We go for gold and that feels good

We go for gold and that feels good

NTS Components Suzhou and NTS Mechatronics Shanghai

Jackie Zhang has been a fixture at NTS Mechatronics Shanghai for more than a decade. He started working at the company as a mechanic, became a team leader and is now a Production Engineer. ‘You feel that you are part of a family. You are not just a number. This company focuses on the future. It feels very good to contribute to that and to be able to further develop myself.’

Things are going well for NTS Mechatronics Shanghai. 2015 is expected to see a large increase in turnover, again. According to Managing Director Bas Kreukniet, that is the result of continued investment in skill, quality and speed. The growing footprint of the NTS-Group in the Asian market also helps. ‘We gain extra strength from the cooperation with the NTS companies in China and Singapore. Greater visibility also results in the market having more faith in us.’

Supplier Quality Engineer Tiger Chen has worked at NTS Mechatronics Shanghai since 2002, which is a long time to work at one company by Chinese standards. He shares the ambition of his colleagues. ‘We assemble systems and modules for international high-tech machine builders. That requires a high performance and that is what we stand for. China is largely still the Middle Kingdom: acceptable price, acceptable quality. But NTS goes for gold, we go for the best. I do not know a single company in Shanghai that is comparable to NTS. It feels good to produce top products for top customers. We take on big challenges. We are becoming better at what we do. And the same is true for me personally.’

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'We applaud the ambitions of the NTS-Group'

‘It’s a common misapprehension that we want to work with fewer suppliers,’ says Paul van Attekum, EVP Strategic Chain Management and Procurement at ASML. ‘We actually need more suppliers who can take on the whole process of the development and manufacturing of complete modules for our machines. We therefore welcome the fact that the NTS-Group is progressing in this direction. In this way, NTS will be able to become an even more valuable partner for us in the future.’

Brainport is home to a number of impressive high-tech OEMs, but there is only one like ASML. It is the world’s largest supplier of machines for the semiconductor industry and is especially renowned for its wafersteppers and scanners, which are used in the production of microchips. The company develops ground-breaking new technology. ASML has thousands of scientists who work continuously on machines that can imprint increasingly smaller details on microchips in order to expand their processing power and to reduce costs.

According to Van Attekum, ‘We are more limited by what is economically feasible than what is technologically possible. Everybody wants to move forward, but the end product, including all the effort put into making it, still has to remain affordable. This is why a well-organised supply chain is so important. ASML wishes to concentrate on its core technology and market. Our suppliers are assuming more and more responsibility for everything in between. We demand a great deal from them, but we can also offer them just as much or more in return. The greater their added value, the more attention all the aspects of our mutual relationship needs.’

ASML’s choice for working with a particular supplier is the outcome of a ‘trust equation’ containing four important factors: competence, reliability, transparency and self-interest. ASML wants to have partners that meet high standards. They have to be able to do something special. It is also important for them to explain what they are going to do and to do what they say, even if problems occur. Furthermore, transparency - a constant flow of information about decisions and why they are made - is also essential. ‘The bottom line in our equation is a healthy dose of self-interest’, says Van Attekum. ‘We all want to make money, which is also a necessary part of maintaining long-term relationships. The formula is incidentally not something we use to calculate a definite order of preference for suppliers. It’s a guideline or a driving force that produces a short list of suitable suppliers. It’s not put down on paper anywhere in black and white, but we do take it into account.’

The next step
ASML distinguishes suppliers in different categories. One category is, for example, suppliers of simple components that you can find anywhere. The list of suppliers thins out significantly for contract manufacturers and partners that can design and build critical systems and modules for ASML.

According to Van Attekum, ‘In this category, the NTS-Group is an important company for us. It is a strong development partner and prototype producer. And it is a dynamic company that adds increasingly more value. The work NTS is doing on important modules for our new EUV machines is a good example of this. The next step in the NTS-Group’s development - which we call an OEM Whitebox and NTS an OMM - is essential to us. Brainport is a region with a relatively large number of high-end suppliers for the semiconductor industry. However, only a few of them are capable of performing high-quality engineering and manufacturing complex modules for ASML. A unique combination of development, engineering and manufacturing competencies is required. Our suppliers in this category have to be able to follow our every move and should preferably develop their own technology roadmap, not just for ASML but for other industries as well. It involves a complex interplay between project management on the work floor, organisation, knowledge transfer, cost control, investment power, stability, autonomy and many, many other things. ASML welcomes the fact that NTS is progressing in this direction. The shortlist of companies that bring all these qualities together is currently much too limited for us. We also realise how difficult it is to take a major step like this and we know we sometimes cannot do it alone; just look at how much multinationals such as Intel, TSMC and Samsung invest in ASML to help accelerate our R&D. As a high-tech OEM, you have to dare to take risks and be able to continue to invest in innovation, sometimes via partnerships in the chain. In this respect, we are very interested in the NTS-Group and confident about what it can do. The company has made huge strides forward over the past ten years and I firmly believe we have a bright future together.’

Love of granite and craftsmanship

‘The takeover by the NTS-Group brought a breath of fresh air’, says Wilbert van der Linden, Production Manager at NTS Botech. ‘We have significantly improved our organisation and operating processes and now we and our customers are reaping the rewards. I think being part of this process is inspiring. We are going to raise our company to an even higher level within a short space of time.’

NTS Botech develops, manufactures and assembles ultra-precise machine components from granite, metal, fibre-reinforced materials and ceramics for the high-tech industry. The company’s activities focus on the market for large and stable high-tolerance basic frames, complete guidance systems and precision-engineered parts. It makes, for example, products for global players in the semiconductor industry and industrial measuring instruments. Botech is a unique specialist in working granite; a niche operator in a global market.

According to Van der Linden, ‘Anyone can buy milling and sawing machines. The true art is to be able to look at the product and know what procedures you have to go through and the right order to obtain optimal results. In our work, we are always concerned with things like parallellity, squareness and flatness. The high level of precision we achieve, for example, in lapping a block of granite to tolerances of a thousandth of a millimetre per square metre and accurately aligning components for assembly work is mainly due to handwork. This makes Botech remarkable. If you do not learn to love granite and the craftmanship, you will not last long here. The pride we have in our work means having one more look at a product before shipment… Our customers know that they can always depend on us, especially when we have to make something really complex.’

Van der Linden thinks the takeover by the NTS-Group has given Botech a breath of fresh air. ‘We were already good at what we do, but we could improve efficiency. We are now working hard to do just that with a large number of people in the group. The typical NTS business culture is also driving us forward. Botech is no longer a top-down organisation. Everyone is given the opportunity to help improve the company. More personal responsibility on every level leads to greater commitment, better teamwork and higher quality as well as technical improvement reports, innovation and a good atmosphere at work. Every day, I go to work whistling because I know I can do my bit.’

Customers won't wait

The intensified cooperation between NTS Hermus and NTS CombiMetaal in 2014 created the biggest high-end sheet metalworking company in the Netherlands. For Production Engineer Joris le Clercq, it was a logical step. ‘Our market has changed dramatically. The cooperation has resulted in maximum synergy.’

As the production of large batches gradually disappeared to low-wage countries over recent decades, NTS CombiMetaal began to focus increasingly on projects and small series. ‘It took a lot of soul-searching; restructuring the organisation, planning, processes… We strongly involved customers such as ASML and Philips Healthcare in our internal developments. The increased flexibility, quality and speed our customers demand led to the intensified cooperation of CombiMetaal and Hermus. It was the next important step for us.’

A new management board, an improved team, working in an open-plan office - Le Clercq embraces all the changes. ‘We are moving forward with a fresh approach, for example, by working together in sales, efficiently allocating jobs and sharing knowledge. Broadening tasks, scrutinising worn out methods and intensifying contacts with customers and colleagues has given us the energy we need. Customers won’t wait, so we won’t either.’


The NTS-Group gives you confidence

NTS Components Singapore is one of the gems in the NTS-Group. The company was established in 2013 as a result of the takeover of a typical Singapore metalworking company. Within two years, it had grown to become a high-quality supplier of precision frames and sheet-metal work. The company has record sales and the customers are queuing up. The challenge is to steer the growth in the right direction.

One of the driving forces behind NTS Components Singapore is Managing Director Sunny Wang. If there is one thing that characterizes him, it is the combination of modesty and passion. The clientele has changed from local companies to international OEMs in the semiconductor, medical technology and aerospace industries. In 2014, the turnover rose by 10% and this year, it is 30% higher. The profitability is excellent.

‘We are really just doing the same as before the takeover’, says Wang. ‘However, the bar has been raised on a lot of fronts. We have made great progress in quality, speed, dealing with customers, service and flexibility. This company is no longer the company it was two years ago. We are an NTS company and have been given the space to become exactly that. The NTS-Group does not send a group of managers to tell you what to do. The company gives you confidence. It sets you on the right track and then facilitates your development. That is much more effective and makes my work much more pleasant.’

A special challenge for NTS Components Singapore is managing the growth. There are very few local workers with the right skills.

