75 years of Daetwyler – A story about aeroplanes, Polishmasters, lasers and doctor blades

Peter and Ralph Daetwyler are both passionate aviators (Source: Daetwyler)

75 years of Daetwyler – A story about aeroplanes, Polishmasters, lasers and doctor blades

Ansgar Wessendorf

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For decades, owner Peter Daetwyler headed the Daetwyler Group with impressive success and for several years his son Ralph has been controlling the business. Daetwyler SwissTec, a manufacturer of doctor blades, is the flagship company in this Group. The editorial team of Flexo & Gravure Global talked to Peter and Ralph Daetwyler about the moving history of the Group.

What are the main reasons for the ongoing success of Daetwyler?

Peter Daetwyler: The parent company was established in 1943. Although it grew steadily and quickly and built up its new know-how, it has remained owner-managed ever since, but today it is organized in a more lean and efficient way. Evidence for the continuation of this family tradition – and a very moving experience for me personally – is the fact, that the Daetwyler Group is now led by my son Ralph. Such as any company with our history of growth and transformation, we have also endured plenty of turmoil and change.

Ralph Daetwyler: It has always been the mantra of Daetwyler, to offer innovative products and services with a “Swiss Character” on a worldwide scale. We’ve evolved by constantly developing our products, manufactured as precisely and consistently as possible, and distributed with the customers’ needs always in the forefront.

Would you please describe the beginnings of the Daetwyler company?

Peter Daetwyler: It all started with a sort of “flying virus” which affected my father Max Daetwyler and which he obviously passed on to me and my own sons. He received his license for flying gliders in 1941 and the equivalent for powered flight in 1946. Against this background of passion for flying, he focused the activities of his newly established company on the maintenance and overhaul of small aeroplanes. Immediately after the Second World War, the sovereignty of Germany over its airspace was terminated so any activity of German companies involved in flying was prohibited, even Lufthansa had to cease operations. However, such strict limitations offered the promising chance for foreign companies, to enter the flight segment in Germany.

My father transferred the headquarters of his company from Dietikon to Bleienbach, where our headquarters are still located. One of the reasons for this move was to avoid the long transport routes for the planes to be serviced. In 1956 the company Max Daetwyler + Co. was established at Bleienbach with the main objective to develop parts for civilian and military aviation companies.

Ralph Daetwyler: The legendary “Piper Cub” and “Super Cub” aircraft were also overhauled at Bleienbach. Widely known as “Däti-Piper”, these planes are still very popular. In addition, the single-seated tow-plane “MDC Trailer” was a further development of the “Super Cub” and perfectly suited to launch gliders. After being in service for many years at the glider club in Oberarrgau, the “MDC Trailer” recorded the highest number of take offs and landings in Switzerland. 

How did the so-called “Mirage affair” affect the company?

Peter Daetwyler: 1961 was an important year in the company’s history as the Swiss parliament approved a budget of CHF 870 million for the purchase of 100 French Mirage III interceptor aircraft.

About 3200 individual parts in each of the aircraft were manufactured by Daetwyler. Many were special developments that were designed from scratch and shaped using a thermal pressing process. Right from the start it was obvious that all these parts had to be produced on an ongoing basis or even in advance in order to meet the schedule. However, the overall costs of this large defence project grew exorbitantly resulting in the cancellation of almost half the number of the aircraft ordered. At first, this was a great shock for us, as many aircraft parts were already made, the material ordered, processed or put into storage. The preliminary work was done and then: No more need, no budget.

The end of the Mirage order heralded the new era of gravure cylinder making at Daetwyler, which opened new opportunities in a new industry. Here we profited greatly from our experience in the precise production, processing and coating of materials and components for the aircraft industry.

How did you come up with the idea of entering into the production of machines for gravure printing cylinders as a new business area?

Ralph Daetwyler: The head of etching at the Ringier print shop asked if Max could build an etching machine for the production of gravure cylinders for him. Under the name Original Gravomaster we produced the first etching machine developed by us. The fully automatic variant soon followed with the Contromat Gravomaster. As a result of this development, the etching process, which until then had been subject to many imponderables, become much more stable and standardized. Over the course of time further machines were developed and put on the market for the process in the gravure cylinder manufacturing. The Devlomaster was developed with a photoresist layer on the cylinder, the Vacuumaster was used for the scanning exposure and the Corremaster was used to fine-tune the gravure form. Today, etching technology in gravure printing production only plays a minor role. Electro-mechanical engraving and laser technology are today’s most commonly used manufacturing processes.

A milestone in the history of Daetwyler was the invention of the lamella blade more than 40 years ago. How did this development come about?

Peter Daetwyler: For more than 40 years we have been intensively involved in the development and production of doctor blades. These products serve not only a wide range of applications in flexo and gravure printing, but also market sectors such as printed electronics and the coating industry. In the past, gravure printers ground down their blades themselves. However due to the very low level of precision, this led to tone value fluctuations because the gradual wear permanently changed the blade contact surface and, as a result, the printed tone as well. Together with Hans Burgener, at that time an employee of the Swiss company Ringier in Zofingen, we recognized the problem and developed the lamella doctor blade. With this special type of blade, the contact zone remains constant throughout its lifetime, resulting in stable tonal values. Since this blade requires less contact pressure, the cylinder wear is lower. This ensures a consistent print quality over the entire run. The development of the first coated blades and the introduction of MDC Longlife in 1991 were further outstanding milestones.

