A Visit To Nedo

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When it comes to history, the picturesque town of Dornstetten has deep roots tracing back more than twelve hundred years. Translated "thorn places"or "thorn sites", its municipal crest bears a deer antler above a thorn bush. Located at the edge of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany, the town was first mentioned in public records in 767. In 1348, Dornstetten was allowed to establish a court to adjudicate disputes of the surrounding people. The modern town has a population around 8,000, and like many towns and cities throughout Germany, boasts a charming Marktplatz, or city center.

When a railroad came in the late 1870s, connecting Dornstetten to the rest of Germany, things really began to change. As the huge railroad trestle was being built across the valley (see photo above), surveyors brought their instruments to a local window maker named Jakob Friedrich Nestle for repair, and the framework for a future company was established. In 1901, Hermann Nestle, son of Jakob Friedrich, began to manufacture level rods and range poles. Combining the first two letters of Nestle and Dornstetten, he called the company Nedo (pronounced NAY doh).

Production at Nedo nearly stopped from 1915-1920 when Hermann had to join the German Army during World War I. After the war, the company withstood several years of high inflation and a very poor economic environment. Still, it survived. From 1920 1933 the economic situation in Europe improved and the company grew.

In 1934, Walter Alfred Fischer, a graduate from Esslingen University, joined the company. He introduced industrial production methods in the factory. That same year, Walter married Hermann’s oldest daughter and became a shareholder. They had two children, Doris and Walter, Jr.

Thanks to several innovative products and product features, during this time Zeiss Jena­—one of the leading instrument manufacturers in those days—­began obtaining its surveying accessories from Nedo. Things moved along smoothly until the breakout of World War II, after which the company had to deal with difficult conditions once again. To survive, for a limited period of time, only simple wooden furniture was manufactured and the company even built a few houses.

Fischer’s father-in-law, Mr. Nestle, died in 1947. In 1952-53 a new factory was built in Dornstetten, and the company moved to its new address (where the factory is still headquartered). Manufacturing increased from 1950 to 1959, the company built up its production of surveying accessories, and the company continued to grow.

Like his father, Walter Fischer Jr. also graduated from Esslingen University. He joined the company in 1959 as the third generation. Under his management Nedo streamlined production and introduced innovative manufacturing technologies to increase its product range. This resulted in a huge number of innovations being brought to the market. From 1959-1982 the company continued to develop new products and technology as it also sought new markets.

In 1983, together with the University of Karlsruhe, Nedo developed a new technology to etch graduations on Invar tapes with lasers. This resulted in the improvement of the accuracy of high-precision Invar rods to ±5 microns over the 3m length of the rod. From 1984 1998, to diversify the product range, Walter Fischer, Jr. developed several new measuring tools, including telescopic measuring sticks with a built-in analog display and angle finders that are used in the building and window installation industries. One success followed another, leading to the building of a new factory in Switzerland, where the majority of these new measuring tools are manufactured today.

Continuing in the family tradition, a fourth generation stepped in when Frank Fischer, a graduate from Karlsruhe University, and Dr. Thomas Fischer, a graduate from Stuttgart University, joined the company in 1998 and 1999. In 1999, Nedo implemented a quality management system and received the ISO 9001 certification. That same year construction lasers were added to the company’s offerings. A U.S. sales office and distribution center was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 2001 to better serve dealers in North America, and in 2009, longtime industry veteran Dominick Auletto was hired as director of sales for North America.

These four generations later, Nedo has emerged as a global player in the market of surveying accessories. The company continues to expand sales globally, selling to surveying dealers, construction supply houses and hardware stores in more than 100 countries. Export business accounts for more than 75% of their total revenues, while Nedo remains the number one supplier in Europe.

Besides high quality surveying accessories, they manufacture a complete line of measuring tools and construction lasers. All major instrument manufacturers, including Leica Geosystems, Topcon, Sokkia, Trimble and even power tools giant HILTI are among Nedo’s customers.

Our Visit
For years I’ve been hearing about Nedo from Canadian surveyor Tom Marshall, who encouraged me to write about the company and tell their story. Our attendance at the annual Intergeo trade show held in Karlsruhe, Germany last fall provided the perfect opportunity to include Dornstetten in our itinerary.

We were warmly greeted by Frank, and spent the day with Fischer family—­his brother Thomas and their father, Walter, Jr. Even though much of the factory was shut down on holiday when we were there, and only a few people were working, I was immediately struck by the orderliness of the surroundings. The floors in the factory were spotless and everything was organized for efficiency.