Wang: ‘If it is difficult to expand by employing more people, you have to focus even more on efficiency, adding value and the right customers. In the meantime, NTS is working hard to set up an assembly company in Singapore. The first project has already been started. Eventually, we want to have the same skills here as in the Netherlands, from making components to developing and assembling complete modules. There is still a lot of work to be done, but that is a good thing.’

We go for gold and that feels good

Jackie Zhang has been a fixture at NTS Mechatronics Shanghai for more than a decade. He started working at the company as a mechanic, became a team leader and is now a Production Engineer. ‘You feel that you are part of a family. You are not just a number. This company focuses on the future. It feels very good to contribute to that and to be able to further develop myself.’

Things are going well for NTS Mechatronics Shanghai. 2015 is expected to see a large increase in turnover, again. According to Managing Director Bas Kreukniet, that is the result of continued investment in skill, quality and speed. The growing footprint of the NTS-Group in the Asian market also helps. ‘We gain extra strength from the cooperation with the NTS companies in China and Singapore. Greater visibility also results in the market having more faith in us.’

Supplier Quality Engineer Tiger Chen has worked at NTS Mechatronics Shanghai since 2002, which is a long time to work at one company by Chinese standards. He shares the ambition of his colleagues. ‘We assemble systems and modules for international high-tech machine builders. That requires a high performance and that is what we stand for. China is largely still the Middle Kingdom: acceptable price, acceptable quality. But NTS goes for gold, we go for the best. I do not know a single company in Shanghai that is comparable to NTS. It feels good to produce top products for top customers. We take on big challenges. We are becoming better at what we do. And the same is true for me personally.’

We have ambition and are flexible

NTS Components Singapore is one of the gems in the NTS-Group. The company was established in 2013 as a result of the takeover of a typical Singapore metalworking company. Within two years, it had grown to become a high-quality supplier of precision frames and sheet-metal work. The company has record sales and the customers are queuing up. The challenge is to steer the growth in the right direction.

NTS Components Suzhou is specialized in producing, treating and processing precision sheet metal. In the Jiangsu and Shanghai provinces, it is one of the best companies in the market. According to Jeff Wang, this is all because of the takeover by the NTS-Group. ‘Work has been moved from the Netherlands to Suzhou. We have had intensive training from our colleagues at NTS Hermus, are ISO certified and work in increasingly closer cooperation with NTS Mechatronics in Shanghai. Our employees are quickly adapting to the NTS culture. We have ambition and are flexible. The planning is becoming more accurate and the risks are well managed. Furthermore, we invest in care for the environment, as well as the health and safety of our employees.

Hard work
Jeff Wang uses the work they do for the Japanese company TEL, which manufactures equipment for the semiconductor industry, as an example of the changing position of NTS Components Suzhou. ‘We have been doing the sheet metal work for this company for some time, but now, we contribute ideas about the design of a service platform for the machine operators, which measures approximately ten by ten metres. We produce the components, assemble the platform, disassemble it again and powder coat the parts. Cleaning and packaging take place in our six-hundred-square-metre cleanroom, so that the customer does not have to worry about that. All in all, we have taken this project from prototype to series production through hard work and perseverance. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction.’

It's highly precise work that requires knowledge and experience

‘We do what we do accurately’, says Daniëlle Vercoelen, Production Assistant at NTS Finish. ‘The components that we handle here may not be the most complex parts of the machines that are made with them, but their quality is just as important as all the others.’

Vercoelen has worked for NTS Finish for fifteen years. She is responsible for taping up and packing components. She never loses interest in her job. ‘It’s a really cheerful company; we are an incredibly close-knit team. I’ve known most of the people here for more than ten years. My parents also work here, which means it’s literally a family business to me. At NTS Finish everything revolves around professionalism. Placing a sticker anywhere on a component or simply chucking products in a box is not the way to go about things. It’s highly precise work that requires knowledge and experience. The tolerances are often minimal. Making mistakes is not an option here. I rarely see products returned, which is how it should be. Everyone knows our work has to be carried out well and quickly. I also love working on components for important machines, like MRI scanners and operating tables that can save lives. It gives you a good feeling.’

It all feels very positive

‘After all, we have been pretty succesful’, says Karin Geurtjens, receptionist at NTS Hermus, looking back on recent years. ‘It has been a turbulent time because of the economy and the changes in our market. But now we are stronger than ever as an all-round company for high-quality and high-precision sheet metalwork.’

Karin has worked for NTS Hermus for more than a decade. ‘It’s a friendly, cheerful club and never dull for a moment, but it’s more than that as well. Everyone truly believes in the products we make for our customers. Because of the reorganisation, intensified cooperation with NTS CombiMetaal and the expansion of the amount of machinery we have pulled out all the stops since 2008…

Now we are really busy again - bringing in new people and watching the portfolio of customers grow. It all feels very positive.’

Bending specialist Bianca Bussers has also been a permanent fixture in the team at Hermus for more than ten years. At present, she is spending a large amount of time making components for Spectro’s analysis equipment. Her job requires a great deal of knowledge and experience. However, Bussers prefers not to describe the highly professional finished work she supplies as ‘special’. ‘It’s simply what I do. The same thing applies to my colleagues. We make and assemble coverings, attach the cabling and fit the electronics, but we also assist in the design and engineering. That is what makes NTS Hermus such a great company to work for.’

We are family

NTS Prometal was established in 1997 in Slavicin, Czech Republic. In 2014, it gained a sister company in Brno: NTS Mechatronics Brno. As a result, the production and assembly force of the NTS-Group has also been secured in Central Europe. ‘The challenge is to use these competences to deliver maximum added value for our customers. We do this through our individual performances, but also more and more through the synergy of our companies’, explains Robert Komanec.

Brno is Czech Republic’s second city. It is modern and has a lot of high-quality amenities. One of the western companies that has settled there is FEI Company, which builds its newest electron microscope, the Talos, there.

‘FEI wants to have its first-tier suppliers just around the corner for reasons of speed, costs and quality’, explains Komanec, Business Unit Manager of NTS Mechatronics Brno. ‘In view of our excellent relationship, it is logical that the NTS-Group has chosen Brno. We assemble, test and certify for example the Talos here. In doing so, we were quick out of the starting blocks.’

Hard work
NTS Mechatronics Brno opened its doors in the middle of 2014. Back then, it was nothing more than an empty production hall. Komanec received the assignment of turning it into a company. Two months later, the first products rolled off the assembly line. The company has now become a reliable force within the NTS-Group.

Komanec: ‘It was very hard work, but I like that. Building this company has given me a lot of energy. We are past the start-up phase now. It is busy, we work in an organized way and we are all going in the same direction, but a lot still has to be done to achieve the desired growth. The NTS-Group has big plans concerning the services we provide to our customers and our own development. Mechatronics in Brno is no exception to this. Our production hall must be filled. Therefore, we will keep raising the bar.’

More than twenty people work in Komanec’s team and they have quickly developed into true NTS people. The company is growing, partly as a result of transferring work from NTS Prometal and NTS Mechatronics in Eindhoven.

‘FEI is still the most important customer’, says Komanec. ‘If something is wrong, we are there within fifteen minutes. This flexibility is something the NTS-Group is good at, but it is also in the genes of the Czechs. The same can be said for craftsmanship, the will to cooperate and our great aspirations. We are expecting some nice, new assignments and are extremely active with sales in Germany. The cleanroom is finished now, we are ISO certified and next year, we will have our certificates for the medical industry. We work on reducing costs, training the team and cooperation within NTS. Our relationship with NTS Prometal is very special. There are a lot of opportunities to be found in combining our activities. In order to realize them, we must communicate even more; pass the ball to each other and exchange knowledge. That is also on my list of priorities.’

Around Slavicin, about an two hour’s drive from Brno, the world is a different place. Gone is the city atmosphere. This is the home base of NTS Prometal, a specialist in making and finishing machine components. Miroslav Micik began working at the company in 1997 as a machine operator. Now, he is the Operations Director and is responsible for the company’s products and processes.

‘When I started, only about ten people worked here. Now, there are about one hundred and fifty. We have expanded enormously. Prometal was like a baby. It had to learn a lot about technology, processes, efficiency and how to deal with customers. Now, we are at the beginning of a new era. Optimizing our value for customers is of the utmost importance. We can do that, for example, by delivering more complex work of a very high quality and having a proactive attitude towards the design. This also makes us more of a real partner within the NTS-Group. It feels great to be able to contribute towards this.’

Micik is thankful for the opportunities that he has been given by the NTS-Group and the possibility to take on more responsibility. ‘It is in my nature to be involved in everything that happens here. It is part of my personality. I always try to do things better, and that is in keeping with this company. The NTS-Group has brought openness and a desire for innovation that is not only good for Prometal, but also for myself. There is an excellent atmosphere in the team and I still love my work.’

