125th anniversary of Starrag in Switzerland

The milling cutters from Lake Constance

The millers from Lake Constance: Starrag has been based in Rorschacherberg for almost a century now. Oskar Hoppe and Henri Levy (right) proudly presented the factory floor to wife Rösli and other family members in the 1920s.


Without them, certain ships would not travel, many planes would not get off the ground, and numerous power plants would not work reliably: There's plenty that's made possible thanks to the Starrag Group from Rorschacherberg in Switzerland. The group is known and valued not just by aeroplane manufacturers, shipbuilders and energy companies from all over the world, but also production experts from almost every sector. It's an astounding achievement – especially since it all began 125 years ago, with an automatic threading machine for the textile industry.


A gold medal in Toulouse! The trained businessman from France’s Upper Alsace region certainly couldn’t have dreamed of that, back when he was still selling machines to owners of world-renowned hand embroidery firms in the Swiss canton of St Gallen. As a newly naturalized Swiss citizen, Henri Levy was fascinated by the work of these embroidery firms; however, he disagreed with the laborious process of manual threading, which often had to be carried out by children. In 1897, at just 27 years old, the sales manager took over a locksmith’s workshop and became the inventor of a threading machine that he designed and built with his employees.

The arrival of the concept caused a stir in the textile industry: Ten years later, Levy received a gold medal for the invention at the international industrial exhibition in Toulouse. Shortly after, the 3000th threading machine left Henri Levy’s mechanical workshop in Rorschach. A number of other textile machines followed, which were met with similar success. However, a few years later, when the steadily sinking demand for embroidery from St Gallen had begun to jeopardize the future of his business, he instead turned his focus to lathes and vertical spindle moulders.

Spurred on by a German inventor duo

The real turning point came in 1917, when the German inventors Oskar Hoppe and Richard A. Kempin paid a visit to Levy’s company. The pair proposed that he should build a prototype for a rigid milling machine with a closed frame, for which they possessed a German patent. Levy was convinced by the design, and just two years later, the invention turned out to be a blueprint for a successful product – which was used by the workshop, now renamed Starrfräsmaschinen AG (“Rigid Milling Machines AG”), to conquer the booming automotive industry in particular. A few years later, the public limited company had to grow to employ around 400 people, and so had to move to a larger factory in neighbouring Rorschacherberg.

The rigid milling machine was built on the same recipe for success that has defined the Starrag Group to this day: The Swiss-based machine building company was very thorough in selecting a design principle that they could continue to refine and sell until it was superseded by a new and better design. The company remained true to the design that the inventor duo in its employ had proposed for 48 years, until the construction of the rigid milling machines was finally brought to an end in 1967.

Papa Levy: Fatherly concern for Starrag’s employees

“Papa Levy” – as he was affectionately known – left a company to his descendants upon his death in 1947 that was not only a shining example of how to run a business, but also of how to be socially responsible in doing so. In the 50 years following the company’s founding, a number of paternal-like acts of responsibility towards his employees showed why he’d earned the nickname “Papa”: At the beginning of the 20th century – 1903, to be precise – he was one of the earliest employers to set up a health insurance programme, which was subsequently followed by a company pension fund and a group insurance scheme. This sense of social responsibility was also upheld by successors such as Jean Schaufelberger and Manfred Widmer, who generously provided the workforce with a canteen, an apprentice workshop and a school for technical draughtsmen, among other initiatives.

The quarter-century that followed Levy’s death led to a number of innovations in Rorschacherberg that would shape the company’s continued success in the long run. In 1956, Starrag began constructing machines for milling turbine blades, which paved the way for the company to enter the aerospace and energy sectors. When it comes to manufacturing blades for aircraft engines or gas/steam turbines, the most sought-after factor is a high level of surface quality, which is dependent on the machining accuracy. This was reason enough for the Swiss machine builders to equip their copy milling machines from 1961 onwards with NC magnetic tape controllers, which contributed above all to additionally increased precision when milling turbine blades.

Withstanding the test of the oil crisis

These investments turned out to be crucial for the company’s survival when, around a decade later, at the beginning of the 1970s, the first oil crisis brought many export-oriented companies such as Starrag to a near halt. The Swiss company came a little too close to feeling “The Limits to Growth”, as per the title of a contemporary report that was published by the Club of Rome in 1972. Nevertheless, Starrag saw opportunities for five-axis NC machine tools, with which components could be manufactured in their entirety in a single set-up via a particularly sustainable and productive process. This resulted in the NB 125 D, which was able to mill simultaneously in five axis – a remarkable feature for a machine that was launched in 1973. This level of complexity is particularly sought after in the milling of impellers for aircraft engines and turbo engines.

