Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Visit to Pelikan

About twelve years ago I discovered Pelikan pens after having collected fountain pens for about fifteen years. My first Pelikan was a newly released blue M800 and I soon came to vintage Pelikans, appreciating not just their workmanship but the history of the Günther Wagner firm behind them. I made my first visit to Hannover to worship at the fount of all things Pelikan almost four years ago and as soon as we made plans to be in Germany again this year, I got in contact with the Pelikan archivist Jürgen Dittmer, who had been so welcoming last time and made plans to visit him and asked it this time I might also visit the production facility for current pens (and, in fact, all the company’s products) at Peine, about thirty kilometres east of Hannover.

To make the trip complete, I decided to book Sharon and me into the Sheraton Pelikan, a rather pricey four star hotel, better than we usually allow ourselves. The hotel has adaptively reused the old Pelikan plant that dated back to the late 19th century and which the firm finally gave up only about fifteen years ago. The hotel was sumptuous and we enjoyed it thoroughly, especially as Mr. Dittmer interpreted the old buildings for us.

My day began at 9:30 when Mr. Dittmer picked me up at the hotel. Originally, Sharon had planned to join the tour, but a nasty developing cold kept her in the room except when she joined us at lunch. On the ride out to Peine, I learned that Herr Dittmer has spent all of his career, beginning in 1948, with Pelikan or its related firms. He began as a production worker, but quickly moved into sales and marketing before retiring in the mid-1990s when he became the company archivist.

The Peine facility began its life in the late 1960s as a shoe manufacturing plant, but was taken over by Pelikan in the early 1970s. Since then they have expanded it, and now do all their manufacturing there. In 2003, needing more space, they moved administrative functions to a new plant back in Hannover.

Once we arrived at Peine, a quiet town near the old border between East and West Germany, I met Christian Ehlers, the production director who was kind enough to guide us through the manufactory. Mr. Ehlers, an engineer by training, has been with Pelikan for about six years and before that was with Rotring for sixteen years. He explained to me that in 1973 Pelikan began production at this plant with fine pens and school pens, finally moving all their manufacturing there in 1995 when they closed the old plant on Podbielski Strasse. Today, everythng Pelikan makes, from children’s watercolours, to erasers to limited edition pens, is produced there. The only exceptions are a very few of the limited edition pens and the nibs for the M1000, which are done by Bock. In addition, Pelikan does do some manufacturing of office supplies, in a number of other locations, including China, Malaysia, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and Scotland.

I asked about taking pictures, and was allowed to photograph throughout the facility, though I was asked not to take close-ups of some of the newest machinery. After a few minutes, it was time to go back to the plant.

I was not surprised at all to see a highly modern, automated plant. Elsewise how would they stay in business? but what did surprise me was the level of hand finishing work that is done there.

So, come along and let’s see what I saw:

The tour began in one of the conference rooms at Peine where Mr. Ehlers shared with me a bit of information about his background and that of the facility we were in. Pelikan began producing there in 1973, alongside the old facility on Podbielski Strasse, in 1973. By 1995, however, all their production wasmoved to the Peine plant which had been incrementally expanded over the years.

There are three hundred workers here, two hundred of them involved in production and the rest in research and development and production support.

Here you see the materials and basic construction of the Souverän pens.
The plant is divided into several sections for production of school pens and pens for the wider market, the fine pens and then general school, office and art supplies. Here a worker checks the machine that produces the basic material for the finer pens. The plant operates three shifts a day, 24/6. Workers are able to take advantage of flex time, so that at times of peak production they work overtime and when things are slow they stay at home, but their compensation remains the same, regardless. Virtually everything that goes into Pelikan pens is produced on site in a highly mechanised environment . . .
except nibs. Nibs are taken very seriously. The plant produces 2.5 million steel nibs per year and 60-70,000 gold nibs. Almost all nibs are produced entirely in house (except for the M1000, which will be soon), using highly automated equipment. Even the gold nibs are made largely by machine until it comes to the fine work of aligning and polishing and then people take over. Here a technician is setting up equipment for a new run of M600/605 nibs.

The atmosphere is disciplined, yet at the same time loose and friendly. Especially in fine production where people work as teams
Inside this room the high value pens, the Souverän line and upwards, are all produced. For quality control and security purposes this room is not only separate but is locked down when not in use.
One worker, on the left, assembles nibs while her colleague checks them. In the few moments we were there, two nibs were sent back for adjustment.
These work stations are flexible in their use, so virtually any fine pen can be built in any number, as needed.

Herr Dittmer, with his back towards us, chats briefly with Herr Ehlers during the course of my tour.
The general factory where the mass market pens are produced. To the right, out of sight, is equipment on which three workers can produce a million ink cartridges a day!
Mr. Ehlers demonstrates the section of the new school pen series, designed to take children from kindergarten and crayons to primary school and fountain pens, ensuring that they always hold their pens correctly.
Even erasers are produced here. Here Mr Dittmer and Mr Ehlers hold a strip of synthetic eraser material.
After the factory tour, Mr. Dittmer drove us back to Hannover, where Sharon, who was just coming down with a cold, joined us for lunch. Afterward, Dittmer and I went on to the archives, familiar ground for me, though newly redecorated. Herr Dittmer also had some new materials to share with me, some of which will be scanned and available on the website later this summer. Here we have The PENguin Blog's first video. When we got back Mr Dittmer asked if my camera did video, I said yes rather tentatively, as I have used that feature just once, but I think it turned out pretty well.

Any number of limited editions have come out since my last visit, and Dittmer had to tempt me by showing off so many of them. Those of you who read the Stylus article on my 2005 visit know that it was Herr Dittmer who first put the 75th Anniversary pen into my hands, thus sealing my fate.
The familiar cabinet with 1950s era pens. All of these came off the assembly line and into the archives.

It is kind of thrilling to see this 1937 (first year) Pelikan 100N encased in this glass display, looking just as it did when produced over seventy years ago.
For me part of the experience was staying at the Sheraton Hotel that adaptively reused the old factory.
Note the frieze that incorporates Pelikan pen motifs.
This front tower used to house reception and then later the archives until the facility was given up in 1995. The archives remained for a few years after that and moved into the present quarters in 2003.
In contrast to the preserved exterior, the interior is all modern and high tech. Here our room.The high ceilings of the factory are dropped down in the rooms quite cleverly to create a sort of post modern cocoon.
From Hannover, it was on to Berlin. The last time Sharon and I were together in Germany, Berlin was behind the iron curtain and we, who were young at the time, lacked the nerve to drive the corridor. Now we cruised eastward across a landscape barely scarred by five decades of division


Kim said...

Thank you so much for sharing all this history, your pictures, and words about the experience. I may not comment much but I follow your posts with great interest!

acp-p said...

Thank you Rick for this personalized blow by blow or rather pen by pen Peli factory and archives tour. Almost like being there.

Thanks from all the Pelikan and pen fans worldwide.

acp-p said...

that was from Dov - don't know why google makes me acp-p even though I have a gmail account + tried posting comment under the real name.

could be alt collectors pen pencils bbs that I used to read via google ?

Take care, hope Sharon's better now.

Rick Hein said...

Thank you for sharing! Have you spoken to the WES folks during your stay in England?

opus104 said...

Rick - Super tour. You've got me coveting some of those pens on your site. I know you're having fun, but get home soon :)