Micik is very clear about the relationship with NTS Mechatronics Brno. ‘We also wish to develop, produce and assemble products in the Czech Republic for high-tech machine builders. Good cooperation between the NTS companies is an important aspect. The establishment of NTS Mechatronics in Brno is a positive development for Prometal. It gives us a direct line with high-quality clients in the Czech Republic and the rest of Europe. It means more market opportunities and the possibility to raise our work to a higher level. It helps us make the step towards adulthood. Mechatronics in Brno has not been around for very long just yet. We are family, but the love for each other can grow even stronger... The more our relationship develops, the stronger we will make each other. That is something I am certain of.’

We are always learning from each other

‘To outsiders, the job we do looks practically impossible’, states Ad Houbraken, Team Leader Warehouse at NTS Mechatronics. ‘When we are seriously challenged, we can step up to the mark and prove our worth time and time again with cutting-edge high performance.’

NTS Mechatronics in Eindhoven specialises in engineering and assembling complex high-tech systems and modules. Houbraken feels like a fish in water. ‘It’s busier than ever, also in the warehouse. As the company’s logistics hub, we become involved with everything : all the suppliers, work floor operations and customers. We have a large amount of responsibility. Deadlines have to be met. If you have a flexible attitude, and the hustle and bustle of work gives you energy, this is the right place for you.’

New customers
Houbraken started his career at Nebato in Bergeijk and his colleague Peter van Bree, Team Leader Assembly, at Te Strake in Deurne. Both changed their work location to Eindhoven. ‘Mechatronics has genuinely become one company, but it’s completely different to how it used to be. We have become significantly more professional and improved our competencies, technology, resources, organisation and operating processes. For example, take Ad’s neat and well-organised warehouse, … And just look at our cleanroom, where we work under precisely controlled conditions for our original customers, such as ASML and PhenomWorld, and a rapidly growing number of new customers.’

NTS Mechatronics in Eindhoven tends to concentrate more on single pieces and small series; large batches are usually transferred to Mechatronics in the Czech Republic and Shanghai. Eindhoven focuses on increasingly more complex products and coordination with other NTS companies, such as Systems Development, Precision, CombiMetaal, Hermus and Botech. ‘Simply in terms of knowledge transfer and the synergy between engineering and assembly, forging the companies into a team has been no mean feat’, says Houbraken, ‘We are always learning from each other. We can always improve, but I’m extremely proud of what we have already accomplished in the last ten years.’

We help each other out

‘Milling is like hands-on learning, especially at NTS Precision, where we usually work at the limits of what is technically possible’, says CNC Milling Machinist Emiel Martens. ‘It’s what makes our job so interesting. Our technology is always advancing. At the same time, we can only get the best out of ourselves through teamwork. What we do cannot be done on your own, not without your immediate colleagues, but also not without good communication with our customers.’

NTS Precision was established at the end of 2011. The company specialises in high-precision milling; the production of extremely complex components for OEMs’ high-tech machines. Together with his colleagues, Roel van Iersel, Sjoerd Waelbers and Roland van Vijfeijken, Martens forms a team that operates four state-of-the-art five-ax milling machines. ‘We all take pride in the work we do’, says Waelbers. ‘We help each other out so we can achieve the targeted results for the products and the efficiency of the process.’

‘The level of expertise of the people in the team is exceptionally high’, Van Vijfeijken adds. ‘With the tolerances we use in our work, you have to know what you are doing; the differences between materials, temperature effects, wear and how to place fixtures. We help each other in all kinds of ways, but the scope of our work goes much further than that. We are just one element in a development process that stretches from an initial concept to the creation of an end product. Ongoing open communication with the draughtsmen, the metrological department, finishing, etc. is vitally important in this respect. Nothing is as difficult as that, especially since different companies are involved.’

Although NTS Precision was founded only a short while ago, it recently changed course by focusing more on the production of larger series. For Van Iersel, this was a logical step in the company’s development. ‘Things are clearer now. There is a huge amount of tension between focusing on what is practically impossible and the pressure on prices imposed by the market. We still do what we used to do, but by taking on larger series at the same time, we have created an earning model that is easier to live with. Incidentally, the work we do is still extremely complicated and demands a particularly large amount of individual responsibility. One hundred percent concentration is required here at all times.’

People here always listen to good ideas

‘The NTS-Group has existed for ten years, but NTS Systems Development only five. We are doing exceptionally well, but have only just started to realise our full potential. Bringing together all the NTS companies to form a single close-knit group has been an essential part of this. It’s a fascinating process on both a company and a project level’, says David Rijlaarsdam, Group Leader processes & projects at NTS Systems Development in Eindhoven.

Rijlaarsdam obtained a doctorate in dynamics and control engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. He has a passion for setting up new projects. Working for NTS Systems Development is his dream job. ‘I’ve watched this company grow significantly in recent years. We invest substantially in people, resources and the organisation. Systems Development designs for production. In this category, we work together with the world’s leading multinationals. This is not the kind of company you join to rest on your laurels with a career path laid out in front of you for the next ten years. It’s a highly dynamic environment. Everything here revolves around flexibility, creativity, teamwork and personal responsibility. You are rewarded and supported accordingly. People here always listen to good ideas.’

Business case
High-tech OEMs demand increasingly more in terms of technological performance, precision, speed and quality. Rijlaarsdam thinks that the NTS-Group can only provide what OEMs want by operating as one entity. ‘We are, for example, currently working on a high-precision system for wafer positioning. We are designing the entire unit, building the prototype and we ultimately expect to take on the series production. We are talking about a very complex machine. Designing and making it, and its lifecycle management requires a broad technological scope. You also have to organise all the related activities tightly and intelligently. Specialist companies like NTS CombiMetaal, Hermus, Precision, Botech and Mechatronics are brought in from the earliest development phase for this reason. When I work on this type of project, I pay attention to the balance between technology and the customer’s business case at the same time. The content has to be of high quality, but it also has to be profitable for us as well as for the customer. This is why teamwork within our group is so important. There’s no question that we all want to be part of the team, but our real strength is organising the way we work together.’

Jaap Rossen is CNC Milling Machinist & CAD-CAM programmer at NTS Systems Development in Wijchen (NL), the heart of the NTS-Group’s prototype high-end optomechatronic systems, modules and machines construction operations. ‘I prefer fine metalwork, but I see no challenge in large batches. Give me one or two pieces, let me work out how the parts can be made most effectively and help with improvements.’

Rossen operates a huge, brand-new, five-shaft, swivel head milling machine. His recommendations weighed heavily when it was purchased. ‘That’s one of the good things about this company. Your opinion counts. We are good at what we do: working on the development of high-tech equipment for world-renowned companies, like Elekta, NXP and ASML. Investing in top-of-the-line machinery is an important factor, but it ultimately all boils down to knowledge, experience and the drive to get the best out of everything. Working together with the designers is vitally important. If you can design something on the computer, it does not mean you can make it properly. The interaction between engineers and the people who operate the machines produces the best results; increased quality, faster speeds and lower costs.’

The future
Rossen is part of a team that works in harmonising operating procedures throughout the NTS-Group, for example, to increase the efficiency of transferring work and the ongoing development of products. ‘I am the man from the work floor sitting down with senior managers from all the NTS companies. But I’m not treated any differently to anybody else. Everybody is frank and open with each other. We all want to make progress. When we talk about the NTS-Group, you can see the future. It puts me in a really good mood.’  

NTS Hermus understands what we do

The German company SPECTRO Analytical Instruments GmbH has survived the worldwide economic recession. An important reason for this is the speed of innovation of this manufacturer of devices for optical spectral analysis. ‘If we want to stay at the top of our market, we cannot stop being innovative. NTS Hermus is an important partner for us’, says Divisional Vice President Rainer Petry.

SPECTRO sells its analytical instruments throughout the world from its location in Kleve, Germany, just across the border from Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The company is technologically pioneering and stands out with its exceptionally lean production process: the time from placing an order to delivery takes just five to seven weeks. However, the competition is not sitting still, including the competition in Asia, where they are less strict with the concept of copyright, according to Petry.

‘That forces us to always be innovative. We want to be interesting to our customers and remain top of mind. That is why we continuously introduce new products. We have introduced five new products this year alone, all of which are available in different models. We are only able to do this by concentrating on what makes us stand out, namely electronics and optics.’

Around the corner
About fifteen years ago, SPECTRO took an important decision. It was no longer an option to produce everything itself, if the company wanted to compete globally, so it started searching for high-quality suppliers for its critical components. NTS Hermus had exactly what SPECTRO was looking for.

Petry: ‘NTS Hermus understands what we do. The added value that they bring does not only lie in the production of coverings, but also in their knowledge of opto-mechatronics, cost awareness, having a proactive approach towards the design, taking on part of the assembly and just-in-time delivery. Moving production to low-wage countries is not an option for us, so it is good to have a supplier that is just around the corner.’

SPECTRO is part of the American company AMETEK. The parent company’s policy requires that every new project is put out to tender, but this does not put the position of NTS Hermus in danger. ‘Besides the competence of NTS, we also get on well together. Hermus is by far our most important supplier. We like each other, we have mutual respect for each other and agreements are kept, even if they are not on paper. Of course, we both want to make a profit, which is also good. And even though things do not always go as planned, we have an honest relation-ship, which concentrates on the possibilities and not on the limitations. That feels good. Friendship may not be the right word to use, but it comes very close. German and Dutch people seem to be able to get along with each other just fine. That was also shown during the last football World Cup, when I drove into the Hermus car park with a German flag and a Dutch flag on my car and was welcomed with open arms, as usual.’

