Swiss bathroom suite manufacturer Wilhelm Schmidlin AG needed flexible solutions to ensure it could supply its bespoke products to customers with a rapid turnaround from order to delivery.
ABB’s industrial robots have the load beating capacity and dexterity to manipulate large items while also conducting accurate fabrication and finishing processes.
The robots load the press with heavy steel blanks and remove finished bathtubs, as well as conducting welding and enameling tasks, taking staff away from heavy and potentially hazardous jobs.
The description “made of one piece” is meant to indicate perfection. For the bathtubs produced by Wilhelm Schmidlin AG, made “in one go” would be more appropriate. In 1961, company founder Wilhelm Schmidlin installed a powerful 630-ton deep draw press, adopting an ingenious process that ensured his company was the first in the world to produce deep-draw bathtubs fully 45 cm deep.
The process involves a sheet of steel 2 millimeters thick being placed over a mold - the negative of the tub, so to speak - which is then drawn into the desired shape by the press. This produces a flawless product with a minimum of thinned-out areas.
This press is still in use at the Schmidlin plant in Oberarth, although these days it is loaded by an ABB robot and is currently being supplemented by a more modern high-performance press with a downstream 3D laser. Wilhelm Schmidlin AG is the only Swiss manufacturer of enameled steel bathtubs and shower trays, as well as wash basin and shower surfaces made of steel and enamel. The factory in Oberarth is Wilhelm Schmidlin AG's only production facility. Outsourcing abroad had never been considered.
Employing around 80 employees, the company has a market share of around 50 percent of the steel bathtub market in Switzerland, a success that has prompted it to establish a distributor in the USA for its individually manufactured quality products. Implementing robotic automation is part of the company’s drive to grow its market share.
“In order to assert ourselves in the market and to expand, we are constantly evolving and implementing new solutions and methods,” emphasizes Operations Manager Guido Singer. In 1974, Wilhelm Schmidlin AG commissioned its first robot to partially automate its enameling process.
In addition, the company has been using the Japanese Kaizen work philosophy for almost ten years. In line with the “change for the better” principle, the factory stops production every second Wednesday. All staff spend the entire day examining work processes in small teams, developing suggestions for improvement, and, if possible, implementing them immediately.
“So far, this has enabled us to measure the production time of some products in days rather than weeks,” explains Singer. This is how “Schmidlin Vario” came about - customers can order a bathtub or surface of any size in one-centimeter increments and receive their individualized product within ten working days - or even within four days if they place a “Subito” order. Production uses a batch size of one - the bathtubs, basins, and shower surfaces are transported in a colorful mixture on a suspended conveyor system to the continuous furnace, where the enamel is fired at 860°C. Each part can be identified by an RFID transponder.
“Flexibility, speed, and individuality combined with consistent high quality are our strengths, allowing us to hold our own against cheaper competitors from abroad,” says Singer.
ABB robots play a major role in this flexibility and six are currently in use. A powerful IRB 6640 inserts the steel plates into the press, and then passes the drawn blanks to the cutting station. In the wash basin production line, a small IRB 1600ID automatically welds the corners of the basins.
Four ABB coating robots are used in the enameling plant’s spray booths. Enameling involves two steps. The first is a priming stage, while the second involves applying the finishing enamel in the desired color. In a cell for standard tubs, two robots coat the product. In two further cells, a robot first enamels most of the tub’s surface, after which an employee steps in and provides the final perfect enamel finish.
Comprehensive program library
The robots are programmed by Schmidlin employees, who have built up a comprehensive library with hundreds of coating programs for a variety of tub shapes. “ABB robots have been working extremely reliably in this demanding environment for years,” says Singer.
Automation helps to keep costs under control, increase production volume, and ensure quality, as well as reducing physical strain on the company’s employees. Putting steel plates into a press and removing the blank is monotonous, heavy work and the robots relieve the company’s staff of these tedious, potentially hazardous tasks.
“With our committed, constantly evolving team and the partial automation by robots in production, we can play to our strengths in the market - we can respond quickly to customer requirements and supply them immediately with high-quality, custom-made products,” concludes Guido Singer.
Wilhelm Schmidlin AG The family business, founded in 1947, is now managed by Urs and Beat Wullschleger for a third generation. Thanks to the Japanese Kaizen philosophy and a far-sighted corporate strategy, the family business has developed from conventional series production to lean and flexible multi-variant production. Today, Schmidlin is one of the leading suppliers of bathtubs, shower trays and shower surfaces, washbasins, and whirlpools in Switzerland. Recently, tailor-made kitchen splashbacks and enameled wall panels have also become part of the Wilhelm Schmidlin AG product range. www.schmidlin.ch