Professional Builder makes a pilgrimage to what is universally regarded as the spiritual home of the builders’ level.
Okay, so it was hardly the stuff of Richard the Lionheart. The intrepid crusader was held captive for several months around 1193 in a gravity defying castle overlooking the scenic town of Annweiler in south east Germany. A budget airline (even with delays) meant our journey time took a matter of hours rather than the horror filled months of the twelfth century, but make no mistake, there is still a very important mission going on in these parts.
An early clue, for those with a smattering of the local language, is the giant, somewhat surreal Dragonfly which adorns the town’s main roundabout. In German the word for that particular insect and the bubble encasing bit of the humble spirit level is the same – vial. And it has been part of Annweiler folklore since the end of the 19th century, when a certain Gustav Ullrich established a factory for measuring equipment known as Stabila.
Up until that time all spirit type levels had been made of wood and the simple glass encased bubbles were extremely vulnerable to knocks. All that changed with the introduction of aluminium casings, and in 1952 a patented acrylic vial with an impact resistant housing, which continues to set the company apart from its competitors.
Today, the Annweiler factory produces more than 10,000 levels a day on 24/7 shifts in more than fifty different configurations. Still family owned, the business remains totally committed to the promised land of mistake free, on site measuring and levelling.
Level headed thinking
In the company’s excellent training campus, we were given our first lesson from Head of Application Management and Training Philipp Scholz who posed the question: “if you gave a tradesperson the choice to keep just one item from your tool box, which would it be? It is a debate which has no doubt raged on on building sites around the globe for decades and, let’s face it, there are some pretty amazing pieces of kit on the market right now to help you do your job more safely and efficiently. Yet when it all comes down to it you can’t even begin to contemplate any building project without establishing some sort of level as part of the setting out process. Otherwise we would all be trying to exist in some crazy mixed up world full of leaning towers of Pisa!
Continued Philipp: “If you think about it, pretty much every modern construction is based on 90 degree angles and if you have a surefire quick way of achieving this, then you really are on to something.”
Mr Ullrich’s first invention, which built the foundation for Stabila, was a new version of the wooden folding rule. Awarded a patent for a spring loaded hinge, it was built using locally sourced timber from the surrounding forests. In an age long before retractable tape rules, it proved extremely popular with all manner of craftsmen and was soon being exported across the world. Although still used extensively in the home market today, surprisingly it has never achieved anything like the same following in the UK. A quick demonstration highlighted its obvious benefits in a variety of different measuring scenarios, including ceiling heights and around corners, which would prove tricky with an ordinary retractable tape. “We still do a huge amount of business for companies that want to own brand the folding rule as a giveaway promotion, but as a company we believe that there is still very much a place for it in modern construction,” states Philipp.
For the vast majority of tradespeople across the globe however, Stabila has achieved iconic status for one thing – the spirit level, which thanks to its 130 year know-how and dedication to the cause, has evolved into one of the most sophisticated and vital tools in the build process.
As Sales International Director, Frank Dreisbach explains: “our engineering team spends a lot of time on site talking to professionals, and watching how they use levels, and what can be added to the various functions to make them even more beneficial on the job site. From that feedback our technicians get to work and design a tool which meets those requirements. Above all, the levels must be extremely robust to withstand the rigors of the site and being dropped or knocked is part of the working day. The key element for us has always been the housing of the vial and the complete protection afforded to it all times. It’s all very well having a lovely looking shiny new level but the weak point with so many of our many competitors is in the vial housing, which is often held in place with not much more than a dab of glue. It’s never seen by the end user but out of sight should not be out of mind. Even a small malfunction in bubble performance can lead to some extremely costly call backs, and even total building failure. In this business you simply cannot afford mistakes to be made through shoddy design and tools simply not up to the task,” enthuses Frank.
A tour of the 350 strong workforce factory showcases the lengths the company goes to ensure that every product that leaves the factory will live up to its ten year warranty. The very latest machinery is employed to give the company the edge and retain its reputation as a market leader in Germany and a formidable presence in over 70 other countries. Multiple cleaning processes, as well as a high resistant powder coating with reinforced bodies, provides a product that can stand up to regular abuse. Adjusted constantly in the production process and then permanently bonded with a synthetic resin, the vials are filled with a special liquid that never fades and is resistant to temperatures ranging from minus 30° to plus 50°. The interior walls of the vial are precision ground and the corrosion free reference rings are flush with the surface allowing the bubble to move freely at all times. Vials are configured in different ways to meet the measuring requirements of the particular trade and fitted with magnet systems to ensure good adhesion to the surface, whilst there’s a choice of end caps for shock absorption and finger grip openings for added mobility and comfort. The differences in trade requirements has been met with a series of products such as the 96/196 for work with high demands like bricklaying, the Type 80 M specifically developed for plumbers with printed installation dimensions and notches for transferring gauges and the Type 70 for electricians with marking holes and aids. All of these are complemented by an exhaustive range of IP 65 rated electronic measuring tools, allowing complicated arithmetic problems like slopes and angles to be solved and displayed, often with acoustic guidance.
As Frank Dreisbach explains: “every part of the manufacturing process is checked and checked again to remove even the tiniest of possible flaws in the finished product. At all stages the best possible materials are used and, whilst this makes us a target for competitors looking to undercut the Stabila offering, it is this company’s fundamental conviction that we will never compromise on quality. As a family business we are totally committed to investing in new product development and in recent years this has led to a number of innovations such as a telescopic level, removing the need for the tradesman to take up to three tools to the job, and a level to aid plumbers to accurately position sanitaryware and a robust level for formwork.”
Continues Frank: “the same attention to detail has been given to the latest range of laser levelling and measuring devices where robustness is at the design fore. Damage on site is a real worry for such a high value item and we have taken every precaution to safeguard the vital components. There is widely held perception within the industry that the products are complicated to use and some guys are clearly nervous about investing so much money in a laser which they might rarely use. What we find is that they don’t really fully understand the vast range of everyday functions they can be used for and what savings in time and manpower can be accrued. In many cases they do away with an extra man and will pay for themselves in a matter of weeks. Once they have taken that initial step and spent some time being properly trained they never look back. And we are seeing clear evidence of a breakthrough in acceptance of sophisticated digital based devices across the industry and in sectors never imagined before.”
Pocket tape rules, open reel tapes, architect’s tapes levelling boards and feather edges complete the line up. So that when it comes to accurate measuring on site, it’s fair to say that Stabila is continuing to take product development to a completely new level.