Ten years of NTS-Group

The NTS-Group was founded in 2005. Expectations were high. The merging of Nebato and Te Strake was to result in a high-value, opto-mechatronic top-tier supplier which would serve high-tech OEMs through the development, production and assembly of critical components - wherever the customer needed it. ‘We mapped out a path to take, and we took it. Overcoming the obstacles we encountered along the way’, comments CEO, Marc Hendrikse. ‘Now, ten years on, the vision we had for the company is now a firm reality. Of this, I am exceptionally proud.’

The world of OEMs in high-tech industry has in recent decades been characterised by significant and fundamental shifts. The rate of technological development is increasing exponentially, with global markets in a constant state of flux. Market players beat the competition on the grounds of speed, quality and cost. This is something that large machine builders in the high-mix, low-volume, high-complexity sector are no longer capable of doing alone. They have begun focussing on what they’re good at: market knowledge, developing ideas and key processes and selling their machines. Increasingly, everything else is being outsourced. As a result, the demands OEMs have of their suppliers are fundamentally changing.

Fully-fledged partner
‘In many respects, high-tech machine building in Brainport is way ahead the rest of the world - both in a technological sense and in terms of chain organisation and collaboration’, says Hendrikse. ‘It’s not surprising that the NTS-Group came into being here. Companies like Philips, DAF and Océ used to do everything in-house; from concept design and making the parts, through to prototype build and production. Ever increasing consumer price erosion of mass products led to production being moved to low-wage countries and a growing demand for new products. R&D costs must be reduced, innovation cycles sped-up and volatile markets demand flexibility. Old business models give way to new ones. The consequence of these developments is companies outsourcing more and more. Component construction and module assembly were the first to go. Meanwhile, a need developed for parties that could act as fully-fledged partner in the development and build of entire systems. And thus, the NTS-Group was born. Growth through maximum added value has always been our principle.’

Over the past decade, the NTS-Group has evolved to become a systems supplier that takes care of the development and integration of complex opto-mechatronic systems, modules and machines and the manufacture of the related components on behalf of OEMs. In the year 2015, we see a company which is - in many respects - one of a kind in Europe and the rest of the world. It combines high-value manufacturing, assembly and development capabilities within the framework of a growing group of varied but close-knit, collaborative operations. Furthermore, the NTS companies are located on the doorstep of their customers in South-East Asia, Eastern Europe and The Netherlands.

Hendrikse: ‘When we merged in 2005, we set an agenda that, to this day, we’ve followed to the letter. The NTS-Group now employs no less than a thousand people. For a large part, these people are still the experts in manufacturing, finishing and assembling components for our customers’ machines. We are also a co-developer and integrator of essential systems and modules for international high-tech machine builders. What’s more, NTS continues to rise in the chains we operate in. This involves us more closely in our customers’ business cases and roadmaps. On top of that, more and more often, we’re being asked whether NTS would take on full responsibility for new customer modules and machines as an investor and developer.’

High bar
Hendrikse is not one to rest on his laurels. A take-over, big win, pleasing annual results... As far as the NTS CEO is concerned, the cork will remain firmly in the champagne bottle, as Hendrikse looks ahead to the next step. Still, the ten year anniversary of NTS-Group is something to celebrate. NTS was never intended to merely deliver a service. NTS was interested in taking on a position of responsibility, becoming a partner of choice. It aspired to be the first name that sprung to mind for OEMs looking for a partner in the development and build of critical components, systems and modules.

‘We set the bar high ten years ago’, says Hendrikse, ‘but we cleared it’. ‘What we’re doing now is simply our vision come true. Though, it has to be said, that didn’t just ‘happen’. The drastic change and growth process NTS has undergone is, by definition, a fundamental learning process. The accumulation of knowledge and expertise is huge. That doesn’t exclusively apply to the technology, but also to how you approach projects, deal with customers, make working agreements with clients, manage risks, take people to a higher level, optimise a complex organisation, carry-off international acquisitions, incorporate foreign organisations in your culture, and so on and so on... All the while, ensuring that the wheels keep on turning because there are a bills to be paid. None of this would have been possible without the support of our shareholders. They always had a long-term view. In addition, we are blessed with a good number of customers who see our business model as the answer to their requests and who are happy entering into an intensive partnership. Who we really need to thank, though, are our people. The NTS-Group’s success is built on ambition, flexibility, expertise, trust, enjoyment and pride. These are the traits I see in every person who works here.’ 

Marc Hendrikse: 'Growth through maximum added value has always been our principle'

The NTS-Group is a figurehead for Brabant

‘Noord-Brabant – including the Brainport high-tech region – has its own special culture. We are remarkably good at combining professionalism, a constant drive to innovate, close ties and not letting ourselves be limited by borders. The NTS-Group not only showcases its home base, but also actively engages in strengthening the regional economy and society, and has become an important partner for the government’, says Wim van de Donk, the King’s Commissioner of the province of Noord-Brabant.

During the last century, the manufacturing industry laid a strong foundation under the Noord-Brabant economy. According to Van de Donk, the fact that craftsmanship went hand in hand with cooperation and the drive to innovation is not strange. ‘These were once unfertile sandy soils where large families could only earn a living through hard work, cooperation and inventiveness. You can still see these values in the companies that now define our province. I frequently notice enthusiastic entrepreneurs, such as NTS-CEO Marc Hendrikse. They stay the same, know their roots and are not afraid of the world. They are extremely ambitious, highly intelligent, brave and autonomous, but accustomed to working as a collective. This has led to a powerful high-tech ecosystem that operates alongside the international top league. We shall nurture and expand the high-tech sector to assure our future prosperity and welfare.’

When Van de Donk took office as the highest civil administrator of Noord-Brabant, he set himself the target of guiding the province successfully through a sweeping transition phase. Because of the radical economic and social changes taking place all around the world at a fast pace, Noord-Brabant - one of the most important motors of the Dutch national economy - had to reinvent itself in a large number of areas.

According to Van de Donk, ‘In Brabant, we have a time-honoured tradition of regularly asking ourselves who we are and what challenges we have to face. Although the specific wording may differ, the result is always the same regional identity. I like to summarise the Noord-Brabant identity in four key values: imagination, connection, organisation and enterprise, which can be transposed directly into our socio-economic model. I can see them all in the NTS-Group. The company utilises opportunities through its hybrid approach and by adding value with state-of-the-art technology, whilst retaining the simplicity of traditional craftsmanship. It makes intelligent connections, integrates widely ranging activities and specialises, but looks across the horizon at different sectors of industry and regards the world as its domain. In addition, the company invests substantially in its flourishing home region on the basis of healthy self-interest, but also a deep involvement in the ups and downs of Brabant and the people who live here. This makes the NTS-Group a figurehead for our province.’

The future
The close cooperation between Brabant government agencies, companies and knowledge institutes is broadly recognised as the foundation that underpins regional prosperity. The joint consensus on the province’s direction and the work that needs to be done was achieved within the framework of formal and informal meetings. At the same time, everybody is aware of their own responsibilities. Democracy in Brabant transcends politics, it is part of our culture.

‘It’s difficult to explain it to people who do not come from Brabant’, says Van de Donk. ‘Everything is so woven together. Social and economic developments are two sides of the same coin. We interconnect opposing worlds, for example healthcare with design and engineering, and the chemical industry with the environment and nature preservation. All the stakeholders talk continually in alternating groups and at different levels about shaping our common future. In this respect, we set high standards for each other. This also applies to me. I think, for example, that it’s completely normal for entrepreneurs to look beyond the immediate interests of their businesses. I also notice people with exceptional talent who take the lead in the same way that Marc Hendrikse has done in connection with setting up an innovative manufacturing campus and a healthy labour market. Brabant is built on commitment. And luckily, we still have a number of entrepreneurs like him in our ranks. We really do things together here and the result is a province that is leading the way in many areas in the Netherlands and Europe.’

NTS gives sheet metalwork in the Netherlands a future

Since the beginning of 2014, NTS CombiMetaal and NTS Hermus have shared the same executive board: John Dirks and Winfried van Hal. The combined board was the first practical step towards integrating the two companies. ‘We have scaled up our operations and invested in efficiency and competencies,’ Dirks explains. ‘Market demand is the key factor. Quality and costs in line with market trends remain the foundations. But we make a difference by achieving short delivery times and adding strength in engineering, which is the core of our unique sheet metalworking company.’ 

NTS CombiMetaal based in Bergeijk (NL) is specialised in the high-precision production and assembly of sheet metalwork and frames. It concentrates on prototypes and small batches, but the factory also produces larger series. NTS Hermus based in Venray (NL) is a one-stop-shop for precision sheet metalwork. It provides advice about design, material choice, technology, engineering and makes complete coverings.