What vision did Max Daetwyler pursue with the invention of the Polishmaster?

Ralph Daetwyler: In 1974, the Polishmaster was introduced to the public. In gravure printing this technology was a revolution and even today many experts swear by this machine because it gives the gravure cylinder a perfect geometry. The objective of the Polishmaster was to increase the efficiency of gravure printing while at the same time achieving consistently good results. Micron surface roughness had to be consistently achieved to avoid printing in the non-printing areas. The high level of manufacturing precision required for this could not be satisfactorily achieved with conventional machines such as a lathe and grinding machine. With the vision of Max  Daetwyler this problem was solved: The gravure cylinder as a workpiece only turned very slowly during the surface treatment with the diamond tool. The machining process was, as it were, turned upside down, because the tool that machined the workpiece turned quickly and not the workpiece itself – a kind of “rotary milling”.

With the Direct Laser System (DLS) Daetwyler also pioneered direct laser engraving of gravure forms.

Ralph Daetwyler: Yes that’s right. In the 90’s, Daetwyler employed several competent laser physicists to achieve the vision of direct laser engraving of gravure cylinders. The potential of laser engraving was unmatched: Back then, with electromechanical engraving, only up to 5,000 cells per second could be cut into the copper surface of a rotogravure cylinder. Up to 140,000 cells per second could be achieved with the laser. Unquestionably an important step forward, since the quality corresponds to an optimal etched surface. Due to the low laser power one was not able to laser useful cells into the copper surfaces. Copper absorbs too much heat and melts, so that zinc was used as a substitute and optimal material. However, direct engraving in copper is possible with today’s generation of lasers.

With your numerous innovations you have carried out pioneering work in gravure printing and set standards. Nevertheless, in 2010 you decided to discontinue your involvement in machine manufacturing for gravure cylinder production. What were the reasons?

Peter Daetwyler: Kaspar Walter and Daetwyler were the only suppliers worldwide who continuously developed the complete machine range for the production of gravure printing cylinders. However, in order to optimize the resources for the increasingly complex and also more costly developments in this limited market, we decided to cooperate. Kaspar Walter and Daetwyler combined their machine program and joined forces as Heliograph Holding. Today this group is owned 100% by Max Rid.

For over seven decades, considerable changes have taken place at Daetwyler, and new situations have been invented time and again. How is Daetwyler positioned as a company today?

Ralph Daetwyler: Today the Daetwyler Group consists of  four divisions.The first two  have an established name in our industry; Daetwyler SwissTec as market leader in Doctor Blades and Rotoflex, a well-known Swiss manufacturer of printing inks and coatings.  The Fässler Division of Daetwyler manufacturs machines and tooling for the honing of gears, mostly for the automotive industry.  Daetwyler Industries deals with the high-precision engineering for third parties. In Tallinn, Estonia, for example, the machine beds are welded and annealed, and in Ursenbach, Switzerland, they are finally finished to the highest micron precision; A skill we retained from our Polishmaster days.  Daetwyler SwissTec is deeply involved in the development and production of doctor blades for a wide range of applications. The printing and coating industries are the main focus of our activities, but other sectors such as papermaking or printed electronics are becoming increasingly important to us. It is our aim to not only ensure the high quality standard through continuous research and development work, but also to further expand our leading market position. That is why in 2012 we founded Daetwyler IBO Tec, a research and development centre based in Lübeck. In addition, we started early on setting up our own branches worldwide, so today we have a tight, international network.

We operate international production facilities, all of which produce according to the quality standards of Daetwyler SwissTec. Due to our comprehensive worldwide distribution network, the delivery routes are relatively short, so that we can respond quickly to customer requests. To support our local customers, we have over 40 printing technicians worldwide. It is important that we learn from and with the customer and incorporate the knowledge gained into product development. Our technical consultants are on site daily with our customers when advice is needed for solving printing problems or the optimal blade setting on the press. The information gained is incorporated into the development of doctor blade products. Therefore, the proximity or the direct line to the customer has a very high priority in our corporate strategy. In addition, regular training and ongoing communication with our sales partners are important points for our company’s success. 

What was your intention with the purchase of the Swiss ink manufacturer Rotoflex?

Ralph Daetwyler: In May 2017, Daetwyler acquired a majority stake in the Rotoflex Group. Both companies benefit from each other’s global sales channels, and combined are tightly networked through its worldwide sales and manufacturing facilities. It only made sense to add to our depth of knowledge in ink transfer in gravure and flexo printing. Falling inline with this logic, Daetwyler and Anilox roller manufacturer Zecher have agreed to a sales cooperation for the US market from the beginning of this year.

What is your goal with this strategy?

Ralph Daetwyler: Our goal is to optimally support flexo and gravure printers in their daily work. We want to do that by offering them high quality doctor blade, ink and anilox roll products, while providing them with the best on-site support from our numerous printing technicians to solve their everyday printing problems. Our global distribution network provides an excellent starting point for this.

Thank you for the interview!

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