Oberkochen. Under LMT there is Böhlerit GesmbH & Co KG, the Austrian tungsten carbide development pioneer, Fette GmbH near Hamburg, Kieninger GmbH in the Black Forest, Bilz GmbH & Co near Stuttgart, Onsrud Cutter LP in Libertyville, US and Belin Yvon SA in France. This group of companies is mainly active in the metal processing tool side of the business
and employs more than 3,000 people.
However, the two sides of the Leitz Association do not act entirely independently, but exploit the synergies of their different operations at regular meetings.
Mr Bollinger describes the CNC market as a fast-developing branch of the industry and Leitz has one factory in Germany dedicated to this sector. It has also diversified into the machining of plastic materials and insulation products such as Rockwool, in response to demand, and as a result of its expertise in wood and metals.
“Laminate flooring gave a turbo-boost to the flooring division and a lot of the tools used today for machining it were developed by us. We are quite possibly number one in that industry today,said Mr Bollinger. “The processing of every type of panel is becoming more and more important.”
The changing demands of raw materials, mechanisation and ever-increasing cutting speeds mean that research and development has always been a vital area for Leitz and it has three R&D centres – two in Germany and one in Austria, with the largest being at Oberkochen.
Investment in R&D accounts for more than 5% of total sales revenues and the Leitz Association has over 300 patents and registered designs to its name.
One could be forgiven for thinking that it would be difficult to display Leitz’s products in an exciting way – after all they are ‘only’ cutting tools. However, a visit to the company’s technical centre at Oberkochen would soon change your mind.
A four-screen multi-media presentation takes you through the historical and the present day position of Leitz. Meanwhile, tools such as saw blades, router cutters, tongue and grooving cutters, drill bits and myriad other devices are exhibited in static displays with the raw material they are intended to machine. Clever lighting of these displays shows off the tools to best effect. Each display is dominated by a flat screen video of the tools in action, which also shows close-ups of the tool profiles.
The display of tools for machining laminate flooring begins with diamond-tipped circular saw blades to rip-saw the panels into planks. These are followed by up to 10 machining heads – five on each side – depending on the intricacy of the profile. For instance, ‘click-fit’ T&G profiles require more heads to machine their complicated shapes than do simple T&G sections.
“We use poly-crystalline diamond on most of these cutters, with mono-crystalline diamond on the final heads, to get a smooth edge on the hard laminate surface, where finish is very important,explains Jürgen Graef, head of Leitz R&D.
“We do a lot of basic research on cutting materials – coating knives and blades with different types of tungsten carbide for example and testing on various materials,he says. “We also do research in other areas such as designing tools for noise reduction and studying chip movements by using perspex hoods over test cutters.They have also developed a polished foil for covering the faces of circular saw blades to reduce noise and give a smoother finish.
The dust from products such as laminate flooring can be very abrasive and if it is not removed effectively it will shorten the life of the machining heads. Thus Leitz supplies the tools and hoods as a system. For the same reason it is also important to move the dust away from the cutting edge effectively and this is where the Leitz ‘i-System’ comes into play. It is a dust flow control system in which the tools have a special gullet and, literally, cutting edge technology, to guide the chips away from the cutting area to the exhaust system. This exhaust system is not responsible for drawing the chips away from the cutting edge – its role is purely in transporting them from the cutting area of the machine as they are expelled by the gullet.
Computer aided design systems (CAD) are used to produce the tools and Leitz works with universities, institutions, machine makers and its customers in developing new products.
Many of its tools today are held in place in the cutting head by a hydraulic clamping system which the company claims gives high machining accuracy combined with the facility for rapid tool change.
The ‘Tool Information Management Software System’ is another development employing what it calls “intelligent toolsin multi-head CNC routing operations.
The benefits claimed for the system are the rapid relocation of tools, automated procurement of them, on-time scheduling of the required tools, control of tool costs and reduction of tool stocks, tool life checks and increased machine availability.
Each tool carries a memory chip with data concerning its length, diameter, maximum revolution speed and optimum rpm. Obviously some of these factors change after sharpening so it is possible to change the data on the chip at this time.
The CNC machine is equipped to read this chip and know what kind of tool it is and what its precise parameters are. There are several components to this system, including measuring and set-up devices, the intelligent tools with their data chips, tool information management and Leitz’s integrated service concept.
“We sold a Tool Information Management System to a furniture manufacturer in Germany and cut their tooling costs by one third,recalls Mr Bollinger. “In diamond tooling that meant they quickly recouped the cost of the system!”
Many tools begin life as a cylinder of solid steel. Various diameters of special steels are sourced from all over the world and a blank is cross-cut from the cylinder. It is then milled, ground, shaped and drilled in machines which are CNC controlled from the CAD offices above the factory floor to produce the final machine tool body. Tungsten carbide or diamond tips are soldered to the tools in a special process.
For sharpening diamond tipped tools, spark erosion under a liquid electrolyte is used and wire spark erosion in electrolyte for simultaneous cutting and sharpening of some diamond tipped tools. Finished tools are checked on the profile checker.
Instant communication and remote service are essential in today’s fast-moving business environment and Leitz employs new media in the form of its SOLNET system. This is a package providing online customer access to its consulting services and can be used by Leitz engineers to communicate with customers and find solutions to their problems rapidly. Replacement tools can also be ordered for quick delivery on the system.
Albert Leitz would certainly be confused by such high-tech developments as intelligent tools and online service. He would however, still recognise the wood machining business on which the Leitz Association of today is heavily based. And he would almost certainly approve of his company’s tag line and see his place in its origin: ‘Shaping the future for over 125 years’.