Walter celebrated his 50th anniversary with the company in 2009. Frank and Thomas told us that when they were kids the factory was their playground, and they eagerly helped out wherever they could. Both said they always knew they’d end up working for the company. Frank brought to the company degrees in industrial engineering and business administration, and has a banking background, having spent time with Deutsche Bank and an internship in New York City. He is responsible for the finance side of the business. Thomas brought along his degree in electrical engineering, and today is responsible for R&D, production and purchasing. Because Frank and Thomas travel extensively, Walter is still involved in the day-to-day operations of the factory, as well as strategic vision. Walter’s wife Gisela is in charge of human resources.

A sprawling group of modern buildings—­now totaling seven—­surround the original 1952 building. As we walked through the factory, I was impressed with not only the dozens and dozens of machine tools, but also the purpose-built machines that perform specialized tasks. On a daily basis, Nedo uses CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining, injection molding, wood processing, powder coating, silk screening, laser etching, and assembly of both mechanical and electronic products.

Highly committed to the environment, Nedo’s entire production process has been optimized to reduce waste. For processing metal parts they use only biodegradable cooling lubricants. After installing a fully automatic powder coating facility, the company was able to stop using solvents altogether. Scrap wood is used to heat their facilities, and the smoke is cleaned with high-tech air purification facilities to reduce harmful substances to a minimum. Buildings are equipped with the latest insulation materials to save energy, and plans are underway to install solar collectors to further reduce energy needs.

Oh, the
wood. Nedo receives its wood directly from local lumber mills. Ash is very durable and Americans might know ash as the preferred wood for baseball bats. While the term "Black Forest" conjures up images of dense, dark forested lands, in truth the Black Forest of today wasn’t always so healthy. Frank informed us that 200 years ago it didn’t even exist because it had been clear cut for charcoal, and even today it is only a portion of its original size. A violent storm in 1999 also stripped hundreds of acres of trees from many of the mountain peaks, leaving them bare. In spite of that setback, meticulous forest management continues to bring back and sustain the original species.

While Nedo manufactures several different tripod models, including wooden and aluminum, its top of the line model, the NEDO #200534-185, uses wood. Unlike other tripod manufacturers which simply paint the wood, Nedo encases its wooden legs with two materials, PVC and polyethylene. Because of this, no moisture can penetrate the wood and cause shrinking and swelling. I thought about how many times I had wrestled with tripod legs, trying to get them to extend or close.

Nedo has a long history of innovation. They developed the familiar quickclamp locking mechanism for tripod legs. After the patents had expired, the quick-clamp system became standard in the surveying equipment industry. As for the lowly tripod that we surveyors tend to take for granted, it has been proven that the popular robotic total stations, with their rapid back and forth motions, put torque strains on a tripod. In a test performed by the University of Karlsruhe, the Nedo tripod proved superior in withstanding the movement caused by a robotic total station.

As previously mentioned, Nedo’s technology to engrave the graduations on Invar level rods with an interferometrically-controlled laser beam allows it to reach unparalleled accuracy. Today, Nedo supplies all manufacturers of digital levels with high precision Invar rods. For those customers who need traceability, the Invar rods can be sent to the University of Munich for certification, however, the 30-page certification costs more than the rod itself!

Another innovation is LumiScale, the first self illuminating leveling rod for digital levels. With its backlit graduations, it allows digital levels to be used even under poor light conditions such as underground or tunneling construction projects. Its latest innovation is the new Click Tripod, which eliminates bending down or turning over the tripod on its head to secure the legs with a strap. The transport locking system is opened by foot with a lock lever and closed by a simple click. No need for a strap. As Frank says, "It’s simple, reliable and convenient."

As we walked through the factory, Frank called each employee by name. He explained that pride in workmanship pervades the entire team. It is reflected in conversations across the company, from sales and service staff to production workers in the factories. Says Frank, "Quality, combined with service­including availability of products and spare parts, on-time delivery, correct invoicing, competent service on the phone, and so forth­distinguishes Nedo from our competitors."

Like the deep roots of Dornstetten, Nedo’s success is built on strong foundations. Frank concluded, "Our products are well known for quality, German craftsmanship and engineering, but the quality does not happen by accident; it takes an experienced and well-trained staff, highly automated, state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, and a very efficient quality management system to ensure a consistent high level of quality. We don’t simply want to satisfy our customers, we want them to be excited."

Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.

Keys to Success
Today, this fourth-generation company has 130 employees, with another 20 employees in its Swiss operation. We asked all three Fischers what they’ve learned from all their years of experience and here’s what they said:
• Only a team can win.
• Quality pays.
• To be successful you have to exceed customer expectations.
• Be quicker than your competitors.
• Honesty pays off in the long run.
• Focus on features and quality, not price.
• Learn from your customers!
And last, but not least,
• It helps to have a wife who understands!

A 2.533Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE