Now Hindrichs-Auffermann was part of one of the two world-class producers of stainless steel transport and press belts, able to offer the complete range of products from the plain stainless steel belt up to the decorative end of the business. The decorative surface panel market is one which has continued to increase in size and consumer appeal as paper-based decorative surfaces have become ever more popular and sophisticated. The last two years have seen particularly high investment at the Ennepetal factory in realising lean manufacturing production, which has resulted in an increase in production capacity and reduced delivery time for press plates and endless press belts. On the endless press belt side of the business, in 2006 the company qualified a new steel grade for use in the belts after extensive testing, switching to 1100 and 1150 SMD stainless steel. It also improved its welding technique by modifications to the control systems.
The raw material for the belts is supplied by Sandvik as a coil and is then fully processed at Ennepetal. This involves levelling, grinding, texturing if required, polishing and hard chrome plating by a specialist company in Switzerland. "The lifetime of our belts has increased from one to one and a half million metres of laminating three years ago to four to five million metres now, due to improved belt material and welding, but also to better training of our customers in the care of the belts," said Dr Alfons Böhm, global sales and marketing manager for Hindrichs-Auffermann since last January. "We offer belt maintenance training to our customers covering care, installation and maintenance of the belt, as well as carrying out repairs in good time before the belt is irreparably damaged," He said. "This improves customer relations, although you could say it reduces demand for belts," he added half-jokingly. Unlike belts used in panel production of course these textured belts cannot be patched, but slight damage can sometimes be trimmed off.
Textured belts do collect deposits during the pressing process and Hindrichs-Auffermann offers its customers a cleaning and refurbishment service at Ennepetal. So what does the future hold for the textured belt business? "We are seeing increasing demand from some customers for belts with deeper, rougher textures and we are carrying out a lot of developments on this front," said Dr Böhm. "The technical challenge is being solved, together with our customers and the machinery suppliers, because deeper textures require higher pressing pressures. We hope to bring this to market during 2007." The importance of the textured belt business to Hindrichs-Auffermann is brought home by the fact that today 40% of sales are in that market, 40% in press plates and 20% in service and minor products. In the early 90s, plates accounted for 80% of turnover. In plates for short-cycle pressing, Hindrichs-Auffermann offers 900 textures (it offers about 400 in belts). Plates do have one strong advantage, which is that the capital investment is less than an endless press belt for the continuous process, although it depends on the production process.
Another advantage of press plates is that they can be re-textured several times, while belts can’t. However, the advantage of endless press belts is essential when it comes to high-volume production. Registered embossing in synchronisation with the printed decor paper pattern is increasingly popular, especially in wood grain-effect laminate flooring, and Hindrichs-Auffermann is increasing its capacity for such plates in the coming year. "We develop our textures, partly together with the printers of the decor papers, and try to match textures to the printed images. It can take several months to develop a new texture, including the production of a lot of samples," explained Dr Böhm. Hand-scraped textures with an eye-catching deep and rough surface, which have uses in the flooring industry, are increasingly sought by Hindrichs-Auffermann’s customers.
Wood grain designs are by far the biggest sellers, but the company also offers Stone, Tile, Smooth, Pearl, Stipple, Alu, Grass and Grafic (fantasy) textures. "We have developed a computer software system where we can combine different textures with decor papers, define the gloss level and depth of texture and show it all on screen. It is designed to cut development time and offer a wider range of possibilities. You can’t actually feel the surface on a screen of course, but at least it narrows the range of choice," said Dr Böhm. The software is known as computer aided texture development, or CATD. "We can scan textures down to an accuracy of two microns and one can actually see a difference of two to four microns so that really affects the appearance of a decor." In North America, Hindrichs-Auffermann/Sandvik have offices in Guelph near Toronto in Canada, and in Totowa near New York and Chicago in the US. A new sales manager for South America was appointed in November to increase activities and services there. In Asia, the focus is China with a sales office and local refurbishing service in Shanghai, but for the other Asia-Pacific regions the company also has offices and representatives all over the continent.
"We deliver to 112 countries at present," said Dr Böhm. "Hindrichs-Auffermann’s vision and philosophy for the coming years is not to be seen only as a seller of press plates and endless press belts but as a producer and seller of textured surfaces which give character to the product."