The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

High-quality steel for rail systems
Experience – Steel

Quality steel for rail systems

Steel. Thomas Regout International turns high-precision steel rails, ball bearings, plastics and elastomers into customised rail systems. To ensure its systems work perfectly, the company relies on top quality from Stahlo for its sheet steel.

Text Meinolf Droege ––– Photography

The drawer of the high-quality kitchen closes gently, gliding smoothly and almost silently shut. It features an invisible stop mechanism to prevent over-zealous cooks from pulling the drawer out with excessive force.

The doors of a luxury-class saloon car close with a satisfying ‘thunk.’ The driver settles in, placing his right arm on the central armrest, which he can move silently into the most comfortable position using just his fingertip.

In both scenarios, the features responsible for this comfort and durable functionality remain out of sight. They are customised high-precision telescopic slides, and ensure all kinds of loads can be moved with ease – in the above applications and countless others besides. Car manufacturers, mechanical and plant engineers, logistics companies and even furniture manufacturers use many different variants of them.

State of the art

Thomas Regout International in Maastricht, the Netherlands, manufactures these slide systems from high-precision roll-formed steel bars, ball bearings and other components made of plastics and elastomers. This is where high-tech meets tradition. The factory, founded in 1834, now sits directly on the outskirts of the picturesque old town of Maastricht. For years, however, the company has been running an innovation process that covers not just products, machinery and plant technology, but the entire factory itself, organising all processes along Industry 4.0 lines.

Founded following a management buy-out in 2008, the leadership team has pursued a clearly defined strategy from the outset in order to gain market share in the face of international competition. On the one hand, it focuses on customer-specific products and solutions, some of which incorporate patented special equipment up to the highest load-bearing classes, and, on the other, it provides extremely short delivery times and exceptional flexibility. At the same time, the company has to ensure it’s not paying over the odds to create its solutions.

“We have design facilities with comprehensive user experience, toolmaking and prototyping – all in-house,” says Managing Director Kees Verspaandonk. “Furthermore, a large proportion of production is now highly automated. Around six years ago, the company also began to speed up processes significantly, including with our suppliers. We are basically doing exactly what are our customers are doing.” This is the only way to achieve defined goals such as shorter delivery times and increased flexibility for customers.

 

On this basis, Thomas Regout ­International also reviewed its existing suppliers of sheet steel – by far its most important material – analysed market conditions and made enquiries about new partners. The Stahlo steel service centre based in Dillenburg in Hesse had initially supplied smaller quantities, but has gradually sent significantly higher tonnages of sheet steel to Maastricht over the years. “And Stahlo will continue to be an important partner if we keep reducing the number of suppliers in this sector,” says Verspaandonk, referring to the ongoing selection process.  

The investments made in technologies and processes following the management buy-out are paying off as Regout is growing exactly to plan – and doing so sustainably. It’s up to Stahlo to keep up with the pace. The high quality of telescopic guides ­places much higher demands on the ­material than the relevant standards do. In ­Verspaandonk’s words: “We are running our plants at the upper to highest range of what is theoretically possible.” The systems can only achieve maximum throughput rates – and thus competitive costs – with extremely low thickness tolerances and excellent surface qualities. For Thomas Regout, however, other material properties are also kept within much narrower limits in order to guarantee the tolerances of the final product components as specified by the design.

Forming a stable network of expertise

Besides helping to select the types of steel that meet such requirements, Stahlo also advises on how to enhance processing parameters. “We are also driving forward new ideas. For example, we look for added value when using special steels, and not just in automotive applications,” explains ­Verspaandonk, outlining one current direction of development. Stahlo has practical expertise and the appropriate product range in this regard, too. What’s more, ­Verspaandonk appreciates that Stahlo not only responds to enquiries from his company, but also makes proactive proposals, which are then discussed together in a spirit of genuine partnership. Collaborating on ongoing processes and thinking ahead are sought-after characteristics in suppliers. They are also advancing Thomas Regout International’s successful research and development work.

“At one time, we had suppliers with clear unique selling propositions. Today, we have to deliver top performance at all levels.”


Kees Verspaandonk
Managing Director at
Thomas Regout International

According to Verspaandonk, reliability is key in other respects – not just in terms of material properties. “Even during boom periods, we depend on deliveries being made with absolute reliability, especially bearing in mind that we have significantly reduced our own inventory while increasing output, and yet we are still promising our customers ever shorter delivery times.” Currently, the company’s own material ­storage facility has a horizon of only a week or a little less. Not everything, says ­Verspaandonk, can be spelled out in specifications, which is why suppliers such as Stahlo are required in order to ensure targets are hit. A few years ago, the management team had considered alternative locations due to the company’s special location near Maastricht’s old town and cost structures in the Netherlands. Following a detailed analysis of a variety of scenarios, however, it was decided to maintain the enormous employee expertise and ­ flexibility with the company’s own tool construction and prototyping facilities and to support them with state-of-the-art manufacturing concepts.

 

Making room with automation

Since then, modernisation has picked up even greater pace, which has seen many design tasks become automated and designers increasingly take on the role of problem-solvers in direct customer contact. Production has been automated and networked even more. Although sales have followed a constant upward trajectory over the last four years, automation and increased throughput speeds mean that space has been freed up in the existing production facilities, which can now be used to achieve further growth at a manageable cost. “We had already taken the first steps towards Industry 4.0 before the term had even been invented,” Verspaandonk adds.

At the same time, supplier structures have been adjusted – a process that is still ongoing. “All in all, it is hardly possible to manufacture more cost-effectively anywhere in the world. We also have the benefits of high flexibility and customer proximity. This is in response to a new generation of buyers with a certain ‘Amazon mentality’ who place great emphasis on ever-increasing delivery capabilities. “At one time, we had suppliers with clear unique selling propositions,” ­Verspaandonk says. “Nowadays, top performance is needed across the board – flexibility, quality and cost.”

So, the next time you bump that heavy cutlery drawer shut with your hip and nothing rattles or crashes, remember: It’s all down to steel coupled with innovative design and machining.

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