Stewo is reinforcing its parent plant with an additional expansion of production capacity

For a medium-sized company, establishing production in Romania takes courage.

The ability to run the site successfully for almost ten years while deep-pocketed groups turned tail after only a short time speaks for itself. At the turn of the year 2011/12, the Romanian plant of Stewo Kunststoffverarbeitung GmbH & Co. KG, Helmbrechts, actually multiplied its capacity in a new production facility.

Managing Director Michael Stelzer has been able to deal with the particular conditions in Romania and seize the opportunities presented. For maintenance and servicing of his injection moulding machines, he uses the service of the Sumitomo (SHI) Demag agency, Chorus Engineering SRL from Bucharest.

The automotive and electronics industries' policy of transferring production to low-wage Eastern European countries also drew Stewo eastward in 2003.

The medium-sized plastics processor from the Upper Franconian town of Helmbrechts took account of the demands of its customers from this industrial segment and founded Stewo Plastic Prod. S.R.L. in Nasaud, in the Transylvania region of Romania, as a 100 % subsidiary.

“Our choice of Romania was rather down to chance. A partner company from the electronics industry offered us the opportunity to share a building with them, a former dairy factory,” reports Managing Director Michael Stelzer, describing the beginnings. He continues, “We started very modestly with two hot embossing machines, one pad printing machine and some manual assembly activities in the rented rooms – without major start-up capital or sponsorship funds. An employee of long-standing from Helmbrechts took over the task of training the few workers on-site in Romania. Shortly after that, we set up a mechanical workshop in order to be able to service moulds for injection moulding, which we wanted to establish in parallel in Romania.”

Romanian plant supports German patent

Only shortly after in 2004, the first injection moulding machines began operation. Michael Stelzer took the risk of starting with a 2-component application, involving injection moulding around a manually inserted leadframe. Together with the circuit board produced by the adjacent electronics company, this resulted in a complete steering angle sensor module produced in Romania.  
"This order is exemplary for our Romanian site. After all, it is not run-of-the-mill parts that we are producing here, but rather high-technology articles and modules which require a high level of manual input," says managing director Stelzer, explaining the profile. Production in the low-wage company does not mean cheap parts - he places great emphasis on this.As a rule, Stewo achieves advantages with this Romanian subsidiary when it comes to components or modules that involve time-consuming manual activities in assembly, surface design or moulding inserts, or else are ordered in small batch sizes or annual quantities. Thus, Michael Stelzer is convinced that money can still be made with high-volume orders, even in Germany: "In Germany, we have a chance if we produce highly technical parts with a very high level of automation." Nevertheless, the level of competition and pressure on costs are great.
"With our plant in Romania, we have found an opportunity to set ourselves apart from other competitors here in Germany. The fact that we produce in Romania was and is the foot-in-the-door for our German plant in many orders. At the Fakuma and K trade shows, the Romanian plant is our magnet to attract new potential customers," explains Michael Stelzer, emphasising that: "Hardly any more marketing is required." As a result, it remains a declared strategic objective of the entrepreneur to secure and strengthen the German parent plant, currently employing about 100 people, through further expansion of the Romanian plant.
The figures add up. With growing demand for low-cost components, the Romanian site grew steadily from when it was founded in 2003, until finally there was no longer any space left in the rented premises housing the pad printing shop, the assembly department and 20 injection moulding machines - most of which are from Sumitomo (SHI) Demag.

Major order from Audi requires expansion of capacity

It became necessary to find a new production facility in 2010 when the existing production capacity was no longer sufficient to cope with a major order from Audi. There was not enough time to construct a new building, therefore Michael Stelzer looked for alternatives and found one only 1 km away in an empty but ramshackle and dilapidated former weaving mill. Only one year was available to find a new site and convert it into a modern production facility.This was an ambitious project, particularly since the official mills of bureaucracy in Romania grind exceedingly slowly and in their own particular way. Michael Stelzer took the deliberate decision not to claim EU sponsorship funding: "We wanted to be completely independent, and thus we purchased and converted the building using our own funds. Over recent years, we had saved all of the profits earned from the Romanian plant, and we invested them in this project." Michael Stelzer places particular value on the infrastructure, and therefore cooperated with German companies to install the electricity, cooling water and compressed air supplies, indeed he did some of the work himself. He invested a great deal of thought into the aspect of energy efficiency. Together with IKS Industrielle KühlSysteme GmbH, Schwarzhofen, he designed the system and now uses the waste heat from the injection moulding machines to heat almost all areas of the plant.

