More, quicker, and repeat: the international flow of goods has long since become one of the economy’s main arteries while the development of new technologies and products in the area of material flow solutions plays a central role in efforts to boost its performance. In an interview, Ralf Garlichs, Executive Vice President Products & Technology of the Interroll Group, talks about how the company plans to expand its position as an innovation leader in this age of e-commerce and ongoing digitalization.
Ralf Garlichs, intralogistics has already been a fast-growing sector of the economy for several years now. Isn’t it about time for that to end?
Of course nobody knows precisely what the future has in store for us. It’s common knowledge that economic trends always depend on external factors, some of which are political in nature. Yet if you take a look at the general market environment, you see strong growth drivers in the intralogistics sector which have not yet taken full effect. These include not only the forecast increase in global air traffic and the ongoing integration of modern material flow solutions in production, but the e-commerce boom in industrial countries and emerging markets, in particular. Despite the fact that we have already been reporting rapid growth rates for some years now, experts say that we are still at the onset of the e-commerce trend and predict that global e-commerce sales will more than double between 2016 and 2020. Not only is the volume of goods ordered online growing, but expectations with respect to the speed and reliability of deliveries are rising as well, with this trend visible in terms of both business with end consumers and the increasingly common just-in-time production method. We play a pivotal role in this scenario.
Some might think that, at some point in the near future, there should be enough new infrastructure already in place ...
Don’t make the mistake of mixing up material flow with transportation or telecommunication infrastructures. Those types of connections can convey both lorries and passenger cars, or voice and data, through one and the same conduit. Conveyors for in-house logistics are designed to meet much more specific requirements. Factors like weight, size, quantity and the type of packaging used on the goods being transported are decisive. Companies that change these parameters, possibly because of new offers to customers, usually cannot simply continue using their existing infrastructure for this. I’m not even talking about the difference between multi-tonne pallets or lightweight boxes here, or even about the special hygienic requirements of the food or pharmaceutical industries. If demographic shifts cause a rise in the number of small households, for example, or if businesses’ marketing strategies prompt changes to either the size or type of packaging used for a product, the corresponding material flow solution needs to be adapted accordingly or even redesigned from scratch.
For conveyors, Interroll persecutes platform-based strategy
Does that mean you need to develop new products for each application, just because of this trend?
No. That would be financially infeasible for us, for our customers, in other words, the system integrators and plant engineers, as well as for the users of our solutions. For years now, our technology development work has followed a platform-based strategy, precisely for that reason. Like the ever-popular LEGO system,customers around the world can assemble user-specific solutions based on proven, high-quality components. The advantage of this strategy is not only that we considerably reduce the complexity of our production processes, but also that we can push ahead with our product development and expansion work in a gradual, targeted manner by taking existing components and adapting them, combining them in new ways or adding individual elements to achieve specific results.
What exactly does that mean?
Take our modular MCP conveyor platform, for instance. This plug-and-play solution for a highly efficient, zero-pressure-accumulation material flow was initially designed for use in applications that offer the operators of distribution centers, our traditional target markets in other words, true added value. We then evaluated the corresponding material flow requirements in the manufacturing industry and also positioned our solution in the tire industry where it was equally successful. We are now moving forward and assessing the solution with regard to its suitability for the fashion and frozen food industries. Our ability to expand the fields of application and our sales markets isn’t the only advantage offered by this approach: our platform strategy’s charm also lies in the fact that we can make more profitable use of our existing expertise by transferring this technology relatively easily to other applications. One example of this is how we took the principle behind our decentralized drives and controls, which had previously been used for 24V Roller-Drives, and applied it for use in 400V pallet conveyance solutions. Our customers can now implement a complete, zero-pressure-accumulation pallet conveyor while simultaneously profiting from the advantages of components that have proven themselves hundreds of thousands of times.
Interroll's Innovation Campus addresses topics such as "Industry 4.0" and digitization
Industry is becoming increasingly digitalized. How are you coping with developments related to “Industry 4.0”?
Digitalization has already reached the intralogistics sector. We were prepared for it and not only did we use a Kaizen-based corporate culture to continuously improve our production workflows and expand our locations in Wermelskirchen, Kronau and soon in Thailand, but the past few years also saw us invest around 13 million EUR in our Group’s central innovation campus in Baal, near Düsseldorf. These efforts have sustainably strengthened our innovativeness, particularly with an eye to what might be termed “Intralogistics 4.0”. For instance, we made sure that our plug-and-play products are based on open, standardized data interfaces to enable system integrators to easily feed data from networked sensors or controls into higher-level processing systems. At the same time, our developers are working on increasing our solutions’ already extremely high availability even further by offering additional maintenance features. These features would allow products to automatically indicate to users that their ideal replacement date is coming up soon. We also wanted to make sure that our controls automatically configure themselves via plug-and-play – yet another feature that offers our customers added value and simplifies their jobs.
Speaking of “simplicity”, that is one of the central promises of digitalization...
Absolutely – and we keep that promise, but not just at the product level. We also help our customers with project layout and design work by providing easy-touse software, like our Layouter. With this program, assembling sophisticated solutions that integrate our products takes just a few clicks of a mouse. This virtual configuration platform is extremely popular among customers because it greatly simplifies their work processes. Plus the HANA-based global SAP infrastructure lets us significantly simplify and accelerate our own internal and external processes. Yet despite all the opportunities digitalization offers us, our employees are and will always be our most valuable foundation. That is why we invest in Group-wide training and further education programs – and our in-house Interroll Academy in Baal is one of the central pillars of our innovation strategy.