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Company - 2014-04-03

Dr Jürgen Ackermann - CEO of NSK Europe Ltd.

‘We are continuing to expand our presence in Europe.’ 
 
In 1963, more than 50 years ago, NSK opened its first European sales office in Düsseldorf. Today the company is one of the three largest bearing manufacturers in the world and has 3,400 employees in Europe.

During an interview with Dr Jürgen Ackermann, CEO of NSK Europe Ltd., the company’s success story and the goals that NSK want to achieve in Europe were discussed.  


Q: NSK has been present in Germany for over 50 years. What, from your perspective, were the most significant lines of development and milestones in the history of the company in Europe?

A: In 1963, NSK started with a simple sales office. Meanwhile, with several production facilities and a well-developed ‘European Technology Centre’, we also function as a development partner for our customers in mechanical engineering and the automotive industry. Important milestones in this development were the acquisition of the European manufacturer UPI with the RHP brand and production facilities in England and Germany, and the acquisition of the Polish ISKRA locations in Kielce. This allowed us not only to expand our product portfolio, but also to increase our production capacities in Europe significantly. We still continue to carry the RHP brand, with its rich tradition, successfully in specific product groups.

Q: NSK is one of the three largest manufacturers of bearings in the world. The other two are European companies. Is that a competitive disadvantage for you in Europe?

A: Some of our competitors have a longer tradition in Europe as well as a significantly larger ‘footprint’ than we do. But we believe we are definitely at least at their level in terms of technological expertise, quality and competitiveness. Our success in very demanding user-based industries such as machine tool engineering and wind power technology demonstrate that customers agree with our assessment. We have a strong presence in both the European OEM business and the MRO (Maintenance Repair Overhaul) sector, for which we provide intensive support with our sales and service partners. We will continue to expand in both areas.

Q: When you take the entire European market, including your competitors, into consideration, where are the strengths of NSK? In other words, why should a manufacturer of machine tools, electric motors or house-hold appliances decide to use NSK bearings?

A: We offer products with a very high level of quality in all areas – regardless of the type of bearing and the quantity.  NSK has also achieved great success in the development of energy efficient bearings.
Our goal is to be No. 1 in Total Quality.

Q: In Japan, NSK employs about 2,000 engineers in two large research and development centres. This amount is impressive, but Japan is far away. Do you support your customers with tests, trials, etc. in Europe as well?

A: Because the world is networked, direct exchange between global development sites is part of everyday business. Our ‘European Technology Centre’ in Ratingen can perform many development tasks and tests on their own. Some of the new series that we are currently introducing to the market were developed here in Europe. NSK Europe will continue to have full support from colleagues in Japan. 

Q: On the one hand, NSK has a very broad catalogue portfolio of bearings, but on the other hand, you also develop and produce bearings that can withstand high stresses for niche applications. Will this ‘balancing act’ remain in this form in the future? And are you focusing on certain areas in specialisation – with regard to core competencies or specific industries?

A: We are indeed a company that has a very large product spectrum and that cooperates intensively with well-known distributors, but we also provide customers with advice from our own specialists for the optimum selection of bearings. At the same time, however, we develop and produce bearings that are suitable for special application conditions – e.g. in machine tool engineering, in the steel industry, in construction ma-chines or in food production. We benefit here from very extensive knowledge in core technologies such as materials technology.

Q: What are the benefits here for product users?

A: We have, for example, developed specific types of steel that feature a high degree of purity. As a result, due to the homogeneous structure, no damage occurs under strong mechanical loading, even in combination with other stresses such as moisture or heat. In such cases, conventional bearing steels already demonstrate typical patterns of damage. The bearings simply hold up longer under adverse conditions. This benefits primarily those industries in which the bearings are subject to particular stresses, e.g. in the steel industry and in paper production and processing.

Q: Large companies are reliable, small ones are flexible – at least that’s what they say. NSK has asserted that it is flexible and provides customers with specific, individualised advice even if large quantities cannot be expected. Does that still apply?

A: Absolutely. With our AIP (Added Value Programme), we offer users intensive consultation in the improve-ment of bearing selection – even if the situation involves single facilities and very low quantities.

Q: The entire drive industry is talking about energy efficiency and sustainability. What can your bearings con-tribute here? Are there examples of bearings that are especially energy efficient?

A: Our reduced-friction bearings are used in household appliances by premium European manufacturers. In the development of these sorts of bearings we can also rely on our expertise in the automotive industry where this characteristic is in high demand. Our reduced-friction bearings are used in the hybrid drives of many manufacturers and we are also working intensively with the energy saving electrification of motor vehicle auxiliary drives.

Q: You have three large production facilities in Europe. Which types of bearings are produced there? Is ‘Made in Europe’ important to you and are you expanding in this area? Or, like many other companies are doing, are you moving production from Europe to other continents?

A: On the contrary, we are continuing to expand our presence in Europe, in the production area as well. For example, here we produce high precision bearings that are used in machine tools, among other applications, as well as precision products in linear technology. In Eastern Europe we produce core series such as deep-groove ball bearings in large quantities. A facility in Germany has specialised in the production of bearings in small to mid-size series. Here, using this great flexibility, we manufacture many customer-specific bearings that we develop in our ‘European Technology Centre’ in Ratingen. Furthermore, we have two other large production sites in Europe for automotive bearings and steering systems.

Q: You are one of the very few manufacturers of large bearings for wind turbines – a very demanding business. Will the trend here continue toward larger and larger systems and greater outputs or is there an end in sight? With which output class is your development concerned at this point?

A: Even if market developments in the area of wind power remain below the expectations of the boom years, we are working tenaciously on advanced development.  Developments here involve larger and larger bearings, and significant increases in quality standards, particularly for offshore applications. Here NSK is the lead manufacturer.

Q: A word about linear technology. Here you are the world market leader in ball screws. What are the significant application areas for these drive elements, and what are the technical trends here?

A: This market is very interesting because, increasingly, hydraulic drives are being replaced by electrical linear drives. NSK is taking on a leading role here. For example, well-known European manufacturers of plastics machines have replaced the hydraulic linear axles (that have been used traditionally) with our ball screws – even at very high output classes. The results are higher precision, shorter cycle times and lower energy consumption. We are expecting this trend to continue – not only with plastics machines, but also in other areas of mechanical engineering.

Q: In comparison with industrial business, your large automotive division is moving into the background somewhat. How is your market position faring here, and what are the central products? Are European manufacturers among your customers as well?

A: The automotive division is even larger than the industrial division, but because we are working directly with  large automobile manufacturers,  supplying them with individually developed products, this division is not as much in the public eye. In addition to bearings used in the entire drive train, we develop and manufacture wheel bearings and electric power steering systems.

Q: Are there synergies between industrial and automotive bearings at the technical level?

A: Both areas demand the highest quality at very high quantities. Energy efficiency and low maintenance, even in unfavourable conditions, are characteristics that are required in both the industrial and automotive business areas. At this level there are synergies in the areas of production and testing technology as well as in logistics.

Q: And how do you view the future of bearing technology in consideration of the many upheavals and changes in drive technology?

A: Strong change will certainly continue in the coming years. We have already addressed the replacement of other drive technologies by electromechanics. But there will always be mechanical drive components that rotate and that require bearing support – in vehicles as well as in machines and equipment. For this reason we are very confident with regard to further company development. And for 2016 – when our entire company will be 100 years old – we have a great deal already planned.

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