When Andreas Wöginger talks about his work, he speaks a long time about trust, openness and respect. About how important it is to listen to customers, to understand their problems from their point of view and then to find solutions by working together. “Customers are learning how to work with these relatively new composite materials,” says the mechanical engineer. Behind him, a robotic arm is placing a carbon fiber mat into a machine press.
Wöginger is responsible for technology development within the business unit Composites – Fibers & Materials (CFM) at SGL Carbon. In his 2,000-square-meter lab, he and his colleagues are testing the newest production methods. SGL offers services along all steps of the value chain, from design services to development and implementation of the finished component.
Sometimes customers come without any prior knowledge in the field of composites and they work together with the SGL team to develop a completely new component. Sometimes it is about supporting a more experienced customer to advance development of lightweight components for mass production. Yet regardless of whether it’s a new design or an adaptation of a current one: “Cooperation between customers and SGL is becoming increasingly important,” explains Christoph Ebel, who is a member of Wöginger’s team and leads SGL’s in-house Lightweight and Application Center (LAC).
What is true for lightweight construction can also be applied to all industries of SGL Carbon. From the battery sector to the LED and semiconductor industries to the chemical industry: cooperation with customers is more important than ever before. SGL Carbon has made the credo of partnerships the focus of its new corporate strategy and corporate culture. “In addition to continue to manufacture high-quality and functional materials, we will also develop smart solutions together with our customers,” says SGL Carbon CEO Jürgen Köhler.
There are good reasons for the strategic realignment. All over the world, manufacturers, customers and their suppliers are working even more closely together to develop new products, applications and solutions. The days when engineers and designers spent years tinkering in laboratories and studios and then presenting customers with a finished product are over. The package and mail logistics company DHL, for example, has been bringing its customers and partners together in innovation centers for some time now. This led, for example, to the idea of the Parcelcopter — an autonomous flying packagedelivery drone. Software companies such as SAP and the food-products multinational Danone are using platforms to involve their customers in developing their products.
We have two ears and one mouth — and that’s how we should behave
Christoph Henseler, GMS Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales
“Collaborating with external partners is crucial for the success of innovative projects,” says Krsto Pandza, an innovation researcher at Leeds University Business School. He’s been dealing with this topic for years. To date, B2C companies in particular have relied on close cooperation with customers and partners since the hurdles to cooperation are lower and the successes more quickly apparent. In the B2B sector, in contrast, many companies still remain in traditional contractual agreements, which have proved their worth but aren’t terribly likely to promote innovation. Marie Taillard and Jerome Couturier of the ESCP Europe Business School consider this a mistake. The advantages can be just as tempting in the B2B sector, they argue in an analysis. „But they require the foresight to see beyond traditional corporate boundaries, and the audacity to share with those you naturally want to keep at a distance.”
A Tradition of Close Collaboration
SGL Carbon has a tradition of cooperating with partners. For instance, the Graphite Materials & Systems (GMS) division has long relied on Technical Sales Managers. They remain in close contact with customers and develop customized solutions based on the customers’ requirements. “This is how we combine our strengths with our customers’ needs,” says GMS Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales Christoph Henseler. In this way, Henseler and his team have learned, for example, that a mixture of modular solutions and corresponding adaptations are optimal for their customers in the area of heat exchangers, while in the semiconductor industry or the battery segment almost every customer has individual requirements. Henseler’s motto: “We have two ears and one mouth — and that’s how we should behave.”
For SGL’s composites division, the topic of partnership is also nothing new. Cooperations have often even taken the form of joint ventures. SGL Carbon’s long-standing joint venture with BMW has really left its mark in this respect. In joint pioneering work, the two partners realized the BMW i3—the first complete massproducible car passenger compartment made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastics — and advanced the material’s utilization for other BMW models. They also established the two facilities in Moses Lake, Washington (US) and Wackersdorf, Germany, being the world’s most state-of-the-art carbon fiber production and a highly innovative fiber processing facility.
The collaborative approach has grown increasingly stronger throughout SGL Carbon. The result: numerous projects are already proving that cooperation is worthwhile wherever it occurs.
Being open, listening, providing inspiration — that’s what counts, We want to take our partnerships seriously, because only genuine partnership can bring our
customers and partners forward together with us.
Dr. Jürgen Köhler, SGL Carbon's CEO
The AM fibers, the leaf springs for Volvo, the Brembo-SGL brake discs, the FPC and the cooperation with Pierburg: with its new aspiration for particularly intensive cooperation, the new SGL Carbon wants to make a difference—and is often making one already today. “Being open, listening, providing inspiration—that’s what counts,” Köhler says. “We want to take our partnerships seriously, because only genuine partnership can bring our customers and partners forward together with us.”