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is not an end in itself

"Digitalization is not an end in itself"

The topic of digitalization is at the top of the agenda for almost all companies. How is Interroll dealing with this challenge? Jens Strüwing, Executive Vice President Products & Technology of the Interroll Group, explains how digital technologies can be meaningfully integrated into a company's production and product strategy.

What strategy is Interroll pursuing in the area of digitalization?

Jens Strüwing: First of all, this is not a new topic for us. Years ago, we had already ensured the homogenization of our company-wide information exchange by setting up our globally networked enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. We therefore have a very solid basis for using digitalization in a wide range of areas and at all levels. At the same time, we have always regarded the topic not as one project among many, but as a central task for the highest management level. We set concrete goals for ourselves early on and then defined lighthouse projects that would be implemented throughout the Group. In doing so, we at Interroll do not view digitalization as an end in itself, but as an effective lever to further expand our own strengths, and to create additional value for our customers. In short, we are consistently integrating digitalization into our overarching corporate strategy.

What does this integration look like?

Interroll's goal is to significantly expand its own leading position worldwide over the next few years and to grow profitably in the process. In terms of production, this means that we are currently expanding our capacities in North America, Europe, and Asia and will be investing around 150 million Swiss francs in this over the next few years. However, in order to offer our customers and our end users short delivery times, we are not relying solely on additional factories. We are focusing just as much on continuously improving our efficiency, for example by increasing our productivity through a higher level of automation. In addition, we are looking at pilot projects to see what advantages new manufacturing technologies such as robotics and additive manufacturing can bring us. Another important topic is the use of new, digital process innovations in manufacturing—and not just in the new plants.

For example?

Against the backdrop of the advantages offered by smart factory concepts, we decided to make our Kaizen-based Interroll Production System (IPS) paperless as a first step, thus developing it into an IPS version 2.0. For this purpose, we have set up a lighthouse project of digitalization at our site in Wermelskirchen, Germany, which we have now successfully completed and will successively implement worldwide. With this process digitalization, our production machines are now automatically retooled for the next order, for example. Our employees on the production lines and in the manufacturing cells no longer need order slips, but are shown the necessary information on displays. This speeds up processes and eliminates sources of error. At the same time, we are now able to use functions from our ERP system or our cloud, for example for our webshop applications, in an end-to-end network; in other words, to digitalize and automate all processes between ordering, order processing, production, shipping, and billing.

Apart from more efficient processes, what benefits do you expect from digitalization in the production environment?

Flexibility is also a very important aspect. That is why we are working hard to further increase the flexibility of our production with the help of digital technologies. Thanks to flexible working time concepts, we already have "breathing" factories that can adapt to changing market situations. However, this flexibility can be further increased through the digital networking of our global production network, for example for capacity balancing between different sites. This includes driving forward projects that will allow us to significantly optimize our production planning on the basis of artificial intelligence. Instead of planning on a "gut feeling" basis, we want to use digital forecasting tools with high predictive power in the future, based on so-called big data applications (i.e., the analysis of historical data).

Let's move on from production to the product range: What role does digitalization play in this area?

In this field, we are also consistently guided by our corporate guidelines, which always place concrete customer benefits at the center of our respective activities. We focus our modular platform offering on quality, speed, and simplicity in order to eliminate our customers' pain points and help them seize their business opportunities. An illustrative example, for example, is the Interroll Layouter, a computer-aided design (CAD) software that dramatically shortens and simplifies the planning and ordering process of material handling projects for our customers. We have set up a project to use this information technology (IT) application to simulate planned conveyor systems in the future. This means that the customer can not only assemble the designed system from our modules and "see" it but can even anticipate and verify its subsequent operation on the computer. Especially for more complex system configurations, this is an important step for system integrators to achieve a successful business deal.

On the planning level as well as on the solution level itself, the software part is becoming more and more important.

Correct. Even today, our control systems allow the setup of zero- pressure-accumulation, autonomous subsystems with integrated conveyor logic, if required. And control software is also playing an increasingly important role in our sorting systems in order to design their use to customer specifications and simplify their commissioning. For this reason, we will further expand our competencies in the area of software and concentrate them in our new competence center in Linz, Austria, which is responsible for all products globally.

At the same time, conveyor systems today already provide more and more information about their operating status themselves.

Yes, with our DC Platform, we have a solution on the market with which our customers can already implement data-transparent material flow solutions today (i.e., obtain a real-time insight into running systems). In this way, we give users the opportunity to transparently monitor the system status in real time via open and standardized protocols or to position conveyed goods for machine processing with millimeter precision—basic prerequisites for smart material flow systems in Industry 4.0 environments. We already offer solutions that allow dynamic and static data from complete conveyor systems to be retrieved, collected, and displayed on smartphones, tablets, or other end devices via user-friendly software applications. In this way, the availability of existing or new systems can be further increased and service can be made much more efficient. At the same time, it offers system integrators the opportunity to offer new services to their end customers.

What happens to all the data then?

With the new DIAP, we are also leveraging this digitalization advantage across manufacturers. This enables users to read out dynamic operating data from heterogeneous plants and use it for further processing. Incidentally, this connectivity is by no means only important for preventive maintenance services. It can also be used to adapt plants easily and flexibly to specific customer needs. For example, we are working on an IT platform that will allow certain plant functions to be downloaded very simply via an app in the future.

Will maintenance and installation also benefit from digitalization?

Of course, and in more ways than one. Our solutions already offer the option of contactless retrieval of static product information, such as identification numbers for the installed product, via smartphone or tablet. In this way, we are further promoting decentralized maintenance in intralogistics, as this simplifies replacement orders by service personnel. From here, it is only a logical step to online ordering at the touch of a button. Our technology platform is getting smarter and smarter. This will, of course, enable us to provide further innovative service solutions for customers in the future.

We are also going digital in our installation services with the use of augmented reality applications, which have helped us especially during COVID-19: For example, our Spanish colleagues used Google Glass to get support from experts in Germany for the installation of a sorter.

Processes, products, applications and services: So digitalization is a real crosscutting task for you?

That's right. This is precisely why it is important that we consistently follow our strategic guiding principles in a time of rapid change and do not simply chase after short-term trends. For this reason, we take the issue of a comprehensive system architecture very seriously (i.e., the topic of which technologies and communication standards our platform solutions will have to support in the future in order to continue to be successful in the coming years). As with other projects, we are cooperating here in a targeted manner with external partners, such as leading universities or research institutions.