‘Both companies have their own focus,’ states Managing Director Dirks. ‘They operate at the high end of the market and work well together. Nevertheless, we cannot get the absolute maximum out of them for ourselves or for our customers by keeping them apart. Despite having their own processes, customers, investment policy and culture, CombiMetaal and Hermus are partly active in the same market. This promotes the kind of inefficiency that you cannot optimally resolve in a system with two separate companies that outsource to each other, let alone at a time when our market is changing so dramatically. Top-quality work is and shall remain the basis, but if you cannot deliver at prices in line with market trends, you will not survive very long in any case. At the same time, we have noticed that the demand for greater flexibility and the ability to take a constructive approach to engineering is rising. Achieving increasingly shorter lead times and adding development strength to the mix are the things that our customers require from us. The NTS-Group can meet its customers’ expectations by establishing one powerful sheet metalworking company.’

The integration of NTS Hermus and NTS CombiMetaal will result in a sheet metalworking company that, in terms of size, turnover and competencies, has no equal in the Netherlands. ‘We do not simply want to build a new factory,’ says Van Hal, Operations Director. ‘The integration of the two companies is a process. We are working from the ground up. We have, for example, merged the sales departments in order to present ourselves as a single company to the outside world and to enable us to optimally allocate the work internally. We are bringing processes into line, rotating and training employees as well as making our organisation and logistics more professional. We are also working on achieving a higher level of mechanisation. Our labour costs compared with companies in Central Europe put our competitiveness under pressure, but that does not mean we can get by with fewer professionals. Our specialists form the backbone of the company, now and in the future. They have to be able to develop, feel comfortable at work and be proud of what they do.’

Dirks is also clear about his ambitions for the company. By combining the two sheet metalworking companies, the NTS-Group is investing in growth and jobs. ‘It means assuring a future for our profession in the Netherlands and Western Europe. There are plenty of opportunities, but if we do not take the right steps, we will eventually lose out. Merging Hermus and CombiMetaal was the logical thing to do, not only to optimize synergy, but also from the broader strategic perspective of the NTS-Group. We can now implement a more effective investment policy for one centrally managed sheet metalworking company and work more efficiently with other NTS companies, such as NTS Finish and NTS Prometal in the Czech Republic. At the same time, we can organise what we want to. Anyone can buy a fantastic machine, but ultimately our people enable us to improve our services for customers and help shape the success of the company.’


It all starts with us

Diana Vreys has approximately 36 years of experience in finishing metals and plastics. This year, she is celebrating her twelfth anniversary with NTS Finish. If it is up to her, she will stay with the company until she retires, because ‘it‘s a really nice place to work.’

NTS Finish is specialised in wet and powder coating, printing on and assembling metal and plastic components for high-grade machines. NTS Finish‘s customers impose increasingly stricter quality requirements in line with the continual pushing back of technological limits in, for example, the automotive, medical equipment, defence and high tech machine construction sectors.

‘The specific quality requirements vary per product,’ says Vreys. ‘We work on parts for important machines, for example electron microscopes and MRI scanners, which we never see after they have been built in. Nevertheless, it all starts with us and the techniques we use for treating components. It makes you proud. Because we use state-of the-art machines and processes, we rarely have any return products. However, the quality we deliver is also due to the employees. As a packer, I have an important job to do. The work has to be done efficiently and components have to arrive undamaged. It requires experience and you have to have a sense of responsibility.’

When Diana, who is from Belgium, started working for NTS Finish, many people asked her if she knew what she was doing ‘by going Dutch’. ‘I soon found out that I was in the right place. It is open and friendly here, and there are plenty of opportunities to do new things. For example, I also help with taping up and assembling components. The people here can always rely on each other. Nobody is better than anybody else. And that is exactly how it should be.’

From build to print to build to business case

The NTS-Group has expanded to become a system supplier that unburdens OEMs all over the world by developing and building complex opto-mechatronic machines and the components they need. ‘We are currently strengthening our position further by moving up the supply chain,’ says CEO Marc Hendrikse. ‘Manufacturing, assembly and system development will remain our core activities, but the role we play is gradually changing. As a co-developer, we are increasingly becoming a partner in OEMs‘ business cases. In this way, we engage with customers more intensively, more closely, and on a more equal footing.’

Global competition between high-quality machine builders is fierce. At the same time, the markets and activities of these original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are growing more complex. End users demand flexibility and versatility. As a result, the planning horizon is continually narrowing. Volatility in the high tech sector is turning into unpredictability. Machines are becoming more complicated and their life cycles shorter. This has induced rising development costs. Processes and products have to meet increasingly stricter quality requirements and prices are under pressure.

‘All in all, we are talking about an incredibly difficult mix,’ states Hendrikse. ‘OEMs rely more and more on their system suppliers, and ask us to take responsibility for the development and construction of their key modules. We follow them in their global outsourcing strategy. In order to organise their R&D and production optimally, OEMs cannot really do anything else except work together with their manufacturing chain. But it is also what they want, because it enables them to concentrate on their distinctive core technology and the marketing of their machines. A great deal of what lies in between is outsourced to the supply chain. Furthermore, partly because of the levelling off of production costs between continents, more and more OEMs prefer to adopt a regional production strategy. All this impacts significantly on how the NTS-Group operates.’

The NTS-Group was formed by the merger between Te Strake and Nebato in 2005. Both companies serviced the high tech sector by manufacturing and assembling machine components. However, their customers‘ needs changed dramatically over time. Products had to meet continually stricter requirements; modules were outsourced on an increasingly higher level. Combining the strengths of the two companies in the NTS-Group enabled customers‘ needs to be met. Manufacturing, assembly and development competencies were subsequently added to the group. Various new NTS companies were created through acquisitions and autonomous start-ups.

According to Hendrikse, ‘From 2010 onwards, we invested substantially in switching from manufacturing and contract manufacturing to system development; from build to print to design to specifications. Manufacturing and assembly will remain our core competencies. But if you want to offer real added value, you have to have the ability to design key systems and modules on the basis of functional requirements using knowledge of manufacturing. This requires expertise and competencies, an efficient organisation, regional presence and a high level of customer intimacy. We do after all have to be able to follow our customers in their technological and strategic development. At the same time, we also have a natural urge to have a greater say in the products we make.’

Business Case
The NTS-Group sees its future destination on the horizon as an OMM: an original module manufacturer that - by having embedded knowledge of its customers and their technologies - develops, builds and sells modules independently. Only time will tell whether this is a realistic goal. In high tech machine construction, the home-grown technology of OEMs is, and for the time being will remain, a no-go area.

‘But that does not mean there is no room for us for further development,’ says Hendrikse. ‘As a supplier for OEMs, we can enhance our added value by taking the step to ‘build to business case’. On the one hand, our customers want to control their specifications, but on the other hand, R&D budgets are often limited so they look for partners who wish to join their business case. There are opportunities in this area for us to create and take an even more constructive approach. Becoming a partner in OEMs‘ business cases significantly changes your position. We engage with customers more intensively, more closely, and on a more equal footing. We become involved in all the stages of a product. The differences between the start and end of projects are blurring; we are part of an on-going process and we are obtaining more and more freedom in technology development. We share the risks as well as the successes.’

Standing side by side with customers in business cases requires more than having a leading position as a manufacturer, contract manufacturer and system developer in Asia and Europe. The power to make investments and top-quality competencies in project and programme management are also crucial. With the Wintermans family coming on board as a shareholder, the NTS-Group has assured itself the necessary financial strength for further growth. In addition, our commercial set-up has been reorganised and Business Line Managers are now responsible for end markets. Together with the Program Managers, the Business Line Managers orchestrate the manufacturing, assembly and system development within the entire group.

‘In this way, we have created the necessary efficiency and decisiveness to fulfil new promises,’ says Hendrikse. ‘In this respect, organising the underlying process is a real art. In order to facilitate OEMs in achieving faster and better performance for lower costs, we have to utilise all the expertise and ability within the group and set up effective and transparent decision-making processes. Developers, and assembly and production workers - everybody has to contribute so we can deliver the best solutions. These conditions also apply throughout our manufacturing supply chain. If the NTS-Group upgrades its technology, organisation, partnership and business models, our suppliers cannot lag behind. At the same time, our customers will also have to steer a new course on various fronts. You achieve success together in a shared business case by working on a basis of equality and openness, by releasing the reins and allowing decisions made at the top to be felt in the workplace. In addition, you have to be willing to share the success in a risk-reward model. In short, we are all on a complex learning curve, which can sometimes seem especially difficult. Whatever it takes, we have to get through together so we can ultimately create a win-win situation for everyone.’



Teamwork is first and foremost about people

‘Sourcing is a competence,’ says Johan Sedihn, COO of Elekta. ‘It is not the same as passing the buck on problems you cannot resolve on your own. It is a form of teamwork in which companies strengthen each other. A click between cultures, people, vision and organisation is just as important as adding value in the form of knowledge and technical skills. This is precisely why we rate working together with the NTS-Group so highly.’

