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Although the company has operations all over the globe, a major hub of its success today lies within the United States market and its 20-year presence here. Jonathan Roberts, General Manager and COO of Von Roll USA, sits down to talk about an expanding level of success, and sheds light on the factors behind his company’s ability to deliver industry-leading insulating materials on an annual basis. Steve Engelhardt reports.
Von Roll roots stretch back to 1803 with the founding of the Eisenwerke der Handelsgesellschaft der Gebrüder Dürholz & Co. (Ironworks of the Commercial Firm of the Brothers Durholz and Co.). The name Von Roll came about when seven years later the firm was taken over by Von Roll & Cie, a newly formed venture by Ludwig Freiherr von Roll and Jacob von Glutz. This marked the beginning of what would become an extremely diversified industrial company and for the next 170 years or so the company continued to grow, reaching an organizational size of more than 10,000 employees by 1970.
Following the economic crisis that plagued much of the developed world during the mid-1970s, Von Roll decided that, in the wake of a strong steel market rebound, it would evolve itself as a company and made the decision to acquire Schweizerische Isola-Werke AG from the US-based Essex Group to enter into the global electrical insulation market. Working to establish partnerships with the industry leaders over the next decade, including a deep-seated one with General Electric (which continues today), the company made the decision in 1995 to set up an official presence in the world’s biggest market—the United States—and bring their insulation business to the next level.
This decision was paired with the company’s purchase of GE and subsequently, Alstom insulating materials division, which gave them increased market presence and product technology, that paved the way to their initial and sustained success in the U.S and the strengthening of their European presence. “After these acquisitions, Von Roll began introducing unique lines of insulation products, developed within their research laboratories, which are capable of testing insulating materials according to international standards,” says Roberts, noting his company’s global identity. Core business product lines at the Schenectady site include mica-based electrical insulation, liquids in the form of resins and vanishes and flexible laminates. In 2007, Von Roll continued to invest in its core liquids business and purchased the well established and recognized John C. Dolph company, located in Monmouth junction, NJ.
Since then, the company has utilized its diverse portfolio to provide leading insulation solutions for high and low voltage applications, across a number of different industries, primarily focused on rotating machines and transformers.
The Mica and Resin Advantage
Although Von Roll offers a number of different materials and solutions, including adhesive tapes, braided products, resins and varnishes, Roberts says that one of their “claim to fame” is their mica-based products. To clarify, the term “mica” is used for a group of minerals that show perfect cleavage, sheets of silicate that can be transformed into a continuous paper-like product and offers unmatched performance in insulation technology. “General Electric developed a mica paper solution in the 40s and then proceeded to design a new generation of insulating materials, based off of this new technology. Acquiring the GE technology augmented Von Roll’s overall line of mica paper manufacturing capabilities, which had been developed by the Schweizerische Isola-Werke AG during the same period as GE’s innovation. We incorporated the new paper and products into our overall product line when we acquired the insulation division,” he says.
Roberts says that Von Roll’s commitment to mica based products, starts with mining, followed by very specialized methods of producing paper from the mineral and finishing with the production of highly specialized mica tapes, rigid and flexible mica plates as well as mica ancillary parts. It’s this vertical integration that makes Von Roll a market leader in the high voltage motor and generator arena. “We utilize two of the primary types of mica, phlogopite and muscovite, for a variety of applications, depending on the required thermal and electrical characteristics. In addition to products designed for motors and generators, we also supply specific materials designed for high temperature induction furnaces, automotive gaskets, cable insulation to maintain circuit integrity during fire conditions and heater plate, used as a standoff insulation, found in household appliances like a regular toaster.”
Both motors and generators utilize mica-based tapes and resins together in the insulation systems design. Von Roll is unique in the industry, in that they create, through chemical reactions, their own specific polymers to produce an extensive line of reactive resins to be used in conjunction with the mica tapes, which allows them to design unique electrical insulating systems. By understanding the exact chemistry in the mica tapes and the resins used by their customer’s vacuum pressure impregnation (V.P.I) process, Von Roll can assure chemical compatibility between the resin used to bond the mica tape together and the impregnation resin, supplied by Von Roll and subsequently added into the mica tape through the customer’s V.P.I process. In addition, in their test laboratories at the Schenectady site, Von Roll can combine these materials and establish through the use of internationally recognized testing standards, the thermal class at which these materials can be used.
Overall, Von Roll’s mica, liquid and flexible laminate products offer an advantage built upon quality, completely integrated insulation systems, technical support and an overall higher level of performance than other options in the market., This speaks to the company’s commitment to its customer base and to growing and improving itself whenever possible. In fact, Roberts says they recently unveiled a number of new materials at the 2015 EASA Convention in San Antonio, most notably, their new version of their Corona Protection Package, a thin tape-like material that serves as a critical component within a high voltage insulation system. “When thinking about the space between an insulating material and the iron slot of a motor or generator, you need a thin semi conductive layer that provides intimate contact between both to normalize the electric field between the two, which is exactly what this does,” he says, adding, “That’s important, because if there’s a gap between the insulation and the steel slot, a voltage spark (corona) can occur, which can lead to a catastrophic failure of a high voltage machine. With this corona protection layer, you mitigate the electrical stress and prevent the inception of the destructive corona energy. ”
In addition to the new, enhanced Corona Protection Package, Roberts says they also introduced a new insulating tape at the convention. “This tape is designed for traction motors and utilizes new materials integrated with arimid fibers that makes it much more user friendly and efficient.” Roberts adds that beyond their own product development, Von Roll often works intimately with their partners like, Alstom and General Electric to assist them with their advanced insulation development programs.
With industry leading insulation systems and a consistent display of innovation over the years, Von Roll’s entry into the North American marketplace, twenty years ago, has been one largely characterized by consistent success. For this reason, in January of this year the company announced a $21 million expansion of their manufacturing plant in Rotterdam, N.Y.a move that spoke to their need for growing in their infrastructure, to accommodate increased demand. As part of the Schenectady strategic transformation and expansion plan, Von Roll is also consolidating the New Jersey facility to the NY site. Optimization of the Von Roll sites and investments into their infrastructure and manufacturing equipment represents a key global success element. In this context, the consolidation of the American Liquids activities into the Schenectady site is a significant step towards integrating their manufacturing capacities. By combining these operations, Von Roll improves the overall utilization, productivity and competitive position, while streamlining their overall services. Von Roll’s liquids business is one of their core business activities, where they fully intend to invest efficiently and grow significantly. The equipment investments, and creation of a single larger center of competence for liquids in North America, allows increased focus on product and process innovation which are key to future success. “We are extremely competitive as a company, and we know one of the best ways to remain on top is to adopt the best practices and equipment for optimum efficiency and productivity,” Roberts says, adding, “This move demonstrates that we are tangibly upgrading our operational capabilities and sending a very strong message to our partners and customers about our long term commitment to the market and our strategic place in it.” The move was also motivated by the company’s desire to consolidate its resin and varnish manufacturing operation from its facility in New Jersey. Roberts says that all 155 jobs at the Schenectady site will be retained, in addition to 18 new positions that will be created in the near future.
It’s an exciting time for Von Roll, as the company is hitting a new stride in 2015. “We are an international company with a singular identity, and we bring a tremendous amount of knowledge and industry know-how to deliver unique solutions for each of our customers in the markets we serve.” he says.