Published on: 04/10/2019
In the metal machining industry, the reliability and high performances of Istech’s sawing machines and cutting plants are well known: the company obtained its excellent reputation by developing standard and customized solutions for every metal cutting requirement.
Founded in 194, the company recently turned 25: this important anniversary provided the opportunity for an interview Alessandro Rescaldani, son of the founder, Rita Bollini, and managing director of the company.
How did Istech come into being? What key figures sum up these 25 years of development?
The company is well-known as a manufacturer of double-column band saw machines, to provide superior quality products to companies which at the time could not find products capable of fulfilling this request on the Italian market. Several aspects evolved since 194: the small entrepreneurial concern became a structured company with more than thirty employees, a production plant which more than trebled compared to the start and constantly increasing returns. Even our market strategies have changed: we developed the capability of satisfying the simplest requirements with standardised but evolved products, with low maintenance requirements and easy to use, while considerably increasing the development of customized solutions. Our offer has been enriched by tools which combine mechanical cutting abilities with elements required by the automation of production processes and the integration of cutting with the different phases of the production process. Our solutions are particularly appreciated in Italy, but our presence abroad is also growing, especially in the market’s upper bracket; having recently purchased Klaeger, a German company with over ninety years of history in this industry, we further strengthened the market share of our international sales. There are aspects which did not change during these years, however, such as the constant pursuit of the highest technological standards to offer increasingly evolved cutting solutions, as well as our capability of tuning in to the clients’ requirements. This enabled us to create sawing machines and plants where the performance-related aspects of reliability and productivity are complemented by user-friendliness. Our experience in creating customized solutions, the technical capability of our designers and the organizational flexibility that make our company stand out lead us to pursue a perfect match with the client companies’ and end users’ demands; the speed with which we reply to servicing requests all over the country, thanks to an efficient and well-prepared technical service, is also appreciated. Our offering is completed by a wide range of bandsaw blades for all cutting requirements, designed to enhance our machines’ performances.
Which segments represent your main markets? What are their requirements and how do you envisage facing the possible evolution of these requests?
Historically, our products have always been used by mechanical workshops for the cutting phase which precedes successive machining. Of course, we still develop solutions for workshops; this segment has however been joined by steel resellers, who are increasingly interested in offering products cut to measure, thereby increasing added value for their customers. The more traditional users of cutting machines are joined by some market niches with special requirements, such as Oil & Gas, where applications – be they standard or tailor-made – must have special performance properties, linked to the particular function and to the safety and reliability requirements of the cut products. The growing attention for the principles of Industry 4.0 led to a considerable acceleration of automation processes, with a derived interest for unmanned plants which can manage the different machining phases, from the loading of the raw bars to the management of cut items. This leads to a demand for complete plants, not limited to the cutting phase but integrated in line upstream and downstream in the production process. The growing mechanical complexity of the plants corresponds to an evolution of the electronics on board: the interconnection requirements are ever on the increase, just like demands for remote control, availability of feedback enabling the automatic qualitative monitoring of the production, predictive maintenance and other aspects which until not so long ago would have seemed to be part of an imaginary and remote future. Our capability of detecting on time the signals of this evolution allowed us to keep abreast with market requests even in its upper bracket; we did not just improve the cutting aspect, which indeed developed but without radical upheavals, but we concentrated on automation and interactivity elements, where steps forward have been enormous. From this standpoint we found an important support in the National Plan for Industry 4.0, on the cutting edge with respect to what has been carried out in other European countries, which provided Italian companies with the opportunity of approaching the market with more evolved and competitive products. This helped both exports and sales on the internal market: imports from foreign manufacturers lost much of their appeal, now that Italian buyers con compare them with local products having a definitely improved price-performance ratio.
Which product lines and solutions are most appreciated by each one of your reference markets?
Currently, the demands which are most often expressed by the market concern the upper bracket of the product range: sophisticated machines such as the Power series of double column sawing machines for heavy industries. These sawing machines are particularly appreciated by steel resellers and companies operating in the Oil&Gas industry; they are ready to be inserted in production lines which are compatible with the principles of the smart factory. However, mechanical workshops are evolving too: many enact development programs with aspects envisaged by the Industry 4.0 Plan and therefore can take advantage of benefits, which enables them to purchase smart quality machines, an investment which some time ago many companies in this segment would not have been able to support. Particularly, the Power Go sawing machines, which represent the entry level solution for this product range, having all the properties of compliance with smart systems combined with an interesting price, are obtaining considerable success.
Digitization and automation are increasingly present in production companies: how do you relate to the principles of Industry 4.0?
