‘Centreless Grinding is done with your eyes, ears and touch’
Text and image: Ronald Buitenhuis, Metaal & Techniek
“The Dutch metals market tends to be wary of large numbers,” observes Helmond Precisie BV founder and director Peter Heessels. And he should know. As one of Europe’s leading specialists in Centreless Grinding, those ‘large numbers’ are the lifeblood of his business, operating as it does in a single market, with few competitors and limited threats. Proof, if proof were needed: Helmond Precisie enjoyed double digit-growth throughout the financial crisis and has recently and necessarily acquired new, larger premises in the city that bears its name.
So what exactly is Centreless Grinding? Heessels takes time out from a recent tour of the factory to explain. Centreless Grinding is a circular operation in which a workpiece is laid or slid between two discs – rotary grinding wheels – using abrasive cutting to remove material from a workpiece. The speed of rotation of the two wheels, relative to each other, determines the rate at which that material is removed. The so-called control disk gives the workpiece speed; the grinding disc grinds the product. The distance between the two discs determines the piece’s ultimate size.
Heessels continues, “Centreless Grinding differs from Centred Grinding in that neither a spindle nor fixture is used to locate and secure the workpiece. “It is typically used in preference to other grinding processes for oper-ations where many parts must be processed in a short time.” The apparent simplicity of the process belies the equipment required in its application. The Helmond factory is home both to proven ‘vintage’ machines, and state-of-the-art equipment costing €100,000s.
Heessels says, “In reality, manufacturers of Centreless Grinding machines only make a few per year, because there is so little demand. So, development costs cannot be spread across large volumes of sales.” Consequently, many of the machines that Heessels bought from a bankrupt cycle parts firm way back in 1978 are still going strong. But Centreless Grinding is about so much more than technology alone. Human intervention is key.
Heessels explains, “Centreless Grinding is done with your eyes, ears and touch. We don’t use radios here. “You have to listen to the machines; to feel any vibrations.”
Bucking the trend
Prior to launching Helmond Precisie, Heessels enjoyed roles as Deputy Director at a machine factory, and as a buyer of metal and other products at Rank Xerox. ‘So I knew the metals market a bit,’ he says. And he was quick to identify a promising niche. He continues, ‘In The Netherlands, you have two or three specialists, alongside a handful of companies that have machines but for whom Centreless Grinding is not core business.’ With limited competition, and consistent demand, the company continued to enjoy a ‘golden’ period despite the recession; even in 2009, when the market was at an all-time low. The business has since consistently enjoyed double digit annual growth, begging the question: why aren’t more firms showing interest in what is clearly a lucrative market?
Heessels believes there are two reasons. He says, ‘On the one hand, the machines are very expensive. The financial barriers to entry are therefore high. In addition, as I mentioned, firms operating in the Dutch (metals) market tend to be leery of large numbers; of the volume which makes Centreless Grinding financially interesting. Rather, they focus on margin. This is not the case in, for example, Germany, where firms are largely un-fazed by high volumes.’
Realising this, the company shifted its focus from domestic sales to the German market in the early nineties, following attendance at the Hannover Messe (the premier international trade show for industrial technology). And it hasn’t looked back. By 2014, Germany represented 80% of the company’s turnover – a turnaround which bodes well for the future of Helmond Precisie, which now also trades with its eastern neighbours. There are other differences too. Heessels continues, “Traditionally, German manufacturers prefer to have everything under one roof.” Heessels says, “Centreless Grinding is just a small part of firms’ activities. And as those firms concentrate ever more closely on their core business, bowing to market pressure, they will increasingly out-source auxiliary functions, such as Centreless Grinding.” Of course there is some competition from certain low-wage countries. But it’s limited. Heessels says, “We are talking here about high-tech, low-level product tolerances. And steel is heavy, so you have to deal with high transport costs too. Bulk products with high tolerances – brackets for bicycles, for example – may be manufactured in low-wage countries. But for really high-grade precision work, customers come to us.” To this day, Heessels remains more enthusiastic about the fairs in Germany than those in – for example – Utrecht. He explains, “People come to the shows in The Netherlands, and pick up a load of leaflets which they often end up throwing away as soon as they get home (if not before). Germans on the other hand take the leaflets home and share the information with key decisionmakers in their companies.”
For axles, for instance, which are a mainstay of the company’s operations.
In particular, the company produces axles for electric motor manufacturer Miele, as well as shock absorbers for fire-fighting tools and shaft parts for ventilation systems.
It also sharpens axles for Volvo crankshafts, on behalf of German engineering company Hilite; and produces axle trays for baking ovens used in restaurants.
Heessels: “In systems such as ICT cooling, low tolerances are very important: if there is space on the shafts or bearings, you will immediately experience noise and vibration.” But sometimes, it seems, sheer good fortune – being in the right place at the right time – is all that’s needed to get through a crisis. Heessels says, “When the market was at its lowest point, we received a large order for axles for fans for a departure hall at an airport in Korea, which had been tasked to cut its energy consumption by 30%. Increased demand for products from our factory often comes from companies that are looking to create new products; businesses that are innovating to regain market share. We are well-placed to support these firms. The fact that they choose Helmond has much to do with word-of-mouth advertising. “We don’t have to focus too much on customer acquisition. It is simply known within the market that – if a project involves large numbers of sharpened shafts – Helmond Precisie is the right choice.”
The future – Competitive advantage
At 64 years of age, Heessel has few concerns about the future, with his successor already in post: his daughter, Loes. Laughing, he says, ‘Loes is already working here, and revenues are better than ever.’ The growth in 3D metal printing doesn’t really affect us, as it is not interesting for large numbers.” Nor is plastic a threat. ‘Injection moulding produces rough tolerances; these axles have to be sharpened again. And that’s what the machines we have here can do.’ And the competition? ‘Not a major concern,’ says Heessels. ‘Competitive techniques simply cannot handle large volumes of centreless tubes. We do not need CNC machines, because nothing needs to be adjusted. If, for example, tapered products are to be made, we simply adjust the grinding stones; that’s it.’ The future may be bright. But Heessels is not one to rest on his laurels. He warns, ‘You have no idea where threats can come from. When I started, you still had typewriters, which are no longer available. And look at the rapid development of GSM. No one can predict with certainty the way a market is going. For the time being, however, with 1.5 million axles being shipped from the Helmond factory each year, Heessel is confident of Helmond’s continued upward trajectory.’
And as Heessels and his colleagues mark their first 50 years in the industry, the company’s portfolio can only grow – reinforcing its reputation as the leading provider of Centreless Grinding services in The Netherlands and beyond.