Elekta is a pioneer in neuro-surgical and radiation therapy systems for treating cancer and brain disorders. The Swedish company has more than 3,400 employees and operates globally from approximately forty business locations serving more than six thousand customers. Elekta focuses on research, technology development and the sale of systems. For the production of equipment and components, Elekta relies largely on suppliers such as the NTS-Group.

According to Sedihn: ‘Outsourcing has always been an integral element of Elekta's business model in which everything revolves around partnership. We want to build up sustainable relationships and long-term forms of cooperation with our suppliers. Trust and understanding are key concepts. With regard to the NTS-Group, the similarities between the Swedish and the Dutch mentalities form a good starting point, but NTS also has everything that we demand of suppliers: openness, flexibility, the drive to discover new things together, the willingness to share risks and of course the technical ability to co-develop and produce components and subsystems for our modules.’

Human lives
The relationship between the NTS-Group and Elekta dates back to the time when Nebato was a supplier for the radio therapy division of Philips Medical Systems in England, which was taken over by Elekta in 1997. At the present time, the ties between the companies are stronger than ever. For example, NTS Mechatronics Shanghai produces and assembles modules for Elekta and NTS Systems Development is working hard on a prototype for a gantry, the basic construction for an MR Linac, which will not only identify anomalies in a human body, but will also provide radiation treatment at the same time.

Sedihn explains: ‘As you can imagine, the development and manufacturing process for this type of machine is extremely complex. We focus on R&D, our core business. For opto-mechatronic solutions, we work intensively with NTS, which has become an integrated part of our product chain. Although the development work is on schedule, there are always problems to overcome with projects with this level of complexity. Especially because there is no room for error in solving them. The bottom line is that the applications of our machines always focus on human lives, which is something we bear in mind all the time.’

Four years ago, Elekta organised an open day for its suppliers to highlight its vision and ambitions. ‘We talked to them about our mission and asked them to join us in servicing a global market with innovative, high-quality products at competitive prices. We explained to them that it would not be possible to do so without having a base in Asia for production, assembly and engineering and we asked our suppliers to follow our lead. NTS then indicated that it was already active in Asia. For us, this was the reason to intensify our relationship. The NTS-Group's recent investments in Singapore and Suzhou were another positive indication for us. To be honest, I do not think that we would still be working together if NTS was not so strongly represented with various competencies in Asia. At the same time, it remains part of the total picture. Teamwork is first and foremost about people. You cannot do anything without people who are jointly prepared to do their utmost and who believe in the products they make, and I do not just mean the management, but every layer of the organisation.’

We make scarf joints that completely overlap

OEMs more and more frequently expect complete solutions from their suppliers. This means that the NTS-Group increasingly co-designs modules and machines and then produces them. This not only requires investments in competencies, but also in organisation. Different work methods and cultures within are brought together, because production, assembly and development have to go hand in hand in order to optimise manufacturability, speed and quality.

‘Over the past few years, things have gone really fast’, says Eric Hezemans, the Managing Director of NTS Systems Development. ‘Because of the speed of ongoing technical advances in the high-tech sector, machines are steadily growing more complex. All the knowledge that is needed to develop and build them is becoming ever more difficult for large OEMs such as ASML or FEI to organise and finance internally. In addition, the markets in which these companies operate are volatile. They have to utilise external capacity to avoid stagnation. This requires flexibility and has resulted in clients focusing increasingly on their core business: their cutting edge technology and the marketing of their products. Outsourcing has become an integrated component of their business models.’

Outside the scope
‘This process started with the outsourcing of the production and assembly of, for example, frames and sheet-metalwork’, adds René van Wijk, Managing Director of NTS Mechatronics in Eindhoven. ‘The next step was to draw on these domains to contribute to the design. Companies such as NTS Hermus, NTS Finish and NTS CombiMetaal had already built up enough knowledge to enable them to provide added value, for example, from the perspective of cost management. After this, the demand for value engineering took off: ‘Can you completely design and produce a module which is outside the scope of our normal activities but really important to us?’ There has been a complete market turnaround. For NTS, this has had enormous consequences in terms of the competencies we need to have in house and the way in which we organise our work.’

In the past, NTS companies used to receive a drawing of a product and were asked how much it would cost to make, however the situation is different now. An OEM sees a market opportunity for a given machine at a set price. The underlying demand for design and production capacity is segmented and partially outsourced to suppliers.

According to Hezemans: ‘We are asked by clients whether we can design and deliver a module with a specific functionality for a fixed price more and more frequently. We cannot do this by regarding the disciplines needed for the module as separate elements. In situations in which we are asked for design for cost, manufacturing and delivery time, it is not very efficient to draw a line separating the design and production phases. We can optimise our procedures only by using all the knowledge available within the NTS organisation. This is also the reason why we work in multidisciplinary project groups and make scarf joints that completely overlap: in the first phase, developers are in charge, but at a given moment, a turning point is reached and the makers take over and assume control. This means bringing together two widely different cultures, which can be extraordinarily challenging, especially in communication.’

Competence centres
Where OEMs have difficulty in managing segmented knowledge domains, the NTS-Group also has to make choices. We focus on the market for opto-mechatronic systems which incorporate high precision moving parts. The knowledge required for this is anchored within the organisation by forming the group companies into competence centres. The different competence centres examine what knowledge is available, for example, in the area of gluing, welding, assembly, sheet metal working or coating, as well as the knowledge that has to be acquired.

‘This can be done by developing the knowledge internally, but it can also take place by bringing in partners or adding companies to the group, which is what happened in the case of granite specialist NTS Botech’, says Van Wijk. ‘In addition, we also follow our clients around the globe in order to optimise the services we provide for them and to provide added value by offering a combination of development, manufacturing and assembly. In today's NTS-Group in which we no longer automatically meet up by the coffee machine and in which we operate in different cultures and time zones, the way in which we organise our work is more important than ever. And vertical integration is an important focus point.’

Children are not customers

Show and don’t tell. According to Chris Voets of De Ontdekfabriek (Discovery Factory), this is how to interest children in technology. ‘You don‘t think technology is interesting so we‘re going to show you that it is’, is not the right approach. Playing the underdog will either not work or have the opposite effect. Learning has to be fun to produce results.

People have been aware of the impending shortage of technical personnel and how this will impact negatively on the economic power of the Brainport region for quite some time. Eindhoven city council asked artist Hugo Vrijdag to help solve the problem back in 2004. Vrijdag developed a programme for primary schools in which he combined his passion for storytelling with his love of engineering. After reading the exciting stories, children were challenged to ‘come up with inventions’. At an annual event, the inventions were exhibited and film versions of Vrijdag’s stories were shown together with life-sized props made by the children.

‘In fact, we now do the same things in De Ontdekfabriek’, Voets explains. ‘However, we now have a permanent location: a workshop that is open to children and schools all year. De Ontdekfabriek would not be able to survive without outside help. This is why we are thankful for the support we have always received from the city council and the NTS-Group. The provincial government, Frencken, ASML and Philips, Gemco, DAF, VDL and a lot of other companies also help us in many different ways. Awareness of our common interests forms the basis of our existence.’

Voets sees a large number of initiatives to promote technology around him. ‘Involvement is good, but fragmentation is by definition ineffective. From the perspective of administration, it is also difficult to produce a broadly supported plan. De Ontdekfabriek is in any case a physical location where different activities can be combined. It is logical for companies to like giving groups of schoolchildren guided tours. But children are not customers. In order to spark their enthusiasm you have to be able to see the world through their eyes. And that is precisely our specialism. We are now looking further than primary school pupils and are running the First programmes for secondary schools.’

We put the pieces of the NTS-Group's puzzle into place

It operates successfully in international markets that have huge potential. However, the group is still rapidly developing its infrastructure, processes and positioning. According to CEO Marc Hendrikse: ‘The company that we have envisaged for so long is emerging slowly but surely. This obviously means that our work is not finished; it’s an ongoing process.’

As a first-line supplier of opto-mechatronic modules and systems, the NTS-Group aims to combine the engineering, assembly and manufacturing of critical components. The group’s customers are end manufacturers operating in the semicon, solar, analytical, digital printing and medical technology sectors. It is a world of low volume, high complexity and high mix with fiercely competitive markets in which speed, flexibility, quality, efficiency and knowledge are core competencies. As a system supplier, the NTS-Group has become a key player in the premier league of international high-tech industry.

‘We have made significant advances in recent years’, Hendrikse continues. ‘The important thing to do now is put the last pieces of the puzzle into place and then mould the group companies into a team in order to strengthen and expand our market position further. We want to be where clusters of our customers are based. To do this, we must continue to invest in technology and infrastructure. Last year, we added the high-tech milling company NTS Precision to our group. Recently, we took over the company BoTech, which specialises in the production of ultra-flat granite plates, an essential component of many machines in which high-precision X-Y movements are made. We wish to manage activities like this on our own so we can deliver high-quality products flexibly and cost-efficiently. The increase in the group’s knowledge due to these takeovers has enabled us to gear our organisation to be able to meet tomorrow’s demand. The markets in which we operate have a huge amount of potential, but technologies naturally continue to evolve. As a result, specifications and tolerances are constantly being modified and we always have to be in a position to help our customers. When ASML decides Extreme UltraViolet (EUV) will be the technology platform of the future, our response is, for example, to build a huge hypermodern cleanroom for our assembly plant in Eindhoven and a smaller version for prototype construction in Wijchen. Because of the relatively low costs and proximity, customers have also requested us, for example, to use our production facilities in the Czech Republic to do assembly work for Eastern Europe. This is something we shall do in the long term.’

