Ten Years of Adventure
CEP Freiberg was founded 20 years ago. Just ten years ago, the CEP DISCUP® brand was launched. This article is about the first ten years of adventure.
For our customers today, they are almost synonymous: CEP Freiberg and the copper-based high-temperature material CEP DISCUP®. This was not always the case, however. CEP Freiberg has now been in business for two decades, with the first half of the company’s life looking very different to the second. Companies rarely mention the „adventures“ of their early days. However, the double anniversary „20 Years of CEP Freiberg / 10 Years of CEP DISCUP®“ in 2023 is reason enough to make an exception. This was a time of experimentation and investment, and it was anything but wasted.
If materials scientist Dr. Wolfram Möhler had looked at a reference manual on how to start a new business, he probably would have steered clear of the project. He possessed nothing but the conviction that his research team’s many years of painstaking work were just about to produce something extremely useful. That was exactly what was at stake in 2003, however. The research period had to come to an end. And no one wanted to consider technology transfer. If anything was going to happen, then it would only be made possible with his own, personal initiative. The materials scientist had no experience in founding or running a company. And still it was a resounding success.
The right material
A stronghold of materials research, Freiberg in Saxony was once home to the renowned Research Institute for Nonferrous Metals (FNE). Here, Wolfram Möhler carried out research into new types of wear-resistant composite materials. As early as 1996, he encountered a material that seemed to him to have great potential in this field. It was a powder-metallurgical material – an oxide dispersion strengthened (ODS) copper. It had been developed by a company in Velden in Bavaria: ECKA Granules. Called ECKA DISCUP, the product was offered as bar material. The bars were produced by indirect extrusion. The Velden-based company supplied them to welding technology manufacturers, who used them to produce electrode caps for spot welding and nozzle fittings. Both products were claimed to last much longer than those made from conventional materials. Wolfram Möhler found this interesting: he ordered some ECKA DISCUP, experimented with it, and realized that something could really be made from it.
The right machine
However, finding the right material was only „half the battle“ for the success of the research project. The other half consisted of finding the right process for producing the materials – and, therefore, the right machine. However, Mr. Möhler actually had an almost unique piece of research equipment at his disposal at the FNE: a hydrostatic extrusion press from the Swedish manufacturer ASEA. The research institute had purchased one. With this powerful yet uniquely gentle press, it was possible to combine materials that couldn’t have been brought together in any other way. ECKA DISCUP was one of them. The ASEA press was actually far too large for research, but there were no smaller presses of this kind. Later, when it came to series production at CEP Freiberg, the size of the machine proved to be a great advantage. As if it had all been predestined! But first things first…
From Researcher to Entrepreneur
Suddenly, the good research times were over. After the political upheaval in the former East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the FNE was privatized and then systematically „downsized“. In 2003, it was the turn of the location on Brander Strasse, where Mr. Möhler worked. In the opinion of the decision-makers, his research results could not be turned into marketable products in the short term, so the project was abandoned. The ASEA press was to be scrapped. The researcher, however, thought the decision was fundamentally wrong. In his opinion, the products – useful semi-finished products made from wear-resistant composite materials – were already on the horizon. He was convinced that customers could be found as soon as the products were available. Mr. Möhler was determined to see his project through – single-handedly if he had to. It was a big decision. The material and the press formed a unit, inseparable, and the machine also couldn’t be moved from its location. It had to be treated like an old tree – if it was to be preserved at all. Under no circumstances would it be possible to transplant it. It was at this moment that Mr. Möhler transitioned from researcher to entrepreneur. He took out a loan and bought the factory building and the press. He named the company he founded after what he had in mind: „Compound Extrusion Products“ – CEP. The rest of the FNE institute’s site was demolished to make way – somewhat symbolically – for two supermarkets. Even today, the company location and the neighborhood it’s located in are the same as they were back then.
Decision to Focus on Welding Technology
Together with two employees, the technology transfer was brought to a successful conclusion. It soon became clear that of all the material combinations tested with various particle-reinforced metals, ECKA DISCUP would win the race. CEP Freiberg then signed a supply contract with the Velden-based company. The first composite tubes were produced in Freiberg – highly conductive pure copper on the outside and wear resistant ECKA DISCUP on the inside. The tubes were intended for a very specific application: Contact tips for MAG, MIG or submerged arc welding. In terms of wear, Mr. Möhler knew that these products were a real „Achilles‘ heel“ in many welding systems, and the novel material would prove ideal for meeting the complex demands placed on such products. CEP Freiberg introduced itself to the welding technology industry with its highly impressive composite tubes – and won them over. After its foundation, this was the second crucial moment in the company’s history.
