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High strength back support conquers the world

SSAB Tunnpl : 29 November, 2002  (New Product)
Pick up the paper and lean back in your most comfortable chair and you'll find out why it's so relaxing. The secret is in the support for the curve of the back, and there's a good chance that it comes from Schukra Manufacturing. The company controls 80 per cent of the world market. The ergonomic back support has now been nominated for the 2002 Swedish Steel Prize, the international engineering design accolade.
The back support can be found everywhere. Car and airline seats, and office chairs, are shaped and angled to meet tough ergonomic demands. The back support is one of the most important parts in reaching the desired level of comfort and effectiveness. They also need to be adjustable – we all have different physiques.

In 1965, the Austrian Wilhelm Schuster designed an ingenious support for the curve of the back which opened up completely new opportunities in the production of comfortable chairs. The manufacture of Schuster's invention commenced on a small scale in Austria.

The back support (otherwise known as the 'lumbar support') began to expand considerably when two patents were sold in North America, one to Schukra Manufacturing, the other to Schukra North America. The production of back supports is now a business which spans the globe.

Greatly increased growth
You can see Schukra Manufacturing as you approach the airport in Toronto, if you know what you're looking for. You'll find the firm in a modest building very close to the airport. An ideal hub for a global group of companies. The back support has for a long time been supplied to most European and American automotive manufacturers. Schukra has so far produced 15 million supports, and it has benefited from a twenty-fold increase in manufacturing capacity. That's one of the reasons behind its Swedish Steel Prize nomination.

'We are the world's number one in this particular area,' says Chris Cosentino, managing director of Schukra Manufacturing. 'We currently account for eighty per cent of the constantly-growing global market.' A steady inflow of customers has also meant that the company has been able to set up production operations in Europe and at additional locations in North America.

The expansion is explained largely by Schukra's changeover to ultra high strength steel. The material began to attract a lot of interest about two years ago, and Schukra realised that there were definite advantages to producing parts in high strength steel. The final choice was an ultra high strength steel with a minimum tensile strength of 1310 N/mm2. The new material enabled the company to change the design.

'The previous model consisted of twenty different parts and was assembled by hand. It took a long time, and the production rate was 1-2 units per minute. By comparison, we now manufacture 35 back supports per minute. The difference speaks for itself,' asserts Chris Cosentino.

A safer, enhanced product
The new support is stamped as a single unit. Ten million units a year are produced, in twelve variants. Schukra manufactures the various stamping dies itself. According to purchasing manager Rick Rankin, this not only keeps costs down but also ensures that production proceeds smoothly.

'Overall, we have succeeded in making a safer and stronger, enhanced product while reducing production costs considerably,' says Mr Rankin.

When discussions commenced on ultra high strength steel, Schukra had no experience of using the material and there were some initial flatness problems. 'We needed to produce tools and find presses which could withstand the hardness of the material throughout the fabrication process', says Tony Maier, research & development manager.

Production is now very smooth. Some supports are still made using the old method, for customers who require special versions. 'When we compare old and new methods, it's obvious that these steels contribute to an enhanced product and improved production,' comments Chris Cosentino.

Stronger – and only half the weight
The back support in ultra high strength steel has been tested rigorously to ensure the highest quality. This includes a 100,000-cycle fatigue test which the support needs to get through without buckling. It also undergoes a strength test in the form of a 50 kg weight being dropped onto the support. 'Our old supports failed this particular strength test,' says Tony Maier. 'The new versions are much more resilient even though they are thinner and only half the weight of the old ones.'

The cold-rolled steel is delivered in master coils to North America. It is then slit locally and delivered into Schukra's assembly lines. The new process means that the proportion of scrap is reduced, due to the ability of using 100% of the material width.

Schukra Manufacturing has been nominated for the 2002 Swedish Steel Prize for its new back support. The winner will be announced from four finalists at the prizegiving ceremony which takes place in Gothenburg, Sweden on 21 November. The Prize was instituted by SSAB Tunnplåt AB.
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