What have STEINERT sorting machines got in common with job satisfaction? We find out by talking to Tobias Thommen about the quality of aluminium sorting, sustainability and art.
Thommen AG, part of the Thommen Group, is a model Swiss metal recycling company based in Kaiseraugst near Basel. Its core business includes recycling iron scrap (FE), non- ferrous metals (NF), e-waste and cars. Growing to a group of companies over the decades, it now has 25 sites in five countries. Since 2011, Dr Tobias Thommen, grandson of the founder Gustav Thommen, has been Managing Director, a member of the board of directors and owner of the Thommen Group. His management style is guided by his heart and intuition – and for him people are the most important aspect of the business.
Tobias Thommen (58) has worked for the company for a very long time. Strictly speaking, he got his first job as a child when he operated the shear, repaired the shredder and knocked out the residue. After studying economics and then medicine, he practised as a doctor and yoga teacher for several years before taking on management of the company. During his interview with STEINERT, he says time and again, “It’s the people that make a company.” “The success and failure of a company are revealed through its people.” He attaches particular value to the ability to give and receive criticism – and he is no exception: “I’m not the remote chairman of the board, who no-one is allowed to talk to. People can talk to me about anything. If I make a mistake, then I need to correct it. This is something I have learnt from practising yoga.”
Zorba processing with real net output ratio
“Thommen is synonymous with quality. I would like us to be a beacon in the world of recycling,” emphasises the head of the company. In 2015, after the Thommen Group acquired the second super shredder in Switzerland, Tobias Thommen concentrated on the recovery of non-ferrous metals in the shredder heavy fraction and invested in a further processing facility for manufacturing high-grade aluminium, copper, brass, and zinc products. “I aspire to manufacture products such that our customers, i.e. steelworks, copper smelting plants, aluminium smelters or brass foundries, can smelt them straight away. And this requires a purity of close to one hundred percent. The ZAB (Zorba Processing Facility) with STEINERT sorting machines, which went into operation in 2021, has had a huge role to play in this respect.” Zorba is a mix of different proportions of non-ferrous metals.
Non-ferrous metal separators, also known as eddy current separators, recover this mix of metals before sensor sorting machines split the metals into pure fractions suitable for smelting works. To improve the efficiency of the sensor sorting machines, the non-ferrous metal concentrates are screened into different grain sizes, namely 0-15 mm, 15- 30 mm, 30-60 mm, 60-120 mm and larger than 120 mm. These are then separated into both cast aluminium and wrought aluminium alloys by X-ray transmission, the STEINERT KSS | XT CLI. The system uses fluorescence technology (STEINERT KSS | XF CLI) to produce the pure-grade heavy-metal products. Sensors for colour (C), dimension (L) and induction (I) have been added to each of the two sorting machines at Thommen. This enables even more precise selection criteria to be set for complex and varied sorting jobs and also ensures that the company can flexibly rise up to future sorting challenges.
STEINERT technology is robust, precise and a joy for staff to use
The third generation head of the company describes himself as an investor. A large share of his profits is ploughed back into the company. “I want my people to have the best production facilities and operating equipment to do their work.” In describing the sorting machines, he says that he appreciates German thoroughness because it means that things are robust, reliable and deliver perfect results. He adds that STEINERT is not the cheapest supplier on the market. “But I am prepared to pay the additional price because I know that it works.” He and his employees also like the modern feel of the controls and the performance levels. The eyes of his machine operators light up when they see the results, which reflects the pleasure they get from what they have produced. He in turn personally delights from taking sceptics along with him and then seeing how they passionately oversee the facilities. And for years now, he has been investing in the Thommen Academy and the group’s “Talents” programme. Tobias Thommen stresses that he believes mixed teams are more effective because they cover different aspects. He is now laying the groundwork for just that and is equipping communal areas at the company sites so that a greater proportion of women can work there.
Sustainability closer to home too
“Recycling is in our DNA. I come from a family that was recycling before people were even aware of the concept.” But the company also has objectives that are not related to its actual purpose but are of importance to society. “Environmental, Social, Governance”, or ESG for short, sums it up. According to Tobias Thommen, the focus on ESG, i.e. social responsibility, is changing how people will work in the future. He is keen to be active in this field as he too is part of this society. So he has created a separate post to concentrate on these issues. Two specific examples are electrifying company vehicles and having photovoltaic systems installed on all warehouses and operating facilities within five years.
Grandfather and grandson don’t see eye to eye when it comes to art
Tobias Thommen’s fondness of scrap recycling and technology are also reflected in his hobby: art. The works of Jean Tinguely are particularly dear to him. Tinguely was a Swiss artist, renowned for his kinetic machine-like sculptures made from scrap. Grandfather Thommen took no pleasure in kinetic works of art and rejected the idea of donating his scrap to such projects. These days, Tobias Thommen pays tribute to the great international artist and has even purchased one of his works.
The history of STEINERT dates back 130 years: the family-owned, Cologne-based business is one of the world’s leading experts in sensor sorting and magnetic separation for waste and metal recycling as well as mining. With 400 employees, STEINERT generates an annual turnover of approximately EUR 100 million. In addition to 50 sales partnerships and joint ventures across the globe, the company has subsidiaries in Germany, Australia, Brazil and the USA.
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