Please note: This interview was published in its original form in DUB UNTERNEHMER magazine on April 27, 2021.
Military, civil aviation, the rail sector – as a mechatronics manufacturer, VINCORION is active in very traditional industries.
Stefan Stenzel: Although we are part of the Jenoptik Group, we largely lead our own life as a provider of mechatronic solutions with our independent VINCORION brand. Extremely long product life cycles apply in our industries. To us, this means a constant balancing act between 30 years of maintenance and obsolescence in the past and 30 years of forward-looking solutions in the future. It’s a challenge that I’ve always found extremely appealing.
Where do you get the ideas for the forward-thinking part of your business?
Stefan Stenzel: Our dialog with our customers is the main engine driving our innovation activities. We aren’t in the business of manufacturing off-the-shelf products, but instead develop tailored solutions for very specific problems. The engineer-to-engineer dialog that we maintain with our customers to this end is at the very core of our work. Our advantage is that we’ve mastered the engineering triathlon – we’re experts when it comes to combining electronic components, mechanic components, and materials. And this is how we create products that have never existed before, and what gives us our unique position. It may not be the latest iPhone, but it offers the customer real added value. Innovation doesn’t always have to be fancy.
So the drive to innovate tends to come into the company from the outside...
Stefan Stenzel: Not exclusively, of course. We also have an institutionalized innovation process that promotes and drives new ideas. This is of vital importance, including for our corporate culture. And it has already led to some highly successful product innovations. But we have to keep
an eye on marketability – there are also some exciting ideas out there that we can’t pursue. This is also an important business decision.
German industry is known for its engineering-driven approach and improving things down to the last detail. Is this focus on tiny details blocking the path to major disruptions?
Stefan Stenzel: I don’t think dividing things up into “disruptive” and “non-disruptive” is helpful – you only ever know afterwards anyway. I think the categories “meets customer needs” and “does not meet customer needs” are more relevant. And that applies in global competition. I think that this, above all else, is why we have to move away from the last 20 percent of the German desire to optimize every now and then. There are solutions out there that aren’t perfect down to the last detail – but they also only cost half as much. We in Germany have to be able to listen to the customer, ask them what they want, and not simply try to impose our own ideals.
What does digital transformation mean to you when it comes to your company?
Stefan Stenzel: In my view, digitization has two dimensions in an industrial context: product digitization and process digitization. This involves, for example, connecting machines in the automotive sector that we develop ourselves. But as part of the Jenoptik Group, it’s also about sharing experiences and spreading lessons learned. If we determine that something has worked well in one division, we naturally check whether it can be transferred to another.
In the context of Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things, how do you collaborate with your customers at the data level?
Stefan Stenzel: To be honest, this remains extremely limited in most areas of the company. But our goal is clearly greater connectivity. We believe predictive maintenance offers tremendous potential. If our products are intended to last 30 years, then there are obviously going to be points in time when such products need to be serviced.
Can you give us an example?
Imagine an electric rescue hoist attached to a mountain rescue helicopter. Inside it are a number of electronic components, but also a lot of mechanical components with a long rope attached to them. These are, of course, subject to regular maintenance cycles. And this maintenance is extremely expensive. Now imagine you operate a rescue helicopter in Munich. And the device suddenly stops working. Then it must first be detached from the helicopter and sent to us. This means that during this time, the helicopter can no longer perform rescue operations. This needs to happen as infrequently as possible, and it’s also possible to minimize this time period – through predictive maintenance.
What does this look like in detail?
While a rescue hoist was as intelligent as a garden hose on a reel ten years ago, today it is a highly sophisticated product with a whole host of software and sensor technology. This not only measures the use or the wear of the brakes, but in principle all of the relevant physical conditions, such as the humidity, the wind, the sun, and also the heating conditions. An algorithm then connects the dots between the readings. As a result of this analysis, the customer receives a suggestion for the best possible time to perform maintenance. In general, software accounts for an increasingly large percentage of our products – enabling hoists, for example, to deliver optimum performance in a specific field of application. That is one of our strengths. And that’s why engineers that work in electronics and software already account for around 50% of all our engineers.