Chorus is a reliable service partner

The relocation from the rented facility to the new, company-owned plant took place at the end of 2011. Stewo first transferred the assembly line in October, with the injection moulding activities following at the turn of the year. Stewo works closely with Chorus Engineering SRL from Bucharest, the Romanian agency of Sumitomo (SHI) Demag. "Here in Romania, it is particularly important to have a reliable partner for customer service. We have to adapt ourselves to the available qualification level. For example, in Helmbrechts we maintain and service our machines ourselves, whereas in Nasaud these tasks are carried out by a technician from Chorus," reports Michael Stelzer, continuing: "The service employee visits us about three times a month to do this. In addition, he expertly carried out the commissioning of the twenty machines that were relocated."

New production facility opens numerous opportunities

In the new plant, Stewo is now working with a total of 28 injection moulding machines from Sumitomo (SHI) Demag with a clamping force of up to 2000 kN, exclusively operated with the NC4 control version and connected to a PDA system. To date, Stewo has been investing in new injection moulding machines for production in Germany and transferring machines of about five years old from Helmbrechts to the Romanian machine fleet. "This has the advantage that we can initially continue to use the NC4 control version in Nasaud. The technological leap from the NC4 to NC5 controller is something that we will overcome with our Romanian employees as soon as we no longer have any NC4 machines left in Helmbrechts," says Michael Stelzer. 

Installation of a new production facility not only created work, but also opened up a series of opportunities. With currently 6000 m², the production area has been more than doubled compared to the former 2500 m². The greater space available and the new layout afforded Stewo the opportunity of further optimising the workflow and structuring procedures in an optimum way. "Amongst other things, we now have fixed warehouse locations for each product. We have also introduced a new, centralised function for identifying scrap. This creates a more systematic approach to detecting and eliminating faults," explains Michael Stelzer, continuing, "About ten employees in each shift work in what we call the quality gate. Each is responsible for one product group, notifies the corresponding department about faults that are detected, and then works out potential solutions together with those colleagues. In this way, we have been able to reduce the scrap proportion significantly once again. We now have a very closely meshed production system which guarantees total traceability."

Steering wheel lever set as a complete module 

About half of the entire production in Romania is for the major order from Audi. Stewo produces a complete steering wheel lever set for the Ingolstadt automobile manufacturer. The injection-moulded turn indicator, windscreen wiper and cruise control levers are pad-printed on the spot, and assembled with outsourced parts to make the module. Stewo built all of the injection moulds and printing systems for this itself. A goods carrier transport system is used for semi-automatic assembly of the levers. A robot injects the lubricating grease into the steering wheel lever set. In addition to a visual inspection, the feel of the modules is now also evaluated. Furthermore, Stewo has introduced artificial aging in the new plant by means of temperature control. "This allows us to detect faults which might only become possible after three or four years in the form of clicking noises, for example," says Michael Stelzer with satisfaction. As in each order, all processes were first established at the headquarters before being transferred to Romania. "A process has first got to work one hundred percent correctly in Germany before we transfer it to Nasaud along with a setter from Helmbrechts who inspects the moulds on the ground and trains the local employees," reports the managing director.

Focus on new surface technolgies 

And what plans is Michael Stelzer now pursuing following the startup of the new Romanian production facility? "We are now concentrating on diversifying our company by replacing some of the orders that are being phased out with projects that are unrelated to the automotive industry. We have been the largest supplier of contactor bodies to Siemens for some time now, we have developed some innovative packaging systems for medical technology, and we are at home as far as safety technology is concerned, and in the electrical equipment industry. Here, we are going to invest increasingly not only in traditional pad printing but also in surface technologies such as painting, galvanising and laser technology, and thus open up new areas of activity," reveals Michael Stelzer at the end of the conversation


Founded in 1967 by Wolfgang Stelzer, Stewo Kunststoffverarbeitung GmbH & Co. KG, Helmbrechts, is now in the hands of the second generation of the same family, and has been managed by Michael Stelzer since 1999. Since the change of generations, the parent plant has grown from 36 employees and 16 injection moulding machines to about 100 employees and 45 injection moulding machines. Furthermore, the Romanian subsidiary founded in Nasaud in 2003 has recorded steady growth, resulting in a new production facility coming on stream at the turn of the year 2011/2012 with several times the original production capacity. Whereas the plant used to employ 50 people in 2008, this figure had already risen to about 180 at the start of 2012. With 28 injection moulding machines, Stewo produces high-quality technical plastic parts in Romania for the automobile and electronics industries.

Dipl.-Ing. Sabine Rahner
Freelance technical journalist

Stewo Plastic Prod. S.R.L.
Str. Georg Cosbuc Nr. 152
425200 Nasaud
Persoană de contact: Daniela Leonte
Tel.: +40(263) / 361-233
Fax: +40(263) / 361-268