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Machine manufacturing company Oskar Frech expects sales in the retrofit sector to increase by 50 to 80 percent over the next three to five years. But in Germany there’s a shortage of technically minded new recruits who want to work in the trades. Corinna Robertz is in conversation with Norman Klare, Head of Sales Services at Oskar Frech, and Darko Tesic, Managing Director of TCT TESIC GmbH.
Mr. Klare, Oskar Frech offers retrofits throughout all its product ranges. What’s been happening in recent years?
Norman Klare: Machine overhauls and retrofits have been around forever, of course. But both were labelled “dirty work” and were always considered less important than new machines. When capacity bottlenecks occurred, retrofits were generally given less attention. That’s something that’s changed a lot in recent years.
Why is that?
Klare: Old machines can be given a new lease on life with just 50 to 60 percent of the investment in a new machine. Retrofitting has therefore grown in importance, especially in Europe. Company buildings also have a limited amount of space, and a new machine could mean a major renovation to an existing building. That’s why the option to retrofit is increasingly catching on with our customers.
Mr. Tesic, what’s your experience been?
Darko Tesic: We’ve noticed a similar trend, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Investments have significantly decreased, but more maintenance was performed. In Germany, the goal is sustainable production. Here, the politicians are also heading in the same direction and are laying the foundations. The European continent also sees a lot of exchanges, because there’s a frequent transfer of production and information. And China is starting to do this too. Basically, it’s a matter of time. In some countries it’s happening faster, and in others progress is slower. The Balkan countries and India are an example of the latter.
Klare: Europe has a special significance, of course. If you look at where our machines are today, you often simply can’t build a second hall alongside the old one. Even for automotive manufacturers, space in the halls is sometimes tight. That’s the biggest difference compared to Asia. And in my experience, the mindset of customers is different as well: Not every customer wants to make a big investment in a new machine.
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What are the specific advantages of used and reconditioned machines?
Tesic: When you overhaul a used facility, you can modify it to meet different needs. And customers are often reluctant to spend a lot of money on a new machine. I can test a used machine: If it works well for me, the next machine will be a new one. By then, however, I’ll have recouped the investment I made.
Klare: An overhaul is also scalable. And it’s important for the company to be structured in such a way that the new machines and after-sales areas don’t see each other as competitors but instead approach the customer as a united front. It’s important to provide professional advice throughout in order to find the right product for the customer’s specific application. If it’s a retrofit that’s needed today, it’ll be a new machine tomorrow.
How do you position yourself internally to make the overhaul economical?
Klare: To sell an overhaul, you have to have very in-depth technical knowledge: It’s not something that comes off the shelf. Our customers also expect the same quality and delivery punctuality for a retrofit as for a new machine. At Oskar Frech, we have the organizational structure for new machines and, at the same time, we have the organizational structure for the after-sales area with the same positions. These parallel structures, with design engineers and project managers in after-sales, have only been established in the last five to eight years. We need very experienced people for this. I have a lot of open positions, and I’d hire new staff if I could find them.
Tesic: The technicians we have are retiring. We need technically minded new recruits. It’s hard to find young people who’re interested in the trades. A technical profession isn’t being presented as an appealing option for young people. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be motivating or interesting enough. When I was young, the trades were a respected profession. Today they’re simply not valued highly enough. Germany has a big deficit in this area. We need more technicians!
Klare: Performing a retrofit is a very complex activity. There are hardly any processes that repeat themselves; instead, we’re constantly faced with new concepts and challenges. Those who are used to assembling new machines are initially surprised when they open up an old machine. They’re really dirty, after all, and often you discover more damage after disassembly that you didn’t expect beforehand. You have to WANT to deal with that, and not everyone is willing to do that. You also need software specialists, of course, but you can’t solve everything from a computer: There are numerous other technical elements in retrofitting.
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A DAW 50 die casting machine manufactured by Oskar Frech after a general overhaul. (Image: Oskar Frech)