Mr. Renner, do you remember the production conditions at FAULHABER back in 1983 when you started working for the company?
Back then, production at the Mozartstraße site was characterized by manual workstations. In Schönaich, only brushed motors were produced, the production of which was divided into three divisions (winding, assembly production, and final assembly) based upon the production process. Most of the time, the inquiries and orders exceeded our delivery capacity. For example, when a customer ordered 100 motors (which was a large order back then!), often we could only “allocate” 50 units. There were no computers in the entire company in those days. All the planning of the individual parts and assemblies took place by means of index cards. We had an index box each in purchasing, the warehouse, and production planning. All entries on the index cards were made by hand. So in a worst case scenario, we had four different stock levels for the same part: one in purchasing, one in the warehouse, one in production planning, as well as the actual stock, which was often determined by the production planner on site before confirming the order.
So the demand was greater than the supply?
The demand for FAULHABER motors continued to go up in those days. A milestone was achieved when we received an order for over 700,000 motors that had to be delivered within a year. This was twice our regular production volume. The strong growth and the resulting positive business development enabled us to subsequently construct the new building on Daimlerstraße, where we moved in 1990.
What steps did production take to keep up with the increasing demand?
With more womanpower and manpower. The introduction of a so-called “housewives shift” was part of the solution. While we only worked in single shifts before, this step gave us an additional four hours a day of production capacity. In essence, this was how our double shift operation got underway. The workstations were arranged one after the other. Some of the assembly workers were sitting shoulder to shoulder. The Managing Director at the time, Mrs. Klingberg, had to be gently convinced that her Mercedes needed to be removed from the garage in order to immediately set up two Arburg injection molding machines.
Was there already competition back then?
Not so much in the beginning, but, among other things, the quickly expanding market soon brought with it a few high-growth competitors. Orders were no longer allocated, but had to be tendered for. In order to enable a cost structure that allowed us to remain competitive in terms of pricing, the production was systematically and consistently automated. Almost all assemblies and large parts of the final assembly were partially or fully automated within 10 years. The number of variants continued to go up. Customer-specific drive solutions have been and still are at the core of FAULHABER's success. The enormous number of parts and ID numbers at all levels of the parts list could no longer be organized with index cards – at the end there were 2–3 index boxes next to each other! The solution was a PPS system, which we introduced in 1991. From that day forward computers were a must.
How have the market requirements influenced the development of new drive technologies?
The growing significance of electronics also in drive technology and the falling prices of electronic components with increasing volume created new uses for small motors. FAULHABER massively increased its product development capacities and introduced a number of new motor lines. Various brushless drives, flat rotor motors, stepper motors, integrated encoders, and the necessary motion controllers and speed controllers have become core components of our product portfolio. For production, this naturally led to an increasing number of assembly lines.
How did FAULHABER manage to economically organize such a wide ranging production portfolio?
The extreme number of variants could no longer be economically organized by maintaining stocks of salable products. The solution was production-on-demand. This entailed significantly smaller batch sizes, which could not be economically automated across all levels of the parts lists. In order to achieve an economical cost structure, we launched the production sites in Hungary and Romania, which we have expanded consistently. Our business had evolved from a motor supplier to an order- and customer-specific drive system supplier.
Didn’t producing at multiple locations also have its share of problems?
For production organization, on-demand production across multiple locations has been and remains to be very challenging. Our answer to this issue is “SITE-SYNCHRONIZED PRODUCTION.” We used radar charts to evaluate and consistently improve the performance of all sites in the production network. CIP programs, shop floor management, kanban structures, reduction of throughput times, flexible capacities, U-lines are just a few features. I am particularly pleased that our successful implementation of site-synchronized production was recognized in 2018 by winning first place in the “Factory of the Year” competition in the category “Outstanding small-batch production.”
How important is it to FAULHABER that all employees are qualified across all sites?
