“An idea won’t necessarily be successful just because it’s good”
“Innovations need time, perseverance and the willingness to go the extra mile,” says Thomas Steffen, R&D director at Rittal, a system supplier of control racks and cabinets.
Not every idea results in an innovation. When is an idea successful?
We like to quip around here: Innovation is five percent inspiration and 95 % perspiration. No matter how good an idea might be, it is incredibly important to keep at it and to follow up on the issue. A product is doomed to failure if it is not accepted by the sales organization. The second criterion: An innovation can only be successful if it meshes with the corporate strategy.
Which innovations is Rittal currently involved in?
We are strongly focusing on our core business. We’re less interested launching new product lines. Instead, we’re looking more deeply into control cabinet functions, temperature management, power distribution, and IT infrastructure. Although it might seem secondary, we are, for example, working to improve the bases for our cabinets. As an alternate to steel sheet, we are now also making them from plastic corners. These are faster to install and let us upgrade and expand control cabinet design. As for innovations, there is no pat recipe for success. And an idea won’t necessarily be successful just because it’s good. It has to provide some explicit benefit to the customer. And on top of that, you need great staying power.
What is it that makes Rittal successful?
Looking back on the fifty years of our company’s history, I see three development stages. The “switchgear cabinet as an innovative, flexible concept — in the form of a standardized product available right off the shelf.” That was the basic idea and one that turned the market upside down. But the concept didn’t make a real breakthrough until the early 1970s. We had to struggle with balking by our development departments and to convince our customers who, at the time, preferred custom solutions.
Secondly, our success is based on the courage it took to promote this idea not only in Germany, but in Europe and overseas, too, and to draw up an appropriate logistics concept. The third stage was to expand our portfolio. We wouldn’t be where we are today with switchgear cabinets alone. It was important to build on our temperature control and power distribution capabilities. At the moment we are in the fourth evolution stage: Our aim is to provide an integrated system, technically and operationally flexible, and offer our customers efficient, affordable, all-round solutions. In my opinion, this is the key to the company’s continuing success and is not limited to any one product in particular.
What helps to promote inventive talent?
You have to create an environment where innovations are possible in the first place. We believe in an idea management policy that involves both our customers and our workforce and have installed continuous improvement processes (CIP) in every department. In addition, we use suggestion reporting and evaluation processes and organize internal and external workshops. In our development workshop, we utilize the creativity of the employees attending, augmenting ideas by the engineers in our research sections. Everyone is welcome to participate.
One factor is extremely important: You must respond to each and every idea, even if you ultimately have to turn it down. That’s because if employees put forth ideas which are then rejected for no particular reason, they will never submit a suggestion again. Once a year, we hold an event attended by the entire management board, where staff members present their best CIP projects and ideas. Presenting their ideas and solutions to this panel and being rewarded in this setting are invaluable experiences for our employees.
So Rittal is placing its bets on internal know-how — can the same be said for manufacturing depth?
That does vary a lot. In the field of switching cabinet technology, manufacturers often build everything from start to finish. But a substantial share of our sales is generated by products that we have developed jointly with system suppliers, and that those suppliers manufacture. As regards climate control, we focus our activities on creating a comprehensive, innovative system from the components available. You can set up standard refrigeration configurations in any number of ways — we have some pretty smart solutions here at Rittal.
In the future, we want to be more involved with control technology and electronics than has previously been the case. We are currently working on solutions to boost energy efficiency because that will set us apart from others. One thing is important: Even if we don’t produce all the items ourselves, we have to be fully in the know when we are talking about them, so as to be on a par with our suppliers. Our manufacturing depth varies widely, but we need the know-how in every field.
What role does automated machinery play in switching cabinet production?
Every day almost four thousand large-scale enclosures are dispatched from our plants around the world. Such volumes can only be achieved with highly automated machinery. We use TRUMPF 2D laser cutting machines to process flat components to be integrated into the frames of our larger cabinets. We can provide these enclosures with individual cutouts or finish them with special paints.
One great challenge is integrating product modifications into the automated manufacturing process. To do this, we need intelligent tooling concepts that help us master the balancing act between standardization and individualization. With 3D laser technology we can quickly and reliably cut out the openings the customer wants. For us, this is the ideal solution because we can first manufacture a complete series and then custom-machine the doors, enclosures or side walls, for example.
How have switching cabinets changed since the seventies?
Fundamentally, a switching cabinet is a fairly conservative product. At first glance, we see that it is made of sheet metal, as always, but technologically it has come along by leaps and bounds. We still use sheet metal, but also process higher-value materials such as stainless steel — primarily when it is a question of keeping surfaces from corroding. The same applies to new seals and special foams to keep out water and dirt.
Great progress has been made with system expansions, too. In the meantime, two-thirds of our portfolio consists of system accessories. Most notably, temperature control now plays a far more important role, and it’s growing. This topic arose in the eighties, when electronics were first installed in switching cabinets. Demands on switching cabinet infrastructure have changed correspondingly, especially as far as efficiency is concerned. Six years ago, our equipment’s energy consumption seemed irrelevant, but currently it’s a subject of great significance, both now and for the future, and this is where we are the global market leaders in terms of switchgear enclosure manufacturing. The same applies to IT housings. As regards switching cabinets, we can provide the answers to virtually any question on standardization, quality management, logistics and service. And, in addition, our products comply with a wealth of national and international standards.
And what will tomorrow’s switching cabinet look like?
Materials are going to change, primarily with respect to surfaces and sealing systems. Locking systems are becoming more innovative, too. You might soon be able to open a switching cabinet the same way as you unlock your car. The enclosures are also getting smaller, since the equipment inside is shrinking. We are working intensively on a greater level of integration when combining switching cabinets and climate control components. An innovative switching cabinet would be one with integrated air conditioning, automatically regulating its own temperature to a tolerance of plus/minus five degrees, so that the customer doesn’t have to worry about where to install the air conditioning unit.
Rittal has developed a “filling station” for car batteries and a fuel cell system. How important is it to think outside of the box?
Just because we concentrate on improving our core businesses doesn’t keep us from getting involved in new topics. But we do that in a very conscious and aware fashion and — if necessary — only for a limited period of time. We have already completed some successful pilot projects involving fuel cells. We are closely monitoring that market’s development. Electromobility is a sector that knocked on our door. Enclosures are required for the battery charging stations and, after all, this is our bread-and-butter business. In cooperation with our partners, we offer housing technology and power distribution integration — from a single source.
We are also involved in “bio rack” technology. It involves using synthetics made from sustainable raw materials — such as hemp or flax — for switching cabinet construction. We are open to new technologies. But you have to be resolute and sometimes bid farewell to a project if it no longer makes any sense to carry on with it. We need our capacities to plow ahead at full speed in other areas and to continue our fifty-year success story.
Contact us: MastersofSheetMetal@trumpf.com
This article was first published in autumn 2011.