Germany’s Mittelstand adds new data to old technology

Lesedauer: min

Everyday tools are given new purpose with the internet of things Data-driven: combine harvesters from Class

by: Peter Marsh
The world is getting used to driverless cars, but what about driverless combine harvesters? “They are perfectly possible,” says Lothar Kriszun. As the chief executive of German agricultural equipment company Claas, Mr Kriszun is an expert on the huge machines, of which his company is one of the world’s biggest producers.

He is standing in a sprawling factory in Harsewinkel, northern Germany, where most days 40 harvesters and related farm machines trundle off the production lines. Each can sell for up to €650,000 and are built from 50,000 parts — including about 30 sensors that measure anything from temperature to harvesting rates. These sensors, data communications and digital controls are crucial to self-driving harvesters becoming a reality.

Claas is among a raft of medium-sized, privately owned German manufacturers, known as the Mittelstand, grafting new technology on to manufacturing. Central to this is the internet of things — connecting smart products and machines via data networks — and the related concept of Industrie 4.0 — the digitisation of manufacturing technology, from design to after service.

The Mittelstand — typically family-owned companies that often excel in manufacturing — are global market leaders. They account for about 40 per cent of German gross domestic product across manufacturing and services, and are characterised by a long-term outlook and resilience — helped by their traditional aversion to taking on debt or straying from core areas of expertise.They are cited as one reason why the country emerged relatively unscathed from the 2008 financial crisis. Now they are squaring up to the technological challenge.

Industrie 4.0 in action

There are plenty of examples of German industrial companies — many far from household names — quietly introducing ideas based on Industrie 4.0 concepts, and making their products more useful to customers in the process.

Siempelkamp, a maker of large castings systems, equips its hardware with sensors to monitor the machines’ operation, to check that the metal parts fabricated match up completely with design data.

Other examples include EBM Papst, a specialist manufacturer in pumps and fans, and Hainbuch, a leader in workplace clamps.

Indutherm, a supplier of specialist furnaces for the jewellery industry, goes further by giving customers an option on using a secure data network to allow Indutherm engineers to keep track of how their equipment is operating inside their own plants.

In this way, the company’s engineers can monitor the machines and offer tips on maintenance.

Trumpf, a maker of laser-cutting machines, offers a variation on this procedure — an online service called Axoom, based on specialist software that controls laser-cutting machines installed by Trumpf in a customer’s plant. This provides guidance on such points as the suggested level of workload.

Mid-sized companies globally are making progress on the internet of things in manufacturing. In Japan, excavator maker Komatsu runs factories that receive data from diggers in use by customers to improve efficiency and reliability. At Swedish industrial group Sandvik, sensor technology is monitoring remote equipment from offshore drill rigs to rock crushing machines.

But most experts believe German midsized companies, with a history of innovation and decades of experience, are ahead. Hermann Simon, a Bonn-based consultant who has studied the Mittelstand for 30 years, says in this group “Industrie 4.0 is … taken very seriously”. Ailke Heidemann, of the Stuttgart office of Boston Consulting Group, says Mittelstand companies with backgrounds in mechanical engineering are “working urgently to bring on to their payrolls the experts they need in digitisation and data”.

Here are three examples of Mittelstand businesses — each family-owned and more than a century old — approaching a new era for industry.

Digital farming

At Claas, Mr Kriszun says the company’s 300 software engineers, out of a global workforce of more than 11,000, are its most important employees. “We are seeing many opportunities [in electronics and software] that weren’t available five years ago,” he says.

The company has spent €2m on developing ways to automatically transmit information via satellite networks from the harvesters operating in fields to farmers or grain experts thousands of kilometres away, bringing to farms the sort of continual remote monitoring that is routine in many factories.

It has produced an app for smartphones that operators of combine harvesters can use to help control machines or learn to do this better — and even leave them to operate alone. Mr Kriszun points out that the 103-year old company is used to change.

“We’ve had to adapt a lot, so [in taking up the new digital ideas] we’re not really doing anything that new.”

Data services

Established in 1874 and Europe’s second-biggest maker of central heating boilers, Vaillant has 12,000 employees — a third of whom work in the service side of the business in jobs such as

maintenance and repair. An increasing proportion of the 2m boilers it manufactures each year are equipped with communications systems to allow machines or people to monitor their operation from afar.

Carsten Voigtländer, chief executive, says this means Vaillant can think about new forms of service based on big data. The company is working out how to assimilate and analyse the huge amount of data generated from boilers, and then use it to build new sources of revenue. “We can provide consumers with ways to control their appliances better than in the past and at the same time analyse factors such as energy use,” says Mr Voigtländer.

Philipp Leutiger of the Munich consultancy Roland Berger says Vaillant is typical of Mittelstand businesses. Just as many are now in “hardware niches”, he says some will carve out “service niches”, based often on their own proprietary software.

Knipex makes pliers — producing more than 12m pairs a year in 800 different types, nearly all of which are made in the company’s Wuppertal headquarters, which employs 1,000 people.

Ralf Putsch, chief executive, says his 134-year-old company’s strategy mixes anything from new forms of alloys to improved ways to control the device to create leverage. Mr Putsch emphasises using his company’s in house-built forging and grinding machines. “I don’t see how we can be innovative and different if we rely on production methods open to everyone,” he says.

One approach, developed by a subsidiary in eastern Germany, involves connecting pliers to a computer so technical experts in safety-critical industries, such as aerospace electricians, can monitor the forces being applied. His company has spent €200,000 researching the technology.

Gathering inspiration from a recent trip to Silicon Valley he says: “It’s important to create a receptive environment for new thinking.”