Industry experts at the Hanover technology and industry trade fair agreed Germany's engineering companies spearhead international competition. But some wonder how long they can maintain their lead.
The pressure is immense for the companies that live and die by selling expensive and complex products and systems to foreign buyers. That's a fact of life for the majority of German engineering companies who are striving to stay at the cutting edge of technology.
"It is crucial for the globally active German export industry that we push product and process innovations to defend the competitive lead," said Thomas Lindner, president of the German Engineering Federation.
One of the key questions German companies are addressing is how long they will be able to maintain their lead in an industry where what's cutting edge today is old hat by tomorrow.
Germany is in the top flight
Liu Hong, a professor at China's Harbin Institute of Technology, said it would be some time until Chinese companies were serious competitors for German engineering firms.
"When it comes to quality, Germany is right at the top," Liu said. "China, on the other hand, is somewhere in the lower middle section when it comes to engineering."
Ralf Hausmann of Phoenix Contact, a German producer of electronic connection and industrial automation technology, agreed saying, "The gap between Chinese and German companies is one that I think we will maintain."
The basis for innovation lies in listening to customers, Hausmann said.
"Seen from this angle, innovation means offering products that are useful for customers," he said. "So that customers say, 'Great, this is a product that helps me save time and money.'"
Bespoke products and solutions
Michael Lipowitch of Stuttgart-based LTG, which manufactures fans and filters, said understanding what customers want and staying in close contact with them is critical to the engineering business. While he said LTG faces stiff competition from other firms producing cheaper air filters, the mass-produced goods are not comparable with what his company makes.
"Our engineer developers are always visiting customers and working on tailor-made solutions," Lipowitch said. "They look in the labs and see how big the dirt and dust particles are and what the airflow is like. All that influences what kinds of filters are used."
Bespoke products are one way to stay ahead, and being flexible to market demands is another, according to Detlef Zühlke of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Kaiserslautern.
Plug and produce
"Here in Germany we set ourselves apart by working with intelligent solutions," he said. "We cannot move forward by using masses of workers."
Intelligent production facilities consisted of modules that can be combined and communicate with each other using software programs. A facility can be put together from several different parts without having to undergo a lengthy retooling period.
"We have to react to the demands of the global marketplace," Zühlke said. "That means that we have to produce more products in more varieties in shorter amounts of time. Factories are more flexible - it's like plug and play. That's what we need to offer the world market."
Author: Andreas Becker / sms
Editor: Neil King