Moving Forward, Step by Step
From then on, CEP Freiberg used the hydrostatic extrusion press to produce composite tubes as a semi-finished product for contact tips. However, the material could not be sold as it came out of the press. It had to be drawn, straightened and finished mechanically. CEP Freiberg was unable to do all of this work at the time due to a lack of in-house equipment. So when a load of raw composite tubes was ready, one of the employees drove it in a van to North Rhine-Westphalia, where a metalworking company offered such services at a reasonable price. This went on for two or three years, and it went well: CEP Freiberg achieved a commercial breakthrough. The first investments were made in a drawing bench and a straightening machine – which required hiring the next employee. Not that the newcomer was a specialist in such different processes, but he soon mastered them like a pro. A stroke of luck that encouraged the company to do more: a Swiss-type lathe was purchased. From then on, CEP Freiberg supplied not just semi-finished products, but also ready-to-use contact tips. All in accordance with customer requirements. And it could have gone on like this forever.
Expecting the Unexpected
But it wasn’t to be. In the meantime, a US investor had taken over ECKA Granules, and they did what investors often do: sell off what does not appear to be highly profitable in the short term. In 2011, CEP Freiberg was told that ECKA DISCUP would soon be out of business. Production would be discontinued, and in the few months until then, material prices would double. With immediate effect. This threatened the very existence of the young company – the third decisive moment in CEP Freiberg’s history. Two days later, the team from Freiberg was in Velden negotiating the purchase of equipment, know-how and patents. An agreement was reached. What’s more, CEP Freiberg would also continue to supply Velden’s customers for the solid bar material in future. There would now be two production lines in Freiberg: Composite tubes and contact tips, and now also bar material. The bank supported CEP Freiberg again. The company now really had something to be proud of after eight years in business.
What happened next would be almost unthinkable today. Within a few weeks, a construction project was drawn up and approved that allowed production to be relocated from Velden to Freiberg. The installation of the heavy plant equipment for the production of ECKA DISCUP posed a particular challenge. Extensive foundation construction work was required within the existing building structure. A good solution was found. During the project planning phase, the team from Freiberg were given a crash course at the plant in Velden, which was still in operation. Just six months later, the expansion of the production facility in Freiberg was completed and the trucks with the equipment rolled into the yard. Just a few weeks later, in March 2012, the systems were commissioned in the presence of the former ECKA Granules plant operators. At the same time, employees were quickly recruited to operate the new equipment. Despite the short time available, a number of new colleagues were successfully trained on the new machines – inconceivable today.
Nomen est omen
Once everything was up and running, there was still one little problem to solve. The former customers of ECKA Granules had become accustomed to their new supplier, CEP Freiberg. They ordered more than ever. However, the order forms still said: “ECKA DISCUP”. This bothered the entrepreneur, Mr. Möhler. Whatever the history, it was his product. So in 2013, the customers received a message to the effect that, from then on, it would be called: CEP DISCUP®. With a registered trademark, because of its unique characteristics. As engineers, the team in Freiberg were not sure whether this might be interpreted as vanity. But it was not. CEP DISCUP® was a renowned product from a top-class company – the customers understood. Since then, the right name has been placed on their orders. CEP DISCUP® now also appeared in brochures and on the website, independent from primordial applications, and suddenly there were new interested parties: those who did not come from the welding industry. It wasn’t intended as marketing, but it worked out that way, and it was quite successful.
Three Points in Closing
Once again: According to every start-up reference manual, CEP Freiberg should not have been a success. But it has been – and the company continues to go from strength to strength. So perhaps three points can be added to the usual entrepreneurial checklist? These are: That a half-baked idea can become a fully fledged business if it is based on solid knowledge. That taking one step after another, with patience and a sense for what is achievable, can avoid unnecessary risks. And that making decisions judiciously when the opportunity arises, and while accepting fully the inevitable risk involved, can mean quantum leaps in the development of your business. This is the summary of ten years of adventure, and with the hindsight of ten more.