Visiting Fein and Festool Power Tools in Germany
Day 4: For my final day with Festool on location in Germany, I witnessed the quality, precision, and attention that goes into the production of every one of their products. We began Day 4 with a tour of Festool's milling and assembly plants in Neidlingen, again not far from Stuttgart. I've seen a few tool-making factories, so the large industrial milling machines (all computer operated) did not stand out as unique (although I'm sure they're exceptional), but the efficiency of the workers and the work space and the cleanliness of the work area did. Even though all these machines run a constant lubricant bath, there was not one drop on the floor. Later we learned and appreciated just how precise the tool parts are that come out of those machines. Festool makes about one-fourth of its tool parts, buying the remaining components from manufacturers who consistently prove they can meet Festool's ridiculously high standards. For example, Festool's allowance for bearing tolerances in its random-orbit sanders is 1/50 the thickness of a typical human hair! I have no idea how they can even measure that precisely.
The real eye-opener came in the assembly wing of the building. That's where every power tool is assembled by some of Germany's finest women. That's right, the ladies are in charge of putting together every sander, circular saw, cordless drill, dust extractor, Domino, every tool Festool makes. Why? Because these women typically have smaller hands than the men, and that's critical, they say, when dealing with so many miniscule parts and in such tight spaces. I can appreciate that because my hands are pretty big, and I've had trouble picking up small parts like half-inch wire nails and those little screws that hold my glasses together. And not only do they assemble the tools, they troubleshoot them and test them as well, and they're trained to spot one with a potential flaw. In fact, Festool is so stringent on accuracy and precision that its goal is to have no more than 99 flawed tools out of every one million produced-with flawed meaning everything from an out-of-round bearing to a scratched housing.
I also found it interesting that the women worked in groups of four or five and assembled tools in lots of 12 or 24 (depending on the tool). Only the exact number of necessary parts for a lot are brought to their station, so that when they're done if they should have a part left over, they know that either one tool missed a part or somebody just counted wrong. They go back and inspect the lot of 12 to find if a tool is missing a part and pull it out. They also assemble these groups according to which country it will be shipped to. For example, we watched them assemble some of the new Domino joinery tools for the U.S. market. This meant using 110-volt cords and motors and product manuals in (American) English. After they finished that they switched to tools bound for Switzerland, so back to 220 volts. It's a very efficient process with many levels of built-in quality controls, all to deliver the absolute finest tools to the market.
Later in the day we visited a cabinet shop in Stuttgart that builds very nice kitchen cabinets and components as well as furniture such as dining tables and beds. The shop was set up with professional, heavy duty machinery for milling stock, as well as a multitude of Festool power tools for joining, constructing, and finish sanding the products. The shop owner said he cannot afford down time should a tool break down, and he said Festool products hold up to the kind of work he requires. This same master cabinetmaker retails his cabinets and furniture from a showroom in downtown Stuttgart. It's modern, but very well constructed. I was curious to see that they prefer an oil finish for their tabletops, with the first of three coats applied at 80°. The customer then has to apply four more coats a month after purchase, and then once each year.
The bottom line is that Festool sets incredibly high standards for making tools, and then builds them to meet or exceed those marks. Yes, you will pay more to purchase their tools&—sometimes 3 or 4 times what you would pay for a "bargain" tool. I'm convinced most of their tools are unequaled, and when used with their system of dust collection there's no mess to clean up. Couple that with a tool that's built to work and last without breaking down, and you can make up that initial cost in time savings, repair costs, and replacement tool costs. If these are not important issues to you, then Festool is probably not the tool for you. But, they say that 95% of the people who buy one Festool product will become a repeat customer.
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