“70 percent of the parts produced on our machines are for e-mobility”

Schwäbische Werkzeugmaschinen GmbH is positioned for the future with system solutions and digital business models.

Due to the digital transformation, e-mobility, larger components and smaller quantities, machine tool manufacturing is facing enormous challenges and must adapt to changing customer requirements. Schwäbische Werkzeugmaschinen GmbH (SW) demonstrates how this can be done successfully. It has been working towards this change for years. The pillars of its success are complete system solutions, digital business models and an early focus on e-mobility.

“Thanks to the order backlog from 2021 and the extremely high order intake in the first quarter of 2022, we have made a very good start to the current financial year,” Markus Schmolz, Commercial Managing Director of SW, reads from the current figures. The company, which is headquartered in Waldmössingen, Germany, develops and produces high-precision machine tools with customised automation solutions. The growth is not spontaneous, but is driven by megatrends. “At least 70 percent of the parts produced on our new machines are for e-mobility,” explains Stefan Weber, Managing Director of Production & Technology at SW. “We also see very great potential in this market in the future.”

Over nearly 30 years, SW has secured a firm place for itself worldwide as an equipment supplier to automotive suppliers, the so-called Tier1 and Tier2. In this context, the company has traditionally been regarded as a specialist for large-scale production of 10,000 parts a year or more. SW’s multi-spindle machine tools are unique because they produce up to four parts simultaneously with the highest precision. Components like the ABS valve block for brakes also have a future in electric cars. The situation is different for many hundreds of components that have so far been needed for combustion engines and transmissions. For years, SW has been supporting suppliers with newly developed machines to set up additional production lines parallel to existing production. This enables suppliers to begin to manufacture components for electromobility in smaller quantities.

New machines for e-mobility at the right time

“Between the two axes, electric cars require complex battery housings that are up to two metres and longer,” says Stefan Weber, describing the challenge. That’s why SW has developed machining centres that can process workpieces up to three metres long. “With electric cars, every kilogram of weight saved increases the range, which is why manufacturers rely on light metals and alloys.” This is also an advantage of SW, because in addition to a machine series for machining steel and cast iron, the company has a complete family for machining non-ferrous metals in its portfolio. “We were the first manufacturer to consistently use linear drives and therefore offer the fastest machining centres on the market,” says Weber. Every second saved in machining saves production costs.

One success story is the supplier of the battery housings for the Mercedes EQE and EQS series. This supplier worked with SW to implement the complete production process of the battery housings on an SW machine. “The component is very demanding technically and requires complex automation,” Stefan Weber recalls.

From machine to system supplier

About ten years ago, SW management made the decision to offer more than just machining centres. “Our customers often don’t have the capacity to plan their production systems in detail themselves, to programme interfaces, and to coordinate different suppliers,” says Stefan Weber. In 2014, after several joint projects, SW therefore purchased the automation specialist bartsch in Tettnang, now SW Automation. “This enables us to offer our customers single-shift production solutions from a single source, from single machines with integrated robots and workpiece storage to complete production lines with interlinked machines,” emphasises the Managing Director of Production & Technology.

Configuring and commissioning such systems requires a great deal of know-how as early as the planning stage. SW specialists can simulate the entire production process in advance, including material flow and robotics, and calculate the cycle times and even the subsequent unit costs. The trend is currently moving away from rigidly linked machines for large-scale production towards more flexible systems for smaller quantities. In SW’s flexible cells, entire component families with up to 20 variants can be produced fully automatically.

The newly developed single-spindle machining centres for components of various sizes are also being used more and more frequently. They also economically cover batch sizes of less than 10,000 pieces per year. This is interesting, for example, for numerous newcomers to e-mobility who first have to build up production capacities for machining. They can start with a self-sufficient cell for small series and then scale up production to larger quantities together with SW. Industries such as medical technology also use these systems for the production of implants, surgical instruments or components for medical devices.

Digital business models  

Since 2003, many years before the term Industry 4.0 became popular, SW has been collecting and analysing machine data from production and using it to generate added value for customers. More than 2,600 SW machines are now networked with SW’s Industrial Data Services (IDS). With the help of this operating data, software specialists in the IDS department can, for example, optimise processes and ensure shorter cycle times. SW also uses the data to ensure the traceability of the components, which is an increasingly important requirement. This means that at any time, manufacturers of cars or medical technology can trace when the components were processed, on which machines, and how.

Another advantage, especially in recent years, is that SW service technicians can connect to the machines and robots via a secure connection and read out error messages if problems arise. They can resolve many errors from their workstations via software. This saves travel time and customers can resume production more quickly. “We are continuing to expand the IDS department, our interface between machine technology and information technology, and are continuously developing further digital business models,” Stefan Weber affirms.

Twentyfold increase in revenue – investments in training 

Economically, the company’s decisions have proven to be right. SW began as a spin-off from the Heckler & Koch Group with 125 employees in 1995. Today, the company employs more than 1,200 Technology People worldwide and has increased its revenue more than twentyfold. During the pandemic, the company did not cut any jobs, but kept the core team completely on board. In addition, the company is investing heavily in training the next generation of Technology People. “We have a training quota of more than ten percent and train skilled workers in numerous professions,” Markus Schmolz comments. To achieve this, SW will start building a new training centre at its headquarters in Waldmössingen, Germany next year. SW also utilizes the German training model in its plants in China and the USA. “We also actively promote the exchange of trainees and dual students,” Markus Schmolz explains the international approach. Such an exchange has been established with the USA for several years, and it is firmly planned for China.

“We work in a very flat hierarchy and transfer responsibility quickly,” emphasises the Commercial Managing Director. “We all have a passion for technology and the ambition to offer our customers the best solutions, which is why we call ourselves Technology People,” he smiles.

Markus Schmolz
Commercial Managing Director

Stefan Weber
Managing Director Production & Technology

Glocalisation: At home worldwide

Even though the company headquarters on the edge of the Black Forest is not located in a metropolitan region, SW is a global player with an export share of more than 80 percent. The two Managing Directors agree that serving the large markets of Asia and North America only from Germany cannot work. SW already opened a manufacturing plant in Suzhou, China in 2016. Around 300 employees assemble machines and production systems there. The capacity of this plant is currently being doubled because SW is achieving the highest growth rates in Asia. The company has also set up a plant in the USA. “We talk about glocalisation, and we use the opportunity of global markets with local resources,” Stefan Weber emphasises. Proximity enables SW to react more flexibly to regional customer requirements and deliver faster through local supply chains. In addition, SW has established subsidiaries in Mexico, France, Italy, Poland and, most recently, Hungary to serve local customers and meet regional requirements.

SW – The Leader in Smart Manufacturing Solutions

In the 28th year of the company’s history, SW remains on the move and intends to continue evolving. The vision is: SW – The Leader in Smart Manufacturing Solutions. “We are moving even more consistently in the direction of system supplier and digital service provider,” Markus Schmolz outlines the strategic orientation. On the product side, the company is focusing on further expanding the modularity of the machines’ hardware and software. At the same time, SW is pushing ahead with the digitalisation and connectivity of its solutions and further expanding its digital business models. “Our success is shaped by the commitment and know-how of our employees,” emphasises Stefan Weber. “We are focusing on sustainable growth through innovation and will expand capacities once again with a new technology centre here in Waldmössingen.”