For us, every employee is an important investment. Every employee who has trained at FAULHABER for 3–4 years is subsequently qualified for more than 100 jobs. This is implemented consistently at every location. Every production facility at every location has been uniformly equipped and organized. This is an important prerequisite for synchronized production across locations. Whether in Hungary, Romania, Switzerland, or Germany – the distinctive FAULHABER production environment is obvious right away. This also includes systematic training. When you have trained someone for 3 years, then that is an absolute investment, because it takes an incredibly long time until the specific know-how with the great variety and the many different product lines has been internalized to the extent that it can be used productively.
Let’s talk about the current global situation – how crisis-proof is FAULHABER?
Darwin was convinced that it’s not the strongest species that’s ultimately successful, but the most adaptable one. This realization from the theory of evolution is also a good guideline for companies. It’s no different for us at FAULHABER: in the past, we frequently had to adapt to new framework conditions.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences have caused and continue to cause an unprecedented disruption to the global supply chain; and I’m not just talking about toilet paper (laughs). Suddenly, materials weren’t and aren’t available anymore. Delivery times, e.g., for electronic components have increased from what used to be 16 weeks to 52–104 weeks – how can we possibly know which parts and how many we need in 1–2 years?
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia creates new uncertainties, especially in terms of raw materials and in the energy sector. New challenges arise for production and production planning, the management of capacities, materials, and for the entire organization. Flexibility, which FAULHABER had to have many times before, is once again called upon and is the most promising solution. This will require various paradigm shifts. While the industry maxim was "just in time" in the past, we now need new and updated methods in order to maintain deliverability.
You mention a paradigm shift – what exactly do you mean by that?
Let’s talk about vertical integration, for example: when parts and products cannot be procured externally with any measure of certainty, we need to think hard about whether we can produce them in-house. Geared parts, internally geared gear housings, or turned parts are examples which we have already successfully integrated. Other parts are currently under consideration. Parts and components that are not feasible for in-house production must be kept in stock. A good example is semiconductors and ball bearings. Forecasting is the definition of the type and volume of stockpiling. Flexible capacities throughout the process chain are necessary in order to be able to process interrupted deliveries in a timely manner.
In times of uncertain material supply, the ability to deliver comes before cost minimization. Establishing and strengthening regional suppliers, reducing our dependency on individual supplier countries or companies, and entering purchasing associations are other possible solutions.
We try to understand the changing needs of the markets in all sales regions at an early stage and incorporate our findings into our forecasting, our investments, and projects.
This is how we ensure the best possible decisions on material procurement, capacity management, and production line upscaling.
How do you decide which areas to invest in?
We have successfully established working communication between all sales managers and regions – from field sales managers to top management, everyone involved contributes important information that helps us to make the right decisions. This is the basis upon which we plan our investments. Never before have we invested the way we have this year, and we will continue on this trajectory in the years to come.
The homogeneous, family-oriented shareholder structure helps us here – FAULHABER has always been ready to invest the necessary capital into good ideas. The trust put into the company by the shareholders is reciprocated by the trust of the employees into the shareholders and company. This was and still is an extremely important success factor.
Let’s look at clean room production, for example, which we have just started in Germany. There we produce the first medical products that are implanted in the body and products for the automation of semiconductor production – they have to be super precise and clinically clean. If these projects develop well, in 3–4 years we might have 50, 60, 70 jobs in cleanroom production in Schönaich.
Where do you think FAULHABER will be headed in the future?
In my view, we have to see the current challenges as opportunities. Our target market strategy helps us to analyze the most important future growth markets.
The future lies in robotics and industrial automation, for example. No matter where we turn today, be it logistics, the agricultural industry, or medical and laboratory technology, robotics is a huge market and all robots need motors and they need motors with low power consumption because mobile robots usually don't want to drag a cable behind them, but would like to work flexibly and freely in the room, which means they need a battery. If there is a battery inside, power consumption is critical. When power consumption is critical, then we and our FAULHABER technology are the frontrunners.
These are success factors for the markets of the future – we are FAULHABER!