More and more western OEMs are building large production facilities in Asia. They need to have supply companies like the NTSGroup close at hand. Local for local is the answer in an unpredictable, volatile market in which speed and costs are key factors.

Hendrikse: ‘Irrespective of whether product development, component manufacture or assembly work is concerned, value chains have to be able to adapt quickly. It’s more difficult to do this if you are based on the other side of the world. We want to be able to offer the same services in Asia as we do here. In Israel and China, we already have assembly and production facilities. This will also soon be the case in Singapore, where our objective is to build up our engineering skills. This will complete all our core competencies in the Middle and Far East. We shall adopt the same approach for Eastern Europe and the West Coast of America, but we are not going to rush into anything. The group has to remain manageable.’

Better known
Taking over companies to make the NTS-Group a global operator is one thing, but making all the components function together as one team is a completely different challenge. Hendrikse: ‘This involves things like embedding processes, sharing knowledge, investing in both current and prospective employees, collaboration within the group, training and developing a corporate culture with a sense of purpose. In all these aspects, we have made significant progress. The NTS-Group is becoming increasingly better known in the market. We are also receiving more and more interest from leading knowledge workers, because the increasing complexity of the orders means they can gain more in-depth expertise, whilst at the same time, they can broaden their horizons because we are not focused on a specific market. This is especially reassuring given the extremely worrying shortages on every level of the high-tech labour market. We are also growing as a group on the level of member companies and individual employees. People have to become accustomed to the open culture, internal solidarity and personal responsibility that characterise the group especially in other countries. It’s quite difficult to put it in words succinctly, but the more everything clicks together to create a unique NTS feeling, the more enthusiastic people are and the greater the efficiency of teamwork. This is why we think it is so important for people to become personally acquainted with each other and the different companies in the group. Obviously, anchoring our identity throughout all the ranks of our organisation and in the external market is a long-term objective. In this respect, our work will never be finished. However, the company we envisaged is slowly but surely taking shape on every front. And that is really encouraging.’

NTS delivers fantastic work

The relationship between the NTS-Group and Philips Healthcare dates back several decades. ‘We are making an interesting trip together’, says John van Soerland, Vice President and Global Operations Manager of Interventional X-Ray. ‘We expect our supply base to be able to keep up with our developments. With all the related ups and downs, NTS has proven that it can.’

Philips has three divisions: Consumer Lifestyle, Lighting and Healthcare. In 2012, Healthcare has the best turnover and profit. Over the past decade, the division has transformed from a builder of medical systems into a provider of products encompassing the entire healthcare cycle. Healthcare is one big innovation machine.

Ninety-five per cent of the capacity of Philips Healthcare in Best is aimed at the development, production and marketing of imaging systems. NTS is treated as one of the family and is responsible for the co-engineering and construction of various modules for X-ray and MRI scanners. ‘Whereas Philips used to do everything in house, outsourcing and cooperation are now key factors. Suppliers have to reposition further up the value chain. The performance requirements for engineering, quality, speed, flexibility and cost efficiency are high. We also require our suppliers to be based locally in order to minimise our global carbon footprint.’ Van Soerland realises that it is challenging for relatively small suppliers to move at the same pace as his own organisation. ‘But NTS has proven that it can and is an important partner to us. The operational excellence of NTS has got better and better. An open, positive atmosphere, investing together and hard work laid the foundation for this. And after seeing that NTS completely makes its chain of engineering, assembly and production in Asia now as well, I know that fantastic work will be delivered. I also think it is important to realise that we are part of the same regional high-tech family and have common interests. In this area, we are also investing jointly in a healthy future.’

NTS ready for the future with new cleanroom

NTS Mechatronics in Eindhoven recently put a new cleanroom into operation. A growing number of customers require the assembly of critical components under ultra ‘clean’ conditions. ASML, which has made a giant technological leap forward with its new generation of EUV lithography machines, is one of them. Technology and competence suppliers have to match evolutionary advances in products made by OEMs in order to survive.

Martijn Nap, senior supply chain engineer at ASML and Michiel Bloemers, production engineer at NTS Mechatronics know each other very well. This is because Nap works full-time on supervising the projects that ASML outsources to the NTS-Group and monitoring the quality of the collaboration between the two companies. Bloemers is his counterpart at NTS. They see each other every day and the construction of the new cleanroom has been high on their agenda during 2012.

Nap: ‘ASML expects more and more involvement from suppliers, which means we can only applaud the construction of NTS’ new cleanroom. We anticipate growth in the turnover of our EUV-machines. They are immensely complex. We generate extreme ultraviolet light which we conduct through a vacuum using optical components on a wafer. The EUV exposure method enables us to place more transistors on a given surface area. This has led to a new generation of chips that have the same or greater capacity, but are smaller and use less energy. At the present time, seven of the newest lithography machines are already in operation. Who knows, we may soon be selling one every week.’

Although the semiconductor industry is not alone in designing increasingly more products that have to be made under cleanroom conditions, Bloemers admits that the developments at ASML were an important driver behind NTS’ expansion of capacity. ‘Until recently, we had two cleanrooms, one measuring 150 and the other 250 square metres. The first had reached end of life and has now been replaced by a cleanroom measuring 900 square metres. Half of the space in the new facility falls within ISO Class 6, which corresponds with the ASML’s mandatory Grade-2 classification. We can now produce the volume required for ASML’s EUV machines here. We also now have the capacity to be able to grow at the same pace as ASML and do not have to say ‘no’ to other customers because we are ‘full’. The new cleanroom has enough space to allow thirty people to work at the same time. It is a huge step forward for our company, all the more so because we will also be able to clean components from our suppliers in the future and no longer have to depend on third parties.’

The mechatronics module that NTS makes for ASML’s EUV platform is exceedingly complex. As a result, the exposure time is relatively long and the assembly process is very delicate. The risks of contamination, breakage and human error mean that the work has to be carried out with meticulous discipline. ‘Working in a cleanroom is a way of life’, says Bloemers. ‘Because only a few people meet the profile requirements, it is really difficult to find suitable personnel. However, this also makes our competencies in this area stand out.’

‘It is vitally important for our suppliers to be able to match the advances in the development, engineering and assembly of our products as they evolve’, Nap adds. ‘ASML can see that the NTS-Group is on the right track. In this respect, investing in the high-tech milling company NTS Precision was also a positive indicator. At ASML, everything revolves around optimising quality, costs, flexibility and speed. The best part of teaming up with Michiel is that, because these things already run so smoothly, we can concentrate on the content. In addition to producing results, it makes the work really enjoyable.’

Invest in the future

How can we keep the costs of healthcare under control? How can we develop new and clean energy? How can we optimally use the earth‘s scarce resources? Meeting all these challenges requires tools and machines: for the production of solar cells, medical diagnoses and procedures, the analysis of widely ranging materials, production of computer chips, etc. These are precisely the tools and machines that customers of the NTS-Group make and demand for them is only likely to increase in the future. These markets are driven by technological advancement and innovations in production and supply chain partnerships. Following the economic boom in Asia, there can be no doubt that these markets are now global.

The NTS-Group wishes to assume responsibility for its customers‘ opto-mechatronic systems and modules through co-development, manufacture critical components under own management and assembly of modules close to customers‘ business locations. In order to be able to play this role effectively, the NTS-Group will continue to invest in facilities like new cleanrooms, in competencies, for example, via the acquisition of NTS Botech, in further internationalisation and especially in people. This not only applies to our present employees, but also to young people. A whole lot more young people need to be studying science and technology on every level!

Our NTS corporate culture and the way we work together are unique. At the NTS-Group, you have faith in the people you work for, you are proud of what you do and you enjoy working with others. In this way, we build our future together and, as part of the international NTS family, we help our customers accelerate their business!

We want to lift this organisation to the highest level

He has always wanted to shape his own future. ‘My knowledge of technology and experience are key factors in this respect, but I also want to help shape an organisation that ranks among the best. Working with a club of young, dynamic developers like these people was an obvious choice.’

Lower, intermediate and higher technical vocational education followed by university of technology…
Ten Haaf has come a long way. He was a straight A student. He recently went to a primary school reunion and took the opportunity to get an answer to a question that had been bothering him for quite some time: Why did his teacher want him to go on to junior general secondary education instead of lower vocational technical education?

‘The answer was that he thought I was capable of doing much more. But I was fanatical about technology and I follow my heart. And look at where it has taken me: a fantastic time at a start-up company in Leuven, a job as a team leader and designer at Océ, a position as a motion engineer at Bosch Rexroth, and now with NTS.’

