Last summer at the annual Bosch power tools media event, I received the good news that I was one of three tool industry journalists chosen by the company to be taken on a tour of their facilities throughout Germany and Switzerland.
For one week last November, we three tool guys were treated to an up-close view of the Robert Bosch Corporation that few get to experience.
The trip began with a tour of the Bosch World Wide Headquarters building in Schillerhoehe, a short drive from Stuttgart. Like the Bosch corporate entity itself, it was hard to tell just how big this place was - with its office tower disappearing into the low clouds and fog of the densely wooded German countryside.
Once inside, we got a better idea of the scope of things. The Bosch Group has over 350 subsidiaries and regional companies in over 60 countries and employs nearly 300,000 people. Power tools make up only 16% of their business, while the automotive industry is responsible for 60%. Appliances and countless industrial and energy related products make up the rest.
During our brief tour of some of the corporate research and advanced engineering labs, we were exposed to some of the latest developments in "smart" materials, photovoltaics, and Lithium-ion battery technologies. I can't be more specific than that, but suffice it to say that things move pretty fast at Bosch – the corporate research department files an average of 12 patents a day.
During our stay in Stuttgart we made a trip to the Bosch manufacturing facility in nearby Leinfelden. Here we saw the Bosch "blue" professional tools that we are familiar with in the U.S. as well as being introduced to the Bosch "green" consumer line of tools popular in Europe, but not available in North America. Besides drill/drivers, jig saws, and other common power tools, the Bosch green line also includes household tools such as vacuum cleaners, and cordless outdoor power equipment.
Leinfelden Manufacturing Plant
The most popular tool in the green lineup (and claimed to be the best-selling power tool ever) is a palm-sized 3.6-volt driver called the Ixo. Noted as the very first cordless tool sold with Lithium-ion batteries way back in 2003, the wildly successful Ixo has sold more than 10 million units for Bosch. Based on their domestic success, Bosch launched a removable battery version of the Ixo in their professional blue line in the states, but found the market here totally unwilling to adopt such a petite tool. However, a tool very similar to the original Ixo is being successfully sold through Bosch's Skil brand I'm told.
Except for a soft-material cutter sold under the Skil brand in the U.S., we didn't see anything new in the blue line that we hadn't already seen stateside, but we did get to run the new Brute breaker on expendable concrete.
Soft material cutter sold under Skil brand in U.S
On the factory floor, we watched large grinders and other tools being made. Bosch receives forged and cast metal parts in "rough shape" from suppliers and performs all of the milling and machining in-house as part of the initial stages of production. After the milling and cleaning, we watched finished cast aluminum heads being powder coated and baked in a large automated oven. Hardened steel parts such as the grinder's helical pinion gear have to be shaped by grinding instead of milling. Motors are wound at incredibly fast speeds and are coated before moving toward the assembly area. Since the tools made here are destined for all parts of the globe, motors are made in more than one voltage, and the grinders are fitted with one of five different power cords.
Michael Springer tries out the new Bosch Brute
After all the parts are finished, they end up in a cell assembly area which is more flexible than a conveyor driven assembly line because one person or several can man the separate cell stations, depending on how busy the production is at any given time.
After assembly, a sampling of finished tools ends up in the quality control metrology lab for precise tomographic measurement to make sure they are within tolerance of design specifications.
Bosch Systems Specialist Store
At the end of the factory tour we visited a nearby contractor supply company called Lotter. Besides being a major Bosch tools and accessories distributor, they also stocked other familiar brands such as DeWalt, Makita, Metabo, and Fein.
At Lotter Contractor Supply
As I always do when looking through tool stores in other countries, I spent some time marveling at the differences in construction tools made for the continental market versus what we are used to. I still wonder how they get anything cut with their wimpy circular saws, but I admired their giant razor-toothed reciprocating saws for cutting thick insulation, as well as the preponderance of 36-volt cordless chainsaws available over there. It was also notable that all the brands use more honest voltage ratings on their cordless tools in Europe. There are no gray-area 12-volt or 20-volt "maximum" voltage designations that drive tool journalists nuts, just 10.8-, 14.4-, 18-, and 36-volt tools, plain and simple.
I have a hunch that German and other European marketing guidelines are stricter about the use of such "creative" advertising language, but I couldn't confirm that with any reliable source while overseas.
The DeWalt version of a Porter Cable Sander seen at Lotter
The Robert Bosch Archive
During our visit the corporate liaison with Bosch in Germany pulled some strings to get us some time at the archive. Closed to the public, it is essentially a private museum that operates for corporate appointments only. There we learned more about the personal and professional history of the company's founder and got to see some early products and advertising materials from the brand. Bosch was put on the map by its production of a reliable magneto assembly that provided the spark needed for internal combustion engine ignition systems. A section view through the core of this assembly is what the Bosch logo is based on (not the side view of a rivet, as I used to think). Among the notable displays at the archive was a large cutaway model showing the origin of the Bosch icon.
The rivet like Bosch logo is derived from this section through a magneto
Other interesting artifacts were the first electric "tool" by Bosch--the Forfex hair trimmer, an early inline drill, and one of their first demolition hammers.
After a little hands-on photo time with the antiques, it was off to the nearby Porsche museum for a look at some more German mechanical innovation, but this time, no touching the exhibits.
An old inline drill on display at the Bosch archive
Michael Springer with an early Bosch breaker
The Bosch corporate culture in their motherland was notably different than what I was used to in my relationship with the company here in the U.S. The main thing we learned was that though departed from this earth for 70 years, Robert Bosch's personal values and ideology still guide the everyday dealings of the company and its employees. His ideals of innovative, quality products along with the importance of the corporation's overwhelming philanthropic outreach have created a reverence for the man usually reserved for saints.
So it was fitting that our trip included a visit to Robert Bosch's personal residence and the adjoining charitable foundation.
Entrance gate to the Bosch residence in Stuttgart.
Situated on a high hillside overlooking the city of Stuttgart, this stately house was built by Robert Bosch and served as his family residence for a relatively brief time until it was commandeered as a French consulate building at the end of WWII. Regained by the company four decades later and painstakingly redecorated with much of the original furnishings and art, it now serves as a training and conference center for part of the Bosch organization. The house is not open for tours, and the few longtime Bosch employees who accompanied us revealed that they had never had occasion to be invited to the house until our visit.
As architecturally interesting as it was, the most memorable part of the structure was the tale told to us high atop the home's lofty observation tower. As the story goes, Robert Bosch ascended the long flights of stairs eagerly every morning. Once at the top, if his view across the valley showed full plumes of smoke arising from his plant's chimneys, only then could he could relax and eat breakfast with his family before heading off to work.
Robert Bosch Stiftung Building
This is the home (and name) of the charitable foundation that decides how the collective fortunes of the company are spent. Holding 92% of the company's shares, this group controls the entrepreneurial direction of the company while preserving its founder's ideals. Like most big companies in Germany, private ownership is the preferred business model as it provides stability and entrepreneurial freedom without the influence of a purely profit-driven shareholder ownership.
A charitable foundation holds 92% of the company shares and is housed in the Stiftung Building
The contemporary building is an internationally-acclaimed architectural wonder situated on the shared grounds of the family residence, and is in stark contrast to the vernacular style of the traditional homes in the area.
To be continued in Tool Travelogue—Part 2—Bosch Tools Switzerland