Way2K: Industry interviews in the lead-up to the K 2022 trade fair”Digitalisation plays a major role on the path to additional growth”
Mr. Rudersdorf, what is the greatest benefit of digital transformation?
I think the greatest benefit of digital transformation is in interpersonal communication, because it enables a significant increase in employee efficiency. We have a very high wage level in Europe but are facing international competition. We cannot afford to operate with the same manpower as companies in countries where wage levels are lower. Conversely, this means that our employees must achieve higher productivity, which can be achieved through digitalisation.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
I would like to focus on sales. I have been working in B2B business in the plastics industry for many years. We know from studies that buyers in the manufacturing industry today use other channels for sourcing than visits from sales reps. When seeking equipment for a project, they first conduct research on the internet first, so their method is digital. They obtain a lot of information about products, possible suppliers, and even about the contact persons listed on the website. It’s only further down the line in the decision-making process, when the sourcing is already very far advanced, that a personal meeting will take place, which can now also take place virtually. As a supplier, we are therefore close to the customer despite the physical distance, enabling us to deploy our sales staff much more efficiently. Of course, personal visits will still take place. In the future, it will be important to find a good balance.
Has the pandemic accelerated this process?
Absolutely. We were able to significantly increase our order intake last year, even though trade fairs were almost non-existent. We have therefore rebuilt our online presence with a new website, our own social media channels, and a considerable amount of new content. Customer enquiries and ultimately orders are generated through this online presence. The pandemic has shown us that digitalisation plays a key role for us on the way to additional growth.
What role does digitalisation play at a later stage in terms of the cooperation with customers?
Are they ready to exchange data yet? There are still some hurdles to overcome for customers to rely on data exchange in the digital transformation. For example, if we received production data from a customer’s plant, we could tell them how to operate the machine more efficiently in the process. It is still comparatively easy to convince small and medium-sized companies of these advantages, where we are often in close contact with the managing directors. With large international corporations, it’s so much more difficult, as they usually have IT guidelines that make the digital transformation more difficult due to security reasons.
Is it necessary then for you to improve security?
On the one hand, as suppliers, as machine builders, we must be able to offer solutions of that nature for secure data exchange in the first place. But we only do that when there is a need. People have been talking about Industry 4.0 for years, but in my experience, many companies have been reluctant to use it for fear of losing know-how.
Could the experience of the Corona pandemic help to initiate a rethink in this field?
For sure. When customers’ machines failed unexpectedly in 2020 and 2021 because service technicians were no longer allowed to enter plants, we tried to solve the problems via data glasses or mobile phones with cameras. If those customers had opened up to us a little beforehand, allowing us, as their supplier, access to productivity levels, times, processed quantities and other framework parameters of their plants, it would probably have been possible to notice that something was not going right before the breakdown. I feel that the experience of the last two years has increased the pressure on customers. They know they have to do something. We are seeing a surge in maintenance contracts. That is a first step. Preventive maintenance, for which data exchange is essential, will hopefully follow.
The government is relying heavily on digitalisation. Is it doing enough in this respect?
Politicians are already quite supportive. There are many opportunities for companies to apply for funding. We have also done that, and the funds from the Federal Ministry of Research help us a lot in financing our digitalisation projects. For example, if we want to offer our customers secure data exchange in the future, we will need a qualification process for our employees. This is exactly what the ministry supports in our case. We can therefore not only offer customers secure predictive maintenance, but also make it easier for employees to operate the machines. This represents great added value, especially in times of skilled worker shortages.
Industry interviews on the road to the K:
The world is facing major challenges: Climate change must be fought; the environment must be protected, and resources must be conserved. It is also important to make good use of the opportunities offered by digitalisation. The plastics industry has a key role in this process because plastics are ubiquitous in the world.
Climate protection, digitalisation and the circular economy are therefore also the three major topics at K 2022, the world’s leading trade fair for the plastics industry. To get in the mood for the industry meeting in autumn 2022, the VDMA is letting representatives of the plastics machinery industry and all other stakeholders in the sector have their say through weekly interviews.
VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery
More than 200 companies are members of the trade association, covering over 90 percent of the industry’s production in Germany. Ten percent of our member companies come from Austria, Switzerland and France. German member companies represent a turnover of 7 billion euros in core machinery and 10 billion euros including peripheral technology. Every fourth plastics machine manufactured worldwide comes from Germany in terms of value; the export quota is 70 percent. Ulrich Reifenhäuser, managing partner of Reifenhäuser GmbH & Co KG, is the chairman of the trade association.