It has been a good year for GROB. The company has won a series of prestigious awards from automotive manufacturers and debuted cutting-edge machine tools and related equipment. The family-owned company, based in Mindelheim, Germany, designs and builds machine tools, manufacturing systems, and industrial software, and offers extensive customer support and training.
GROB maintains manufacturing facilities in Germany, the United States, China, Brazil, and Italy and has a worldwide network of sales and service centers. “All production facilities more or less build the same products for their local markets,” explains Doug Schroeder, process engineering manager for GROB Systems, Inc., the Bluffton, Ohio-based American branch of the company.
“We basically [cover] four different areas in the United States. The biggest one would be what we call our systems business, which is geared towards automotive. For some customers, we supply full turnkey systems. They give us a drawing, a model and production requirements, and we come back with a complete solution,” states Derek Schroeder, universal machines sales supervisor at GROB Systems. “The entire system is designed and built here in Bluffton.” Derek is not related to Doug, despite having the same last name.
A complete solution might include machining centers connected to various manufacturing equipment. In addition to car companies, work vehicle manufacturers and aerospace customers use such systems.
Universal machining centers are another big part of the company’s business. These products are “the same, at the core, as [the machine tools] in the systems’ business, but are adapted to be more universal, more flexible, and more user-friendly for smaller shops producing lower quantities. These machines are all built locally. We started building them in 2018 in the United States,” says Derek. Aerospace, automotive, medical, and mold and die industries are the primary markets for the 5-axis universal machines.
The company’s systems business and universal machining center segments “complement each other well,” says Doug. “A customer can get both a low-volume, prototyping machine and a high-volume, massive output machine.”
Electro mobility, or e-mobility, is the company’s third-biggest market. Its work in this area is focused on electric motors, batteries, and fuel cells for electric and hybrid vehicles.
“A couple of years ago, we saw the market shifting. If you’re a machine tool builder that specializes in metal-cutting and assembly systems for mostly the automotive market and you see a shift in Europe away from internal combustion engines (ICEs) towards more electric and more of a push in China [toward electric], the writing’s on the wall. We invested quite a bit of money internally into making separate departments that specialized in the development of hairpin machines, which is a type of high-output electric drive motor,” says Doug.
Services rendered for this segment include rotor assembly, mechatronics, motor and gearbox housing production, and stator – the stationary part of an electric motor – assembly. GROB’s parent company recently purchased an Italian firm called DMG meccanica, which specializes in insertion and winding systems for stator production. This has grown into GROB Italy.
Its fourth main segment can be categorized as “pure assembly technology,” says Doug. This involves developing assembly stations and lines that are customized to client specifications.
The company launched new products at the EMO 2019 trade show in Hannover, Germany, earlier this year. Prominent among these product introductions were its new entry-level 5-axis machining centers. “It’s a machine that’s lower cost, but still with a high level of technology,” says Derek, of the equipment aimed at “customers coming into 5-axis who don’t need the full solution for everything.”
It also presented the PSS-L linear pallet system, which can feed up to five machining centers, at the show.
GROB Systems’ parent company is rapidly approaching its centenary. GROB-Werke was founded in Germany by Dr. Ernst Grob in 1926. The corporate reins passed to his son, Dr. Burkhart Grob, in 1952. At present, it is run by Christian Grob, the founder’s grandson.
Through hard work, GROB-Werke expanded its global presence. In the early 1980s, it established a sales and service office in Bluffton, Ohio, to look after the American market. Sales were strong, and within a decade, the Bluffton branch took on new responsibilities.
“As the U.S. market grew, the need for product grew. We decided to become a manufacturing location as well in the early nineties,” states Doug. “The firm grew into what it is today, with roughly 550 employees and $200 million per year in sales.”
GROB System’s head office and ISO 14001 certified-production facilities are still based in Bluffton. Officials from the parent company wisely acquired a significant amount of property for the U.S. operation, so it has plenty of room to expand in the future, Doug notes.
As well as making manufacturing machines and turnkey systems, the company has extended its reach into the advanced technology realm where its industry software applications enable machine connectivity, data-collection, remote monitoring, and maintenance. This software series represents a foray into the internet of things (IoT), the online manufacturing networks that link machines, computers, and other equipment in plants.
Among other functions, IoT connections allow shop staff to check the performance of their machines on smartphones and laptops, even when offsite. The instant availability of such data helps with scheduling, maintenance, and continuous improvement efforts.
Specific software modules offer a machine monitoring function, evaluation and display of historical data, visual simulations of various production processes, and “intuitive production control software for unmanned operation,” according to company literature.
“Say you want to look at machine status from a smartphone, or there’s a minor alarm. There’s [modules] for that. GROB4Track [offers] machine monitoring, looking at the condition of the spindle and ball screws to predict failures,” says Derek.
For all its technological proficiency, this company appreciates the importance of people in its operations. Its apprenticeship program gives participants a mix of on-the-job training and college classes. Apprentices are entitled to full benefits during the four-year program and are rotated through each department to get an appreciation of everything the company does.
“The apprenticeship program has been in place since manufacturing started. The company is now made up of forty percent employees who went through that program,” says Derek.
GROB Systems also takes customer-support, machine maintenance, and training very seriously. “Our service team in Bluffton is dedicated to our different markets. Let’s say a universal machine customer calls us. They’ll talk to someone who knows universal machines. If a customer has an issue with a drive, they’re going to get a guy here who knows drives. They get the right person, based on the issues they’re having,” states Doug.
Customer training is offered at either the Bluffton facility or at a client’s workplace. The company employs a training coordinator who works with the customer to determine their training needs. With this feedback in mind, it will “customize a training program for that specific plant,” he adds. The firm also offers a service and maintenance portal for online assistance.
Most product development and research and development work is handled in Germany, with input from GROB Systems and other company branches. Centralizing product research is a smart idea because it means “all manufacturing plants will make the same metal-cutting machines,” ensuring consistent quality, says Derek.
Certainly, its customers seem to appreciate the work the company does. So far this year, GROB has earned three major awards from automotive manufacturers. These include a ‘best supplier of the year’ honor handed out by General Motors in May 2019. This was the twelfth time it has won this award. That same month, Ford honored GROB with its ‘Aligned Business Framework award 2019.’ The Aligned Business Framework is a strategic purchasing model used by the Ford Motor Company. GROB has won previous Ford awards for manufacturing excellence, among other things.
One month after winning these honors, GROB Systems picked up a ‘special recognition award’ from Honda “for its outstanding performance in a current cylinder head line project,” according to a press release.
Awards aside, the company faces challenges in its automotive and high-volume markets. The vehicle manufacturing sector is plagued with “indecision,” according to Doug. Customers and manufacturers alike are unsure where the future lies. Will electric-drive vehicles displace gas-powered vehicles? Should a prospective car-buyer purchase an electric, hybrid, or traditional internal combustion engine vehicle?
“The indecision and change in technology in the vehicle marketplace are becoming difficult to predict and keeps us on our toes, developing new technology,” he says.
It is important to stay atop industry trends if GROB wants to continue to be “the market leader. Every year, product offerings must change [so we can be] market leader. Our main goal is to always be the market leader, and we find ourselves always pushing the limit to stay that way,” says Doug.