How do you survive as a German machine builder for over a century and a half? “There are two essential ingredients: innovation and quality,” says Stephan Brand, Vice President Marketing & Product Management at Aerzen. He believes that the chemicals market is a particularly challenging industry.
PROCESS: The level of consistency demonstrated by Aerzen is rare, Mr. Brand. You have been at the same location since 1864 and you have been producing the same core product since 1868. Has Aerzener Maschinenfabrik been lucky?
Brand: We were certainly lucky to have been spared the worst of the two World Wars, not least thanks to our location in the Weser Uplands. And the company has been able to flourish and grow at this site, right until the modern day. However, the endurance of the core product of blowers has less to do with luck. This is what the company was built upon. But over the decades we have added numerous other types of machine technology: for example screw compressors, rotary lobe compressors and turbo blowers. To date, the low-pressure range is still our domain.
PROCESS: At the end of 2018 you sold off your gas meter division. Do you class that as a break in the history of the company?
Brand: No, definitely not. Ultimately, our business is generating air, not supplying measurement technology. The gas meter was originally based on the blower principle. But that has changed. The sales market has developed differently to our core products, which are increasingly marketed on the international stage. Selling off this product division was therefore a logical step to take.
PROCESS: However, you have been developing control technology for a number of years. Does this mean you are being inconsistent?
Brand: On the contrary. The Aertronic machine control system and the higher-level Aersmart controller complement our offering perfectly. Aersmart for example was developed with an eye on the requirements of biological sewage treatment plants. Here, three of our machine technologies are used: blowers, rotary lobe compressors and turbo blowers. In combination, these represent the best solution for dealing with the strong fluctuations in terms of oxygen demand. We call this tailor-made configuration, which enables energy savings of up to 30 %, Performance3. The degree of efficiency and therefore the energy efficiency are maximized when they are coordinated with an intelligent machine control system like Aersmart.
PROCESS: Blowers and compressors are required in a wide range of very different industries. Which areas do you focus on?
Brand: We haven’t defined an industry focus as such, but we do have five core applications. Alongside wastewater treatment, these are the pneumatic transportation of bulk materials, vacuum technology, biogas and process gas.
PROCESS: This means that you are addressing a very large number of industries. Bulk materials for example are transported both by large industrial bakers and by laundry detergent manufacturers.
Brand: For the transportation of bulk materials we supply complete units — usually to the plant manufacturer, but also directly to end customers. When it comes to the core application of vacuum technology, the cross-section is much wider still. It ranges from architectural glass to semiconductor technology. Here, we primarily address system suppliers, into whose pumping stations our vacuum blowers are integrated.
PROCESS: What is more important for further growth: innovations or international expansion of your business?
Brand: They are both equally important. We are an exporting nation, so we need to exploit the full potential of international markets. I personally believe that it is only possible to survive as a German machine builder with a high degree of development competence, quality and internationalization. If you are just looking at low-cost manufacturing, that is possible anywhere in the world.
PROCESS: Concentrating on growth industries and growth markets will no doubt play an important role.
Brand: Of course. For example wastewater purification: Large parts of Asia are only just starting to invest in sewage treatment technology. Surprisingly, there is also a high level of demand for this technology in the USA. And in Western Europe, many sewage plants are entering a stage in their lifecycle where modernization is needed. The situation is similar with our offering of process air systems for conveyance of bulk materials. Thanks to the growing world population, industrial production of foodstuffs is booming almost all around the world.
PROCESS: Bulk materials are becoming increasingly significant for the European food industry. Examples include baking mixes and other convenience products. Which factors are shaping market developments in Asia?
Brand: Here, it is more generally about the creation of food factories. But the standards are completely different. Hardly anybody is thinking about dust explosions or food purity. There is still barely any demand there for the oil-free high-end blowers like the ones we sell in Europe.
PROCESS: Some machine builders offer “slimmed-down” versions of their products for the Asian markets. Would this be a potential route for Aerzen?
Brand: Absolutely not. Instead, our approach is to adopt a so-called localization strategy. This means that the heart of the machine comes from Aerzen. But we purchase accessory components like motors, sound covers and base racks locally and assemble them in the relevant target country.
PROCESS: This means that Asian customers will soon also receive oil-free process air. Are you making any concessions in terms of explosion protection?
Brand: No, that is something we always include automatically. Our reactive silencers also act simultaneously as spark extinguishers and thus offer Atex-compliant safety. This is a question of philosophy. Even when we localize our products, we still want to preserve the quality standards of Aerzen.
PROCESS: What special challenges are posed by applications in the chemicals industry?
Brand: The exciting thing about chemicals is that all of our products are used here, from compressors for compressed air to turbo blowers. All of the applications we focus on can be found here as well. And the projects are nearly always unique and challenging. We love challenging projects. International business is increasing in the chemicals sector. It is expected of us that we support the international interplay between end customer, engineering office and plant builder. One of whom is in Brazil, the second is in Spain, while the third is in Germany. We need contact people on the ground everywhere, and not only in sales and project management, but also in service.
PROCESS: What is your take on digitalization?
Brand: Today, the demands being placed in terms of e.g. reaction speeds to requests for proposals are quite different. In some cases, inquiries are handled solely via portals. A lot of change is happening here.
PROCESS: Your machines generate a lot of data. Do you have a strategy for Industry 4.0?
Brand: Personally, I am slightly ambivalent about Industry 4.0. A lot of companies are getting carried away by all the associated hype and feel obliged to do something. We started by asking ourselves: What sensible business models are actually out there? What brings real added value for the customer in the context of Industry 4.0? Energy efficiency and condition monitoring are two areas that can be beneficial aspects. From this perspective we are developing two new business fields, in which topics like data mining and cloud solutions are going to play a role. But I cannot tell you any more about this for the time being.
PROCESS: Mr. Brand, thank you for the interview.
* The author is a freelancer at PROCESS.