I was just invited to Oktoberfest! A contractor's account of Georg Fischer's European Tour

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I was just invited to Oktoberfest! Sounds great, and it was. However, the story is a little longer than the title. Recently I was giving a job to buy out and a High Purity water system was specified PVDF (Polyvinylidene fluoride). PVDF is a specialty plastic material in the fluoropolymer family; it is used generally in applications requiring the highest purity. Compared to our normal pure water systems made of polypropylene, this stuff is expensive. During my inquiry, Paul Galvin of Georg Fisher Piping Systems mentioned to me that to really understand PVDF I should see where it is created, and he extended an invitation over to their plant in Europe. And if I timed this right, I might experience a little bit of Octoberfest.

After spending four days touring Switzerland — from the shores of Lake Zurich to the top of Mount Pilatus — I carefully put my bride of 26 years on a direct flight back to Beantown and caught the train north to Schaffhausen Switzerland, home of Georg Fisher. I was joined on the train by Jeff Thompson of FW Webb Co, a major plumbing wholesaler in the New England market and a recent acquirer of the Georg Fisher High Purity line. During the hour train ride we discovered that Schaffhausen has been around for more than 1,000 years and is so close to Germany, the town was mistakenly bombed by the USAF during WWII. (April 1, 1944) I hope they didn’t take it personally.

During an evening dinner, we were introduced to Patrick Heath and John Dodge, both of Georg Fisher USA. They would be accompanying us on our little adventure. Our first day started early at the GF plant in Schaffhausen. We were greeted by Stefanie Muller who gave us an in-depth view of the enormous giant called Georg Fisher. She educated us on the different markets they touched. After the video, I felt the piping was just a small part of their operation. (It isn’t. Piping falls under life sciences and GF takes saving the earth very seriously.) We then proceeded on a tour of the plant where they make PVC and CPVC fittings. A very clean, modern operation and a lot of robots — what looks like the latest technology. One item of interest was an automated vertical storage facility. I have seen these before in Germany (never in the United States). I am always mesmerized by the technology of loading and unloading stock at the same time, in one fluid motion. I guess you have to experience it to believe it. The high point of the tour was the testing facility where they actually crushed a PVC fitting flat to show it doesn’t break. (It also never goes back to its original size/shape.) Another test was a pressure burst where they pumped water pressure into a 2” elbow until it exploded. I am not sure of the burst pressure because over there they used a bar scale. Nonetheless, it was translated to several thousand pounds. These were just a few of the several tests to which GF constantly subjects their products. We thanked Stefanie for the unique tour and moved on. After a late afternoon walking tour of the old town part of Schaffhausen, we had dinner at the Rheinfalls, Europe’s largest waterfall. Not quite Niagara Falls but a beautiful scenic spot that included a great German dinner.

Early to bed, early to rise and the next morning we headed northwest to Germany. True to most of my visits to the Fatherland it was raining; however, this morning the misty fog gave The Black Forest an eerie glow. I had hoped the fog would lift so I could experience the beautiful view. Eventually we arrived at Georg Fisher Fluorpolymer Products in Ettenheim. We were greeted by Alex Kirner who filled us in on the history of the building. The largest clean room in Europe, the building was built by the giant tape company BASF, I believe, to manufacture tapes just before computer digital recording made it obsolete. GF has occupied it since 2002, first jointly with a company called SIMONA. Their recent acquisition of SIMONA puts it all under one company.

Alex then gave us a lesson on clean rooms. The building had sealed windows and was positively charged — air pressure inside was greater than outside to discourage any air entering the building. The building was listed as having 8,000-sq.-ft. Class 10,000 clean room, 1,000 sq. ft. of Class 1000 and 600 sq. ft. class 100. The numbers reflect the particles per cubic foot of the air. To put this into perspective, the countryside of Ettenheim has approximately 300,000 particles per cubic feet, and a major city would weigh in at 3-5 million particles per cubic foot. Alex went on to say that all GF high purity PVDF manufactured here was done only in the Class 100 environment. I was impressed.
After our lessons, Alex led us down to the changing room. He explained the procedure of changing into a suit: where to step, what order it all goes on, hair net, coat, two pairs of booties. I thought he was kidding but there was no smile when I looked over. After the ritual Alex explained that depending on the class you were entering you could be required to wear masks and gloves. We finally entered the clean room which I can describe as “really clean” stainless, and white with lots of glass. The sound of the filters constantly cleaning the air fills your head as you walk slowly around the room. Don’t try to move to quick, it stirs up the air and heaven forbid, don’t touch anything. Machines melting plastics get hot! We spent a good amount of time touring. It took me a little while but I noticed in the clean room there were little areas for doing things like changing the barrels of pellets feeding the machines. They had filters on top. These were the class 1000 rooms. The machinery manufacturing the pipe and fittings were built with glass creating the class 100 environment inside. It was all quite mind-boggling. After the reverse ritual of undressing, we shared a quick sandwich with Alex and expressed our amazement in what they performed there. We then bid him farewell.

I won’t go deep into detail about the rest of our stay. Let’s say we headed to Stuttgart for some R&R, stopped by the Porsche Museum, and then Thursday spent a wonderful morning touring the Mercedes Benz Museum. It was a memorable walk through history. We then met up with Michael Modinger, a local GF employee, who lead us over to the Cannstatter Volksfest (Stuttgart’s Oktoberfest, 2nd largest in the world behind Munich) and a beer-lovers paradise. I spent six hours doing what I love best! Hopefully, with a little luck, someday will return.

Thank you, Georg Fisher; it was an eye-opening experience!

Written by Mark Perrone. Mark is the purchasing manager for J.C. Cannistraro, Watertown Massachusetts. Mark has worked tirelessly for many years directing and managing high level projects from behind the scenes. His knowledge and expertise have helped make J.C. Cannistraro a top 50 U.S. mechanical contracting company.

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