A Visit to the Festool Factory, 2015

A Visit to the Festool Factory

A Visit to the Festool Factory

by Rob Brown, Editor, Canadian Woodworking Magazine

In May 2015 I got the opportunity to visit and tour Festool’s German facilities. I spent a total of seven days in Germany, and had a few extra days at the end of the trip to spend in Munich. Festool gave about 12 North American based magazine editors a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes, and learn a lot about how the company produces some of the best power tools on the planet. We also got to see some of what makes Germany a popular travel destination for many international travelers. 
 

Company History

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Visiting the Festool museum

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Festool. Started by Albert Fezer and Gottlieb Stoll in 1925, the company operated under the name Festo, a combination of the two founders last names. At first they concentrated on repairing wood processing machinery and converting plain bearings to ball bearings. The development of their brand of carpentry tools started in 1927.
 
Festo initially spent much of their energy on producing stationary equipment. Though they produced portable power tools during most of their time in operation, it wasn’t until 1975 that they decided to abandon the stationary machine market and focus on portable power and air tools.
 
The theory behind Festo’s design process was to take the tools to the heavy raw materials, rather than the other way around. Their first portable circular saw was born in 1930, followed by a chain mortise in 1932.
 
The Festo MTD and KTD disk sanders were the first sanders with patented independent dust extraction – this was only 1938.
 
By the 1980s, Festo had a very full lineup of portable power tools. Since 1993 Festo power tools have been available in Systainers. Festo was renamed Festool in 2000. In 2006 it brought the DF 500 Domino to the market with great success. In 2012 the Systainer got overhauled to include the T-Loc handle.
 
Festo has always geared its products to the professional carpenter or furniture maker.
 

Festool Museum

I enjoy museums, mainly because, even though you know what you’re going to see, you really don’t know what you’re going to learn. The Festool museum didn’t disappoint. It was packed with lots of tools, old and new. I will admit, I had no idea what some of them did. About half of the items on display were stationary machines, and the other half were portable power tools. Most ran on electricity, but some were gas-powered.
 

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Some stationary machines in the Festool museum

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Festool sander lineage, going back almost 90 years
It was a lot of fun to lean about how some of the tools evolved. Not only having the complete lineage right there in front of us to see, but to also hear about the details and stories about some of the tools, and how/why they changed. 

An example is the family of saws that ended up as Festool’s track-saw. First developed in the early 1930s, the handheld saw was very heavy. It was quickly improved upon, with a better pendulum guard and slightly more manageable size, as well as many other features. 

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Festool circular saws, dating back almost 90 years
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Festool’s first saw in the early 1930s in the upper row, far left
It eventually evolved to have a riving knife, but that was not until the ’50s. The riving knife was developed strictly for the Swiss market, as the Swiss mandated the safety feature. It eventually caught on everywhere, and was added to future saws.

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The addition of the riving knife was to satisfy the safety conscious Swiss market. This saw is from the 1950s

In 1953 Festo produced the world’s first saw that was light enough to be maneuvered with one hand, had 500 watt cutting power and cut at a depth of 50mm – a huge advancement in the carpentry industry. In the early 1960s a track was added to the tool, though at the time the professional market did not accept this addition. The option to purchase a track, which would cause any Festo saw to cut perfectly straight, was considered an attack on the pro joiners of the time. They felt it would reduce the skill level of the joiners, as they didn’t have to learn to cut straight. The plunge-cut-saw was first patented by Festo in 1980.

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Chain mortiser
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Gas powered chain mortiser
Festo also developed a chain mortiser for cutting deep mortises in timber frame construction. In the field, it quickly realized that electricity was not always available on jobsites. This led to the development of a gas-powered version.
 
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 Machine to cut grooves in stringers
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Some older, heavy sanders
Festo also produced what I consider was essentially a manual operated CNC machine in the early 1900s. It operated in three axes and allowed carpenters to groove stringers to accept stair treads.
 
Some of Festo’s early power tools must have been brutes to handle. Heavy tools were the norm though, so that’s what pro joiners were used to. There was nothing flimsy, or cheaply produced, that’s for sure.
 

Facility Tours

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Festool dust extraction plant

While I was in Germany I toured every one of Festool’s facilities. I’ve been through many production facilities in the automotive and woodworking industries. They are all generally very organized and well run, and Festool’s operations were no different.