Even within our company, we endeavour to comply more and more with the principles of Industry 4.0; from a management software standpoint, we invested in an ERP system which integrates the information coming from different corporate functions, allowing especially to make use of production and sales data in a single environment. Regarding the physical outlook of production, we purchased three vertical automated warehouses, thereby bringing about a considerable increase in efficiency as regards the handling of material and improving the fluidity of the production process. Of course, we continue evaluating carefully all the opportunities for improvement and innovation, even in the more traditional aspects of production, so as to keep up the quality standards of our solutions.
Does the increasing compliance with the principles of Industry 4.0 affect your clients too? How does this influence your offering?
Undoubtedly, many of our clients are evolving, with a growth which is evident even from a dimension standpoint: if ten years ago many of our clients could fit into the class of mechanical workshop with a dozen employees, now many of these companies grew, with a greater awareness and capability of analysing data and automating production processes. Regarding clients who were already more structured to start with, evolutions are of course even more surprising: nowadays many steel resellers con carry out quality control using data provided by the machines and make automatic corrections as a consequence. Our cutting centres also allow the fully automatic management of production flow, receiving orders directly from the corporate software. Meanwhile, some companies such as Toyota decided to integrate cutting plants in their production of forklifts to reduce the waste of materials and optimize the efficiency of production processes. Adapting to the growing complexity of customers’ needs was not easy: tackling this challenge implied some strategic initial decisions, such as, the choice of the communication protocol between PLCs and the external environment. From this standpoint we made a difficult decision, which turned out to be farsighted: among different solutions available we chose very widely used protocols compatible with the best part of information systems present on the market. If on the one hand this required a great deal of work in looking for adequate electronic devices and in software development, on the other hand it allows us to be very flexible and to provide the client easily and automatically with all the information required for the optimization of the process (online progress of production, state of wear of tools, statistics regarding the working life of tools, process parameters in use…)
How do your research, development and production strategies evolve? Which are the main directions: new materials, processes, services?
As you might expect, or development strategies evolve trying to comply with and if possible anticipate the requests which come from clients: these are mainly linked to the evolution of production technologies and to the integration of upstream and downstream systems. Practically, every client leads to the development of new solutions, so rather than outline a general trend of evolution it is clearer to describe case histories to explain the types of requirements we can satisfy. A Norwegian company in the defence sector, for instance, expressed the requirement of creating an unmanned system to cut complex steels destined to forging, integrating upstream cutting systems with a bar loading mechanism and, downhill, with a discharge solution which brings the cut items to a robot entrusted with loading the forge. We advised the client to introduce, between the cutter and the forge, a weighing system, to ensure that the weight of the elements sent to the forge would be constant (weight is a more consistent indicator than length for this type of machining). Manually weighing sample items would have caused a costly deceleration of the system, while weighing on board enables an efficient preventive quality control without machine down times. The suggestion which is easy to implement and solves the problem, determined the client’s decision to choose our solution among the different alternatives available on the market. Another case I like mentioning concerns a Spanish manufacturer of railway carriages who asked us to automate the production of axles: these come in about 200 types subdivided into 6 families, with a diameter which is not constant and changes along the axle itself. Depending on the shape of the forged semi-finished good, it may be more or less convenient to use it to produce one or another type of axle; the decision of which axle to produce using the single forged item was made by an expert operator, who, at a glance, used to evaluate the best correspondence between semi and family, then carrying the item manually to a cutter to cut one end then to another cutter t cut the other end. Thanks to the solution we suggested, now the semi finished axle is scanned by a laser pointer; the scan is sent to the PLC where it is compared to all the types of finished axles, optimizing the match between semi and finished product and setting up the cut as a consequence. The semi is then taken to a work station, where two cutting heads which move independently cut the ends; the machined item is then carried by a shuttle to its position in the warehouse, with a fully automatic system. The reduction of waste and time saving with respect to the manual option are of course remarkable. The quest for potential integrators between the different phases of the production process – such as, cutting and marking, deburring or preparation for packaging – and the proposal of solutions which allow to put them into practice improving productivity is a feather in our cap; we can carry out these actions thanks to a consolidated relationship between our sales and technical staff.
Which initiatives – trade shows, product launches and so on – do you envisage, to uphold your market share and the notoriety of your brand?
By all means the acquisition of Klaeger is the most noteworthy of all initiatives we enacted, from a growth standpoint; our resources will now be largely devoted to creating synergies with products manufactured by this historical concern, which are excellent and complementary with respect to ours since they belong to a range of smaller solutions compared to our average production. As regards our presence in trade shows, which are definitely good meeting opportunities but which risk dispersing their effect, this year we decided to concentrate on more local initiatives to support our sales force, such as, open house events on our distributors’ premises; we think that the strong innovative content of our proposals might be communicated better by means of targeted initiatives and in-depth contact with respect to what is normally possible in a trade fair context, which is often hectic. A “zero-mile” promotion, not just to follow the trend of the moment, but to maximize our closeness to our clients.