For ten years, Dr. Ralf Garlichs has been emphatically advancing product and technology development of the global Interroll Group as Head of Products and Technology. However, not even this mechanical engineer with a PhD thinks technology is solely limited to innovations and improvements.

Dr. Garlichs, Interroll has been successful for many years. That should surely have you feeling pleased and content.

We are certainly pleased that customers all over the world value the work we do. However, those who rest on contentment are standing still and inevitably fall behind. Contentment is the enemy of innovation. On the other hand, discontentment is an important driver for necessary changes and innovations.

Part of the Kaizen philosophy that focuses on company-wide continuous improvement, which we have been following throughout the group for years, also requires looking at known deficits or issues in a positive light. Accordingly, criticisms shouldn’t be seen as demotivating, but rather as a chance to change - in other words, a gift of sorts. However, the point is to keep consistently making progress so there aren’t many occasions for receiving such “gifts.”

How do you ensure the necessary continuity with these improvement and change processes?

The first step is naturally to really listen to what is being said. Incidentally, this starts with the very suggestions that our production workers make for improving processes. This is why we have taken the exchange of new ideas or any problems encountered and institutionalized it in our plants across the world. The same certainly applies to the further development of existing products. If the market signals that there are difficulties with certain solutions, we react immediately. One of our tools is the “product clinic.” This involves our experts regularly testing specific products or solutions, for example, for the purpose of achieving cost savings or adding new functions to a product.

“Innovations are ideas that are geared toward market success”

Nevertheless, the potential for innovation often goes above and beyond specific products and processes.

Correct. That’s why you not only have to listen, but also ask the right questions in order to create space for new ideas. Therefore, we systematically ask our customers around the world — completely independent of specific technical solutions — what specific market and business challenges they think they face. What can customers really expect from partnering with Interroll? What responsibility should our company assume in its business operations?

That can actually vary considerably in different countries. How can we help solve challenges that customers face? A customer might want us to reduce the complexity involved in certain projects. We can only develop specific solutions that bring real added value if we know what the customer wants. After all, innovations are always ideas that are ultimately geared toward market success.

We systematically ask our customers around the world...what specific market and business challenges they think they face.

How have you positioned research and development accordingly at Interroll?

We have invested heavily here in the last few years, which once again emphasizes the importance that Interroll puts on innovation. We invested about EUR 13 million in the group’s innovation campus by further developing the global Center of Excellence located in Baal near Düsseldorf, Germany. Our Interroll Research Center (IRC) there is keeping our technical innovation at full speed ahead for all product groups and applications—in close collaboration with product management, sales and the Interroll Academy.

Creativity should be able to flourish

This is where we not only come up with new products but also comprehensively test the products before introducing them to the market. We consciously give our developers the freedom to follow ideas that might even seem rather absurd at first. Unlike in production or in further developing products and processes where we approach innovation consistently with a zero-defect objective, in this situation, we even accept that some new ideas will fail so we can let the necessary creativity flourish.

The smart logistics workflows of the future will be more flexible and robust, thereby further increasing the demands for reliability.

Today’s buzzword that has everybody talking is “Industry 4.0,” including the internet of Things. How are you approaching this topic at Interroll?

It’s clear that the trend toward digitization and networking will reach all sectors in the coming years, even intralogistics. But really capitalizing on the benefits of a pervasive network requires ensuring integrated information flow throughout the value chains.

As a manufacturer of key components that facilitate material flow between incoming and outgoing goods, it first means that we as system integrators have to provide the necessary interfaces for transferring data from sensors or from control systems to the higher-level processing systems.

This is exactly what we do by supporting the respective IT standards and our plug-and-play connection solutions. At the same time, the smart logistics workflows of the future will be more flexible and robust, thereby further increasing the demands for reliability.

“Networking and industry robotics constitutes our era of Industry 4.0”

And how is Interroll preparing itself for this future as a company that produces machinery?

New productivity improvement opportunities are especially important for companies that are growing as fast as Interroll. Networking all workflows in our value chain as is being discussed with Industry 4.0 certainly holds interesting prospects in this regard. We did our corresponding IT homework: The HANA-based SAP infrastructure that we globally established over the last few years is providing the foundation for the respective applications. This integrated networking and industry robotics use in production, which we have implemented and evaluated on a test basis, is what constitutes our era of Industry 4.0.

However, in all the talk of digitization and automation, you can’t lose sight of the fact that employees are the most important resource. Only those who are able to incorporate employees in this paradigm shift will be able to fully harness the technological potential for further growth.

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