The investment paid off: The aircraft manufacturers Rolls Royce and Construcciones Aeronáuticas ordered new NC special machines. Thanks to this specialization, Starrag also won General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts and founded its own subsidiary there, in order to provide better support to its new customer base in the USA. It was an important step along Starrag’s road to what it has grown into today: An international company group with production sites in Switzerland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and India, as well as sales and service companies in all key customer countries.

More challenges to face in the 1980s

Nevertheless, Starrag faced more setbacks along the way, but consistently overcome these through its innovative capabilities. The global recession of 1982, which saw extreme increases in oil prices – a consequence of the war in Iran – led to the Rorschacherberg-based firm shifting their focus to automation. This was a move quite in keeping with the times, since comprehensive digitalization had already begun to reshape the factory environment: “Computer integrated manufacturing” (CIM) was one such term that defined this period. Starrag adopted this concept for its new CNC machining centers in the new NX series for milling impellers and turbine blades. Thanks to the automated handling and the self-designed tool system, the non-productive times of these machines were able to be drastically reduced. However, the “cherry on top” for this CIM strategy turned out to be the self-developed software – which proved beneficial for applications such as inclined tool machining. The clever interplay of machines, automation and CAM software allowed customers to achieve enormous rationalization effects of 50% and more. Under a new director appointed in 1986, the strategy made its way to the customer base: Roughly every fifth machine was already automated and, thanks to open control systems, able to be networked with other manufacturing systems. It formed the basis for subsequent flexible manufacturing systems, for which Starrag even supplied self-developed master computers.

A key milestone in Starrag’s history came when Walter Fust took up a significant role within the company as majority shareholder and member of the supervisory board. As an 18-year-old grammar school student, Fust had already become very familiar with the company through giving a presentation in English on the machine tools produced by Starrag and +GF+. It left a lasting impression on him, since – after completing the Matura, the school leavers’ exam – he went on to study mechanical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). As a young entrepreneur, he began purchasing shares in Starrag as early as the 1970s and regularly read through the company’s reports. At the end of the 1980s, he acquired a substantial share package that allowed him to play an active role in determining the company’s future. The qualified mechanical engineer had come upon an engineering company that had “always succeeded in adapting to changing market conditions”. Nevertheless, he also Walter Fust, Majority shareholder “ Starrag is an engineering company that has always succeeded in adapting to changing market conditions.” Nevertheless, he also criticized the technical infatuation of the research and development department, feeling that it was not sufficiently oriented to the market.

Marking a new beginning in Chemnitz

“We can’t afford gimmicks.” Such was the maxim of the new president of the supervisory board, yet he did not shy away from risks when they were “well-considered”. In 1998, he purchased the Chemnitz- based company Heckert GmbH, which was one of the largest machine building combines in East Germany with over 50,000 machine tools sold. The Rorschacherberg and Chemnitz sites now operated together under the new company name of StarragHeckert – which, among other things, allowed them to produce more quickly, more precisely and more cost-effectively under a joint platform strategy. In retrospect, Fust considered it to be a perfect decision.

Together with the new CEO, Fust initiated subsequent company takeovers from 2005 onwards. In their acquisitions, the pair strategically targeted specialists in manufacturing software (TTL), high-precision measurement (SIP), turning, grinding, portal and high-speed machining (Dörries Scharmann with Droop+Rein and Berthiez), and high-precision machining (Bumotec). “All the companies fit very well into our overall strategy,” Fust was pleased to say in an interview with the Swiss journalist Richard Lehner.

Under the new name of the Starrag Group, a group of companies was formed with ten brands that cater to customers in all kinds of sectors. Examples of products manufactured on Starrag Group machines include components for exquisite luxury watches, gigantic drives for wind turbines, high-precision surgical instruments and even the world’s largest submarine propellers.

Moving forwards by thinking outside the box

Another aspect that makes Starrag unconventional is the way in which it responds to crises and catastrophes – of which there has certainly been no shortage from the very beginning of the company’s 125-year history. For example, the company was able to survive during 1914, when the world went to war, by adapting to the decreased demand for knitting machines: Company founder Henri Levy partially compensated for this drop in demand, by instead focusing on the construction of cigarette vending machines and machines for pitting cherries. In the present day, the company is similarly thinking “outside the box” to react to the consequences of the pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine. Among the many examples of this, Starrag CEO Dr Christian Walti was so fascinated by one in particular that he mentioned it in the editorial of the January 2022 edition of the Star customer magazine: “A quite different type of teamwork was called for at Starrag S.A.S. in the French city of Saint-Étienne, who had to assemble a dismantled Berthiez grinding machine in far-off China and commission this on schedule. Due to the pandemic-related travel ban, Starrag China assumed responsibility for the order – while receiving specialist remote support from the grinding experts back in France.” The workaround in spite of the strict travel ban was well received by the customer – a global corporation – and resulted in many additional new orders. This team spirit typical of Starrag and the results that it brings would certainly have brought just as much pleasure to company founder Henri Levy as the first gold medal he received!