Electrifying Success in Midst of COVID
GROB Systems Inc.
GROB has been transitioning to new markets, introducing new products, and maintaining its usual high standards since Manufacturing in Focus last profiled the firm in December 2019. COVID has changed some of the ways the company does business but has not slowed its forward momentum.
This family-run business is headquartered in Mindelheim, Germany, with a North American division in Bluffton, Ohio. The latter operation does its own design and manufacturing work, creating and building machine tools, manufacturing systems, and related software while offering top-notch customer support. GROB products and services are popular with clients in the medical, automotive, aerospace, defense, mold and die, job shop, and energy technology markets.
The biggest change since we last spoke, COVID aside, has been the rise of the electric vehicle (EV) market, says Universal Machine Sales Supervisor Derek Schroeder of GROB Systems Inc.’s North American operation.
“We had talked in 2019 about our product line for assembling electric vehicle components – whether that’s hybrid or full electric. We invested heavily in that in past years, and now it’s really coming to realization,” he says.
Although North America’s automotive manufacturing sector is still centered on internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, EV production is rapidly accelerating. For companies that provide services and equipment to automakers and their suppliers, EV manufacturing involves more than just a technology change. The EV manufacturing sector is far more diffuse than traditional auto production, which is dominated by a handful of big original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
“If you Google ‘electric vehicle manufacturers,’ you’re going to come up with a huge list, where in the past, we knew who the automobile makers were. Now, when we build those relationships, instead of ten main customers, it’s ten times bigger. We have to broaden our efforts [to find customers],” states Schroeder.
Flagship GROB products include universal machining centers, which are built in Bluffton for North American customers. For the growing e-mobility sector represented by EVs, GROB offers motor and gearbox housing manufacturing, stator and rotor assembly, and mechatronics, among its services.
Last October, GROB’s German parent company hosted a virtual open house event and used this digital showcase to introduce the G150, a five-axis universal machining center. In addition to its compact design, the G150 offers high productivity, precision, and accuracy. This universal machining center has two rotary and three linear axes for five-sided machining and five-axis simultaneous interpolation. This machine is unique in the market as the only horizontal 5-axis of its size.
The company hosted another digital open house this March during which it unveiled a line of four-axis universal machining centers. The G440, G640 and G840 are heavy-duty machines designed to boost productivity while offering maximum flexibility and stability. FANUC or SIEMENS machine controls are available for use with these machining centers.
GROB continues to update and enhance its line of GROB-NET4Industry software solutions, which link machines, computers, and smart devices in online networks. Various programs run simulations of manufacturing processes, connect machines to an enterprise resource planning system, or offer intuitive controls for running machines unmanned. The GROB4Portal meanwhile, is a secure, cloud-based system that allows customers to access company solutions and data and perform other tasks.
GROB-NET4Industry solutions are “becoming even more important in the days of COVID because people need access to their machines when they’re not there,” Schroeder says. Users can check machine performance data on their phones or other smart devices.
The company also designs and builds a line of products for automating manufacturing operations. Offering palletizing systems, part handling systems and industrial software is part of its strategy to be a comprehensive equipment provider.
“The more engineering and specialized solutions we can add to a piece of equipment, the more successful [we] will be in selling that equipment, and it brings benefits to the customer as well,” explains Schroeder.
GROB Systems, Inc. maintains high standards with ISO 9001:2015 and ISO 14001:2015 certification from National Quality Assurance (NQA) for “design, manufacture, and installation of special equipment for automotive machining, assembly testing, and handling.”
The company recently registered with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) program, as run by the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, U.S. Department of State. ITAR regulations govern the export of space and defense-related equipment and services. Having this registration clears GROB to apply for U.S. defense-related aerospace projects.
ITAR registration “really sets us apart from other machine tool builders. They’re not building machines here. They’re based in Germany or Japan. They’re not able to go after these projects because they can’t handle the technical data. With us being based in the U.S. with U.S. employees, we’ve made the investment necessary to safeguard that data and go after those projects,” Schroeder explains.
GROB’s high standards have been recognized within the industry where it won a Ford ‘World Excellence Award’ in 2019, the latest of several recent honors from automotive OEMS. It also picked up awards from General Motors and Honda in the U.S. in 2019.
The company responded quickly when COVID spread early last year. Masks were made mandatory, and visitors to the company’s Bluffton facilities were tested before being let inside. During the early weeks of the virus, staff in the sales, engineering, and administrative departments worked remotely. The manufacturing operations in Bluffton did not close, but workstations were spread out, and employees were instructed to distance themselves.
“We never shut [the plant] doors for a single day here. We were lucky enough to stay open,” says Schroeder. “When everyone came back to the office, we made use of every space we could in the company to make sure there was a good distance between everybody. Where we couldn’t, we made dividers.”
Before COVID, the company introduced a customer support system that allowed its technicians to “see the customer’s piece of equipment remotely, which included being able to see the actual screen” the client was viewing, he says. Staff can fix the majority of problems safely without having to go on site. This remote service, performed with the consent of a customer, has proven hugely helpful in the COVID era.
“We deal with customers across North America. When they need something, we can get online in minutes and help them,” Schroeder states.
Promotion and marketing have also gone digital due to COVID. The company created a series of monthly educational webinars on a variety of topics and sales meetings are now held on platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Webex.
The company has adapted quickly to this new, online world, and “generated just as many good leads last year as we would have in trade shows,” says Schroeder. Such leads are important given that the “decline of commercial aerospace,” has led to reduced sales of GROB universal machines in that market.
In pre-COVID days, over half of GROB’s universal machining centers “were going to some type of aerospace application.”
COVID largely curtailed international and domestic air travel, which has meant less demand for new aircraft. This, in turn, has meant less demand for the equipment needed to make aircraft parts and components. Fortunately, GROB found new markets for its universal machining centers in the mold and die and defense manufacturing sectors, for example.
Despite COVID hurting business, the company stepped up to help those affected by the pandemic. When automakers announced plans to make medical ventilators, which were in short supply, GROB provided equipment and other components to aid in the production process.
“We were involved with that pretty heavily for a couple of months. We were using our own project management, our engineering, our production and our assembly. Several groups within the company were into that fairly heavy,” recalls Schroeder.
GROB employs about 580 people in North America, up from approximately 500 workers in 2019. While the firm has an office in Michigan, most work is done in Bluffton, Ohio.
Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of the firm’s apprenticeship program in North America. The four-year program entails a mixture of classroom learning and on-the-job training. Approximately 40 percent of the workforce in the Ohio facility has been through the apprenticeship program.
The program “has really expanded over the years. I think we had our biggest class in 2019: forty apprentices,” states Schroeder.
He is optimistic about the future of North American operations. “On the universal side, with the addition of our new products, we anticipate year-over-year twenty to thirty percent growth.” GROB has several more products in the works.
“We are looking ahead. We have a team in Germany that looks at trends in the market. That’s how we were prepared for the EV change. We see other changes coming, and there will be new products,” Schroeder says.