Who knows, Balluff might even now still be manufacturing precision tools and Spätzle presses if one question had never been asked. Back at the start of the 1950s, HELLER, the Nürtingen-based machine tool manufacturer, asked Eduard Hermle whether his precision engineering company was capable of producing and improving a switching device. HELLER was looking for a production partner for electromechanical control elements for electrical control systems. The switches should have high switching accuracy and therefore make Heller’s latest generation of milling machines even more precise. Hermle and his team looked at the plans, briefly considered the situation and replied with a definite “Yes” after the conditions had been negotiated.
It is not known whether the head of the company was aware of the significance of his promise that day. However, it is clear that the decision taken by Eduard Hermle back then laid the foundation for the complete reorientation of Balluff. The promise made by HELLER turned his Swabian firm for metal working and precision engineering into a world leading company for automation and sensors over the course of time. Hermle and his employees at Balluff, who had had no interest in automation up to this point in time, set about the task, relied on their technical knowledge and demonstrated perhaps the most important virtue in business life: Business courage.
From hydraulics to electronics
In 1956, Balluff started producing the first cam switch (BNS) in Neuhausen – on behalf of HELLER. Up until then, there were still no electromechanical switching devices for electrical control systems that had worked in the surroundings and under the environmental conditions of a machine tool. Just think about flying metal splinters, splashing coolants or thermal and mechanical loads – every influence which quickly destroyed switches. The two partners, Balluff and HELLER, were faced with these challenges.
The BNS satisfied the basic requirements as part of a precise electrical control system and worked in harsh environments. These requirements included low wear and tear thanks to precise mechanics, high switching accuracy in the range less than 0.01 of a millimeter, a long service life with at least ten million electrical and mechanical switching operations, and impermeability (IP67) against aggressive media such as drilling water and cooling fluid. Eduard Hermle and his team at Balluff managed to satisfy HELLER’s requirements, in part by using hermetic encapsulation of the switch housing. Hermle was even awarded a patent for this.
“My father was a genuine trailblazer with his developments and ranked among the pioneers of industrial automation in the machine tool industry,” said Rolf Hermle, who took over the company from his father and managed it until the end of 2009. The first BNS model was supplemented by other designs and marketed nationally and internationally under the product name “Multiple limit switch” (MLS).
This cooperation between Balluff and HELLER was not only the starting point for Balluff’s business success. The technologies and innovations created through this partnership marked the beginning of the fundamental change from hydraulics to electronics in mechanical engineering and pointed the way to this future.
A partnership on equal terms
The two companies are still cooperating in a spirit of partnership – after more than 60 years. HELLER uses a very wide range of products from Balluff, e.g. RFIDs, IO-Link solutions and vision sensors. HELLER and Balluff jointly hold technology talks to sound out industrial trends. HELLER also regularly makes its machine environment available so that Balluff can test its new development close to the market. “We have maintained a good working relationship with Balluff for many years based on trust,” said Manfred Maier, COO of the HELLER Group. “We are jointly working on topics such as digitalization in mechanical engineering. Balluff is a very good partner in this respect since the specialist for sensors and automation has a flexible and wide range of products which it is continuously enhancing.”
It was a good idea for HELLER to ask this question back then. It was also fortunate that Eduard Hermle took the leap at that time. His foresight and the dedication of his numerous employees made Balluff what the company is today: A world leader in the areas of automation and sensors. And the next great step toward digitalization is already well underway. Balluff is also at the forefront again in this area. But that’s another story.