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"Innovation has a very high priority for Schunk"

Global Innovation Manager Dr. Alexander Gatej in an interview.

Schunk Smart Charging

Dr. Gatej, what do you actually do as an Innovation Manager?

Dr. Alexander Gatej: Quite simply - driving innovation forward! As Global Innovation Manager, I am located at the corporate level of the Schunk Group. This function did not exist before and was created two years ago.

Schunk has a very broad technological base; you could also call it a conglomerate. My task is just as broad and deals, among other things, with what incentives and structures the holding company can set up to motivate innovations and how networks can be established so that the developers in the individual Business Units come into closer contact with each other. They often work on related topics, but sometimes in parallel and not together. In the best case, however, this exchange leads to completely new ideas and application possibilities.

Why is the topic of innovation so important for Schunk in the first place?

Dr. Alexander Gatej: Schunk sees itself as a technology company that offers technically sophisticated products in the B2B sector. Here, development cycles are becoming shorter and shorter, so our customers have a high demand for technological innovations. This is clearly illustrated by technological megatrends such as mobility and digitization. New markets are emerging here with new requirements and challenges, and they are desperate for solutions.

As a matter of principle, Schunk's corporate strategy is based on technology leadership. This is because all of our major development sites are located in the high-wage countries of Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. For business reasons alone, we cannot therefore rely on a strategy of cost leadership through the lowest prices, but must differentiate ourselves through better products and technological innovations and continuously maintain our competitiveness.

pats_Schunk_Award

The Schunk Innovation Contest is an internal company competition in which all ten Schunk Business Units enter their best innovation in the race every year.

What exactly is Schunk doing to drive innovation forward?

Dr. Alexander Gatej: Quite a lot. Through the annual motto of 2020 and 2021, "Success by Innovation," we have increased our internal focus on the topic. Of course, this also includes the fact that there is now an Innovation Manager at Group level. We also organize internal and external Tech Days at which our Business Units exchange ideas with each other or with customers on the technologies of today and tomorrow. In addition, a special Innovation Fund of ten million euros is available for the development of long-term and high-risk innovation projects.

I think the Schunk Innovation Contest generates a lot of attention. This is an internal company competition in which all ten Schunk Business Units enter their best innovation in the race every year. It's exciting because it involves really fascinating technologies. And also exciting because it is of course highly interesting to see who wins this competition in the end! The best innovation is rewarded with the Schunk Innovation Award. This is highly coveted because it is associated with a high level of appreciation for the creative achievements of the development teams involved. Our developers are deservedly proud of this.

This year, the Innovation Award was presented for the development of graphite bipolar plates. These are the heart of fuel cells and make it possible to generate electricity directly from hydrogen. And not under laboratory conditions, but on a large scale and on an economic basis. So this is a highly topical subject.

"As a foundation company, we don't have to focus on quarterly figures, but have patience and can therefore accept setbacks as well."

How can you tell the success of these measures?

Dr. Alexander Gatej: Firstly, by the fact that the topic of innovation has a very high priority in the company today. Schunk has a company history of over one hundred years. During this time, technical innovations have been invented again and again, which is without question one of the company's success factors. But the frequency used to be different. And more or less fully developed products often ensured good sales for decades. Now there is a different dynamic, and the company is aware of that.

Secondly, you can see it in the sales figures: We see that our innovations are taking an increasingly large share of sales. They not only compensate for the sales of old products that have already passed their peak, but they also ensure growth beyond that. We monitor this on an annual basis and can see very clearly that Schunk is well positioned for the future.

Do you have any examples of successful innovations?

Dr. Alexander Gatej: I personally particularly like Schunk Smart Charging. This is a charging system primarily for electric buses, but also for commercial vehicles. Smart Charging won the Schunk Innovation Award in 2014 and has made great progress since then. In the meantime, the system is in use all over the world and is very successful. For example, people commute from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam in an electric bus that has been charged using this innovation from Schunk. This is a great technology that makes locally emission-free mobility possible in the world's metropolises.

Another example of an innovation that has been very successful on the market is the Minic III. This ultrasonic welding machine makes it possible to join copper and aluminum cables together in a quality never seen before, ensuring perfect connections of, for example, car wiring harnesses.

Minic-III

With the Minic-III Schunk offers the most modern, fastest as well as most user-friendly and low-maintenance ultrasonic welding machine on the world market today.

That all sounds good. But were there also ideas that failed?

Dr. Alexander Gatej: Yes, of course there were. That's just part and parcel of venturing into new territory. Not everything always works the first time. Sometimes not at all. Schunk has a good culture of making mistakes. If you try something new, you are allowed to fail. The important thing is to recognize failure quickly and to put on the brakes sometimes. And that you learn from failure and take the experience with you into other developments that then work.

By the way: Schunk can afford to take a higher risk with developments than perhaps other companies. As a foundation company, we don't have to focus on quarterly figures, but have patience and can therefore accept setbacks as well.

Particularly in companies like the Schunk Group with highly specialized products, there is often the danger of cooking in one's own juice and only making the existing better and better instead of developing something completely new - the keyword being disruption. How does Schunk deal with this?

We tackle this challenge quite offensively by having the holding company of the Schunk Group specifically promote long-term and high-risk developments. These Horizon 3 projects have a long development horizon and go beyond the day-to-day business of the companies.

For this reason, Schunk has set up the aforementioned Innovation Fund in the amount of ten million euros: The individual companies can apply for funding with long-term development projects, so that they do not have to cover these from their own budgets, but receive these funds in addition. Our experience so far shows that this is a great motivation to strike out in completely new directions: Think outside the box.

Alexander Gatej
"Schunk Group specifically promotes long-term and high-risk developments."
Dr. Alexander Gatej, Global Innovation Manager

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