Schmoll Keeping an Eye on the Future--and on LDI
Thomas Kunz, at the helm of Schmoll Maschinen, GmbH as president since 1993, discusses the company’s lengthy history, current scope, and what he sees as a steady progression in directions that make sense to customers.
Barry Matties: What year did you start your business?
Thomas Kunz: Schmoll is a company with long tradition in mechanical engineering, founded in 1943. I took it over in '93. Ever since, we try to be a good, reliable and owner-driven enterprise. Basically we are marketing world-wide. All together, we have 10,000+ installations in the market and every year we add another 500 to 600.
We entered the Asian market in the late '90s and had to build up an image there, and we also built up our own marketing force. Unlike many other companies, we supply direct service, maintenance, installation, project management, and sales with about 200 people on our payroll.
Matties: When you started your organization primarily with drilling equipment, yes?
Kunz: Yes, that's our main business—drilling and routing.
Matties: Now you're bringing some direct imaging equipment to the market. Have you been working on this for some time?
Kunz: It is part of a bigger plan, where we set up a new department for optical technologies, which also includes laser drilling and cutting equipment.
We can see that the market for drilling and routing is nice, but we see developments happening much faster in other areas. We understand ourselves as a registration company, which today includes drilling, routing, X-ray, post-etch punch and before said laser machines.
We see the laser direct imaging as a natural follow-up of that, especially considering that we have quite some experience in the imaging part, as represented by Bacher, which is part of our group.
LDI requires different machines than traditional ones. We decided to develop these machines in Schmoll, and we took advantage of the guys that had application knowledge in Bacher, and so we put it together.
Matties: Is automation an issue for you in China?
Kunz: In general, yes. Specifically in drilling, I'm not so sure because automation is used in the Western market mainly to go overnight, and not to save idle times and such. In that case automation is just calculated against the manpower cost, and I'm not so sure this will be interesting in China—that's number one.
There's a second reason why this is questionable, which is that China's market works with adapter plates. They turn their own reference onto the machine, which is only possible manually, and if they want to go for automation they would have to change that. They would have to go for pinned and stacked panels, and this may be some kind of engineering job that some of the companies don't want to do and don't want to risk.
Matties: Now that you have the LDI coming in, what's next for you? Where do you take the company?
Kunz: It’s enough for now. The optical product range has some further developments that are enough for us for the next 3–4 years, so I think we would like to accomplish that first. We don't want to push too aggressively into that market. We look for the customers that fit with us. We have references already in the European market, and now we will start to make references in the other areas.
The optical product range is a strategic project and we would like to be good partner for our customers rather than exploit all worldwide chances that the market offers.
Matties: Are you doing any of your manufacturing in China?
Kunz: No, all manufacturing is still in Germany.
Matties: Do you see a point where you're going to need to?
Kunz: Not excluded, but we have this discussion every year on Christmas, for the past 12 years, and every time we have answered the question 'no.' But it doesn't mean that the same answer will be given next year.
Matties: What are the criteria for you to say yes?
Kunz: On one hand, you could imagine that manufacturing in China could lead to reduced cost. On the other hand, there is counter-cost. One counter-cost is, I think we cannot do this with the same amount of people we use now, so it must turn back with more turnover, which we feel is not so easy.
Of course, you get closer to the market, but then you also need all engineering talents in the market. And finally, we see that the market is going into more segments: bigger machines, smaller machines, this and that. This needs quite a bit of development. To pass over this development into China is another step that is too difficult for us. For the time being, we feel that you can go into this market if you have a standardized product that you will be running for some time, and the trend right now is a little bit against that.
When we discussed the subject five years ago, we thought the supplier market was not ready for us. When we discuss it today, the supplier market is much more ready for it, but we see other obstacles. This means that is has to be reviewed every year, once again.
Matties: How many people do you have in your company now?
Kunz: We have 400, all together. 200 people in Germany, and another 200 in Asia. So far we had profitable years, we never lost money, but we know which dedication is needed for such sustainable situation.
Matties: Anything else you'd like to add?
Kunz: Only that we try to be a company that wants to be a long-term reliable partner, trustworthy, and this is how we have always been. Of course, no company can promise to be in the market forever, but I think we have quite a good chance to also be a reliable partner in some years from now, and maybe for some decades.
Matties: Thomas, thank you so much for spending time today.