NTS Systems Development is a relatively young company. As the lead engineer, Ten Haaf has final responsibility for the mechatronic design of various products. ‘I can see the enormous potential of this company, but also the route we have to follow to optimise our position as a co-developer: attract even more knowledge, work together more intensively within the group, integrate separate disciplines to build a multidisciplinary organisation and harmonise our operating processes. We want to lift this organisation to the highest level. I want to contribute using the space and freedom. At NTS, you can choose your own pathway to deepening and broadening your specialisms. In my case, it led to becoming a system architect so that I once again have final responsibility for each complete product that leaves our workshop.’

Schools and industry have to become partners in education

In Brainport, the heart of the Dutch high-tech industry and the home base of the NTS-Group, the growing shortage of engineers is becoming an increasingly more critical problem.According to college administrators Nienke Meijer and Antoine Wintels, the issue can onlybe tackled by working together with industry. Primary and secondary education must receivemore focus. ‘We need to make a complete U-turn in the way we think about education.’

Suppliers like the NTS-Group as well as OEMs like ASML and Vanderlande are finding it more and more difficult to recruit engineers on every level. Their concerns in this respect are shared by the education community and the government. However, finding a way out of this potential bottleneck to economic development is complex. Nienke Meijer, member of the Executive Board of Fontys University of Applied Sciences and Antoine Wintels, chairman of the Executive Board of the Eindhoven Regional Training Centre (ROC) also realise this.

Meijer comes straight to the point: ‘Our job is to train people so they can find work, not simply to hand out as many qualifications as possible. Over the past four years, the number of science students at Fontys has increased by thirty percent. This is all well and good, but it is barely enough to meet current demand, let alone allow for growth. Brainport is the second most important region in the Netherlands for the economy. Things are designed and made here. If there are not enough people around who can do that, economic decline will inevitably follow. The ROC and Fontys are doing their utmost to supply quality in the competencies required by industry, reduce the number of school-leavers without qualifications and encourage people to work in the engineering sector. However, this does not alter the basic fact that we simply need a lot more students to choose science and technology.’

Technology students
Brainport was nominated the world’s smartest region in 2011. According to Wintels, most of the inhabitants do not really know where they live and where the money earned in the region comes from. ‘It all boils down to marketing. We have to work on people’s awareness and pride. Not enough technology students from preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO) continue on to the ROC. In this perspective, limiting the number of places on senior secondary vocational education (MBO) programmes like animal care does nothing that really solves the problem. Children have to choose a combination of subjects between the ages of 12 and 14. This means their enthusiasm for engineering has to be kindled at age 8, for example, by showing them the fantastic work that is done here in the region to solve topical issues such as the problems in the energy and healthcare sectors.’

‘We obviously do what we can to promote engineering’, adds Meijer. ‘We work together with schools in projects such as the Fontys Junior Academy and SCoolscience, we take part in the Dutch Technology Week and make sure our teacher training students realise just how important engineering is. These are just a few of the many initiatives organised by the education community, industry and the government. The important thing to do now is streamline our efforts, for example, by setting up a broadly supported action programme.’

Talk positively
Wintels stresses the key role of industry: ‘Companies like the NTS-Group play a pioneering role in devising new solutions, but many gains can still be made right across the board. Companies could offer holiday work, give lessons and guided tours… Because parents can exert a huge amount of influence on their children, companies should also encourage their employees to talk positively about where they work and what they make. The fact that people here still think industry is dirty and associate it with massive redundancies is not their fault. Besides all this, lifelong learning is also a critical factor. Maintaining knowledge and competencies is just as important as taking on new employees. In this area, we could all make an extra effort as well. Investing in the labour market means investing in cooperation on every front. It is high time that schools and industry really become partners in education. All the links in the chain are inseparable.’

Technology promotion has to be less optional

Vanderlande Industries designs, builds and services automated material-handling systems. The NTS-Group is one of its suppliers, but the common interests of the two companies extend beyond their business relationship. ‘If we want to keep the Dutch high-tech ecosystem healthy and expand it further, we – Vanderlande, the NTS-Group and all the stakeholders in our knowledge economy - will have to work together to find solutions for the growing shortage of technical personnel.’

‘We have to invest in innovation and people to safeguard our future’, says Michiel Peters, CEO of Vanderlande. ‘In the second quarter of 2012, we achieved a fraction of economic growth, which was primarily due to the good export results. It underlines the fact that manufacturing and the international chains in which we operate form the foundation of our prosperity. I am concerned that the growing shortage of expertise, know-how and technical people on every level will undermine our global market position. Necessary government investments in long-term research have been shelved. The market alone cannot bridge the gap. Industry does not perform fundamental research. It does support widely ranging initiatives to make children and young people enthusiastic about engineering, but as far as I can see, there is not enough unity. Furthermore, schools are still able to choose whether or not to participate. The optional nature of technology promotion urgently needs to be taken out of the equation.’

In terms of engineering expertise and results, Vanderlande Industries is one of the jewels in the crown of the manufacturing industry in North Brabant. Peters: ‘I cannot see our growth coming to an end any time soon. The expansion of our baggage handling systems division is driven by the new economies. As the world market leader, we receive, for example, increasingly more orders from major airports in emerging markets. The demand for systems for parcel & post dispatching systems, in which we rank as one of the top companies in the world, is spiralling in line with the boom in e-commerce. And warehouse automation, our third area of expertise, is a hugely diversified market that still has plenty of opportunities. Our strength lies in technological innovation, but more and more of our revenue comes from service contracts. The systems are important, but basically customers simply want them to do what they are supposed to. We have teams all over the world that carry out preventive and corrective maintenance and keep the systems operational. We use the feedback we receive from the teams as input for our continual improvement strategy.’

The lion‘s share of Vanderlande‘s technological innovation takes place at the company‘s headquarters in Veghel. Where necessary, Vanderlande relies on the expertise of suppliers. The NTS-Group provided, for example, valuable assistance in stabilising a detector in a sorting line. This was, however, a one-off joint project and Peters would not characterise the present relationship with NTS Prometal as a strategic partnership. ‘For us, technical innovation usually revolves around the intelligence of the systems, not mechatronics. Our hardware cannot be compared to an MRI scanner or a wafer stepper. This means

NTS is not really an obvious co-developer for us, but NTS Prometal is a preferred supplier that provides quality for the right price. We know the people there; we are in for the long haul and sometimes try new things together. In addition, they can provide excellent support for our European activities from their business location in the Czech Republic.’

Botech teaches NTS to think in granite

In the beginning of 2012, the NTS-Group took over the Helmond-based family business BoTech. Through this takeover the NTS-Group has acquired vital additional knowledge and manufacturing competence for the design and Construction of critical components for the hightech industry under own management.

‘Not many people associate granite with the high-tech industry’, Van Mil asserts. ‘However, it is in many cases an indispensable machine component. No material can be made as flat as granite. In addition, it is free of stress and has a negligible coefficient of expansion. This makes it the ideal base plane for highly precise movements, for example, in lithography machines and all sorts of measuring and control apparatus. This also leads back directly to our relationship with NTS, where a large amount of the technology revolves around movement and pinpoint accuracy.’

When Van Mil starts talking about granite, his eyes light up. ‘Did you know that it has approximately the same weight as aluminium? That it can be machined much more precisely than metal? That we sand by hand to achieve a flatness below ten micrometres, and that this process is called polishing? That we make products that are too flat for any impreciseness to be measured? Botech has turned working with granite and machining inserts for connections with metal components into a form of art. We are one of the top European companies in this field.’

NTS Botech is not only specialised in granite, but also in milling. This also involves work for specific niche markets. ‘Our machinery is set up for milling large metal frames for high-precision machines like digital printers’, explains Van Mil. ‘We make small series ranging from several dozen to a few hundred. Following on from this, we have also specialised in milling glass-fibre reinforced products from which, for example, the patient tables used in MRI scanners are made. All in all, we therefore add knowledge and capacity to the group enabling it to do more internally. I think that we strengthen each other in many ways - working together has improved our customer services and I am, for example, looking forward to interacting with NTS Precision and NTS Systems Development in the future.’

The takeover by the NTS-Group came as a surprise to BoTech‘s employees, but according to Van Mil, it did not lead to a great deal of upheaval. ‘Everybody here understands that NTS prioritises continuity and growth. Some things will of course change, but the basic principle is to retain knowledge, skills, wxperience and people. We have known NTS since the time of Te Strake and Nebato. We have worked intensively together on complex products such as the 3D printer for Huntsman and a large paper size printer for INCA. Our no-nonsense cultures match. An additional advantage is that I now have a much broader platform for sharing my enthusiasm about granite. It really is an exceptional product, but it is also extremely difficult to work with. You have to learn to think ‘in granite’.’

Unfortunately, knowledge about granite is underdeveloped in our high-tech community. ‘That‘s why I think it‘s fantastic when I receive a delegation from NTS Systems Development and I can talk about it. Talking about granite really is my passion, especially to students who rarely hear it mentioned while they are at college. I hire them as interns, give them guided tours and go to them to give lectures. This means that when they start work as engineers, they will in any case be able to ask the all-important question: ‘Wouldn‘t it be better to make that from granite?’