Individualisation and digitisation in traditional mechanical engineering

From a family firm to the global market leader – an impressive story written in the last 55 years by the Feintool Group. With around 2,000 employees, the technology company is a global leader in the development of fineblanking systems and the production of pre-finished fineblanking and forming components for sophisticated industries, in particular the automotive industry. With offices in Europe, Japan, China and the USA, Feintool is represented in the key automotive markets around the world. 

In the following interview, Dr Stefan Etzold, Head of Global Sales and Marketing at Feintool Technologie AG, tells us how he views modularisation and its effects, and the digitisation of the sales process.

Dr Etzold, as a mechanical engineer, how do you deal with individual customer requirements?

Firstly, just to make things clear, at Feintool we see ourselves as a technology company, not as a mechanical engineering company. In fact, we have outsourced some of the actual construction of the presses. But back to your question: We have basic product lines within a modular system that allows all individual customer requirements to be met. 

How do you handle the conflict between standardisation and individualisation?

As I mentioned at the beginning, we address the needs of our clients via a portfolio of machine series with various performance classes. The customer-specific requirements usually involve additional options, automation, and interfaces, i.e. the integration of the machines in the customer's process chain.

What role do modular product systems and variant management play?

Thinking in terms of modular systems plays an important role for us. Like the automotive industry, we are pursuing a platform strategy. The core modules of our new machines are largely standardised and follow a modular philosophy. We tend to customise products using platform-based modular variants. And when talking to the customer, we try to address their individual requirements with our existing solutions wherever possible and to convince them about the associated advantages such as cost effectiveness. 

Our customer offers thus consist first and foremost of good quality advice and the implementation of their requirements via our modular systems with defined standards.

Is the importance of variant management increasing for Feintool? 

Absolutely. Despite the trend towards globalisation, the needs of our customers are very different depending on their culture and country. We take this into consideration, for example, with our own press line for Asia, which we build in Japan.

What challenges does implementation of the modular philosophy present?

We still have some differing press lines and concepts that we have inherited from the past. The streamlining of the product portfolio and the transferral to standard platforms involve high costs and personnel expenses. But we at Feintool are convinced that this will pay off in the long run.

What are the advantages of modularisation for the customer? Is it possible to measure the effects?

I can best explain this with a simple example. For one machine series, we were actually able to reduce installation times by 20% thanks to intelligent modularisation. This has two positive effects. On the one hand, it significantly reduces installation costs. On the other hand, we achieve a much shorter delivery time. This is, of course, a great advantage for our customers.

Dr Etzold, has Feintool felt the trend towards digitisation in sales of fineblanking presses at all?

Here as well, the answer is “yes”. The key areas here are: presentation and animation techniques, product configurators, and last but not least our e-shop for spare parts and the linking of the presses to our maintenance network for preventive maintenance and customer support.

Is it the customer that is putting on the pressure? What form does this take?

Yes, but to varying degrees. Our customers expect answers to their requests today, almost in real time. Long consultation and clarification processes are absolutely unacceptable. In Asia, which has been a main focus of my work for a long time, this is particularly noticeable. Some customers even prefer to configure our machines themselves on the internet.

As regards the possibilities presented by the new technologies, our sales effort involves showing the customers the opportunities and benefits provided by our new products and services. 

Are the sales requirements for the Asian and European markets different?

I don't think that the requirements are fundamentally different. It is more the case that the individuals have a different level of digital maturity. When I look at our customer relationships in large parts of Asia and especially in China, the people involved – both on the selling and on the buying side – are typically under 40 years of age. This user group prefers digital means of communication and quite simply expects well-functioning tools at the customer/supplier interface. In Central Europe, the people involved are not quite as advanced in this respect due to a different age structure. 

Apart from being modern – does digitisation offer any real benefits?

It certainly does. Here again, the “lead time” is crucial. With the appropriate tools for configuration and quotation we can quickly provide customers in Asia with the right offer on the spot. Time-consuming inquiries to the central sales office are no longer necessary. Here it is also crucial that the “right” data are available immediately. In Asia I have personally experienced at first hand the uncomfortable feeling when you cannot quickly provide the customer with what they require. 

Do you see any additional benefits?

Another effect we can achieve with the configurator is the training of employees – and in particular those who work away from the head office. We can convey knowledge about new products and new features much faster in the field using the configurator. Especially younger colleagues use the configurator to familiarise themselves with the new products. The quality of the product knowledge available in the sales organisations thus increases significantly.

And finally, the inevitable question regarding “Industry 4.0.” Have you already noticed any effects of digitisation in your business?

You may already be aware of our new “fine monitoring” solution. We are now able to equip our fineblanking presses with a system for online monitoring. The system collects various operating parameters and uses intelligent analyses to reduce downtime and malfunctions in the machines. We are thus already able to provide customers with services that can significantly increase the productivity of their machinery. 

Do customers already make use of these offers? How do you see the development?

The solution has been very well received by our clients. Use of this additional digital service is in its infancy, however we expect a significant increase. Especially because we can already provide references that show significant productivity gains. 

Dr Etzold, many thanks for speaking with us.

Biography: Dr Stefan Etzold is Head of Global Sales and Marketing at Feintool Technologie AG and Executive Director at Feintool Shanghai