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They did differ in one important category though – they took great lengths to provide their employees with the best workplace possible. This not only helped their employees have a nice place to work (Photo to the left), but it also ensured they didn’t get repetitive motion stresses and were motivated to work, and it also reduced sick leave.

Everything from plants in the work areas, to bright, natural light streaming through large windows to ensuring the air was kept as a certain moisture content added to the employees well being. Pretty much all of the buildings we toured were fairly new, well lit, and quite enjoyable to spend time in.

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Production of the Conturo, in cell format
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Conturo assembly cell
In the assembly areas, generally speaking, Festool employees work in cells with a few other people.

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  1. Festool employee taking stock of inventory.
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Some of the new motors Festool makes in-house and are about to install
For obvious reasons I wasn’t allowed to take any photos when inside, but they did provide us with some images of our tour afterwards.
 

Developing Products

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Wolfgang Reines (at right) showing us some details about the Conturo

One of the most fascinating seminars we attended was about how the Counturo edge bander was developed. I’m sure many people would assume Festool thought of how it could make an edge bander, and after some discussion made a prototype, sent it out to a few industry experts, received feedback on the tool, and then made the final version for market. That was certainly not the case.
 
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Wo​lfgang Reines talking to us about how the Conturo was designed
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Having a closer look at the Conturo prototypes
The inventor of the Conturo, Wolfgang Reines, showed us all of the different prototypes, from a very early model made of wood and miscellaneous bits, to the final Conturo. There were likely a dozen different versions on display, with more behind closed doors. You could clearly see the innovation that went into the final product. The early versions were extremely rudimentary and were constructed from rough plywood and random fasteners. Some looked like something I would build in my shop if I needed a very rough and dirty jig for a quick process. These prototypes were to get a sense of size and shape, and to give the designers a 3D version to discuss. From there they made modified versions, getting more elaborate as they went.
 
About half way through the process the prototype looked very similar to the finished version, even after I picked it up and handled it. It had knobs, was the appropriate weight and looked nearly complete. It wasn’t until I looked closer that I realized the knobs didn’t work, nothing was operational. The entire tool was printed in 3D and was just to get a great sense of size and weight, and to see how the end user would interact with it.
 
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During the process the designers were considering things like glue type, whether to include electricity and pneumatics or just electricity, etc. They didn’t want the typical adhesive that need extreme heat to melt, as the tool ends up burning arms during use. They also didn’t want it to be so messy. They came up with an adhesive block (Photo ot the left) that didn’t need a lot of heat to melt, and was only liquefied a few seconds before it was applied to the edge banding.
 
Another serious consideration was how to power the Conturo. Electricity was a must, but what about pneumatics? Pneumatics would have simplified the process of applying pressure to the adhesive blocks in order to keep them softened perfectly, but adding a pneumatic element to the tool would make it hard to use physically as yet another hose would have to be manipulated. Also, adding pneumatics to the tool would only make it necessary for everyone who uses this edge bander to have compressed air. Eventually they went without the air, and designed the tool to work completely different. The tool senses how much adhesive is being applied according to the width of the banding and how fast it’s moving. With that knowledge the machine automatically pressurizes the adhesive block at a certain rate, causing just enough adhesive to be softened as the machine works.
 
I’m sure this kind of innovation went into all of Festool’s tools.
 

Testing

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Demonstrating the Conturo
 
Seeing the Festool testing area was a lot of fun. We toured a few large areas where different tests were carried out, but it got most interesting once we arrived in some of the smaller rooms where they test for length of life. Dust chambers, equipped with dozens of different kinds of dust (plaster, wood, Corian, concrete, mixes of different types of dust, etc.), were used to simulate use cycles and speed up wear in extreme condition.

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Torture testing some sanders
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Torture testing some planers
One room had hundreds of tools continuously running, or automatically cycling on and off. Festool learns what parts of specific tools fail first, so they can strengthen or reengineer those parts.
 
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There were even sound, water and ergonomic tests taking place (Photo to the left)





 

Sander Demo

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Handling the new sanders
 
We spent a few hours in one of Festool’s sanding teaching areas. Systainers packed high with all sorts of various sanders lined the walls, and we were taught quite a bit about how the sanders operate. I have a number of Festool sanders but I was quite surprised at how much I didn’t know.

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Two new Festool sanders
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They are available in different versions – the numbers on the tops of the sanders indicate how large the orbit is, in mm
From ergonomics to engineering for performance to accessories, there’s a lot to learn. If you either have a Festool sander and want to learn more about it, or do a lot of sanding and want to finish with a great finish-ready surface, I would suggest doing some learning about these products. There are far too many features to cover here, and I likely wouldn’t do the job justice.
 

New Festool Products

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Some new offerings from Festool
 
A number of new Festool products are hitting the North American market in the near future. “Cordless” seems to be the new buzzword, and it’s easy to see why. Improvements in battery power and life have been huge. Unplugging your power tools now makes a lot of sense, as the pros generally outweigh the cons.

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Cordless track-saw
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Cordless track-saw
A cordless track-saw is coming. It will run in the standard Festool track, can plunge with power as it uses one or two batteries simultaneously, and it’s light enough to be taken almost anywhere. Dust extraction vacuums can be used on the tool, although that defeats the purpose of having a cordless tool. Otherwise you can use the dust bag to stop some of the dust from becoming airborne.

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Cordless saw
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Cordless saw guide
What I would call a carpenter’s version of the track-saw is also coming to the market. A non-plunging saw that runs on a shorter rail, mainly meant to trim 2x4s, 2x6s, etc. to length on a specific angle, makes many home improvement and general construction tasks very easy. Tracks come in three lengths and, unlike the track-saw, stay continuously attached to the saw during use. One hand operation is simple. I was also very impressed with the system Festool uses to make angled cuts. You’ll have to see it to believe it.
 
These were not the only tools to be coming out shortly. A variety of drills and other items are coming down the pipes.
 

Beer Festival

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The group in the festival area, ready to enter the beer tent
 
I flew into Munich and went directly to our hotel in Stuttgart, about two hours away. We spent three days there, and on the last night we donned our lederhosen and did what the Germans do – go to the beer festival and drink beer. It was the biggest spring beer festival in Europe, and it was a blast. Because all 20 or so of us were dressed in traditional clothing we stuck out a little bit, but that only added to the festivities. We were in one of about five huge tents that were much larger than a hockey arena.

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Me in my lederhosen
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Trying not to drop my beer
Musicians playing, beer being consumed, food being eaten, people having fun … you would have never known it was ‘family night’. I didn’t see many young kids, but I was told it was usually livelier than this. Judging by how I felt the next day I’m not sure I could have handled it any more lively! We stayed for about five hours and had a lot of fun. The beers were served in glasses almost as large as my head. Once the night got rolling, everyone in the entire tent was standing up on the benches singing and dancing.
 

Germany Sightseeing

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Esslingen city tour starting point
 
During the evenings we went on a few guided tours of small towns and cities. These are historic towns that have been through a lot over the years. The first tour we did was through Esslingen. The town used to be surrounded by a huge stone wall, and much of it remains to this day. The town was largely spared destruction during the Second World War, so much of the ancient charm still comes through. Cobbled streets, traditionally made wood buildings, wonderful cathedrals, and so many small details to take in. We ate dinner in an old wine cellar that was built in the late 1200s. 

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Traditional style building, and cobbled streets, in Esslingen.
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If you look carefully you can see part of the old stone wall and lookout towers surrounding the city in the background
The next night we did a tour of Ulm. Since it was night-time, I didn’t get many good photos. The small, ancient city was absolutely gorgeous, but the highlight was the incredible cathedral – the tallest in the world.
 
The food in Germany was very good. Lots of sausages and beer, but there were many other delicacies to enjoy as well. A traditional meal, eaten before noon, is white sausage with a special mustard, a large pretzel and a beer. Pretzels are very common around the southern part of Germany,
 

Munich

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The view from the top of one of the churches. The Munich Frauenkirche is the larger building with the two large spires.

The last two days of the trip were spent in Munich and were strictly sightseeing. We arrived in the late afternoon, checked into the hotel, and went out for dinner at the famous Hofbraehaus. It was the royal brewery of the kingdom of Bavaria, and was founded in 1589. Dinner and beer in this great hall was a great experience.
 
The next day I toured all the main attractions – the New Town Hall with its Glockenspiel, Marienplatz, the Munich Frauenkirche, the English Garden, many cathedrals and lots of other spots. It was a great place to spend the day. The construction of the buildings was incredible to see, as was the view from atop one of the taller cathedral spires.

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