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“We shouldn‘t carry out our research in an ivory tower.”

Dr. Axel Höfter has been General Manager Corporate R&D since 1 April 2018. In the interview he talks about the tasks of Corporate R&D, what will change in the development of innovations at Röchling Industrial, the role that megatrends play and why some companies will disappear from the market in the future.

Röchling Industrial wants to strengthen R&D. You‘ve been General Manager of Corporate R&D since 1 April 2018. What does that mean?

Dr. Axel Höfter: Corporate R&D is the central development department that pools and coordinates all R&D activities across all locations and Business Units; it aims to increase efficiency and collects, defines and tracks overarching development topics.

How did development and innovation happen at Röchling Industrial previously?

All industrial sites, but especially those that were acquired, essentially have their own R&D department. This is also strategically intended to preserve the independence and great flexibility of the decentralised units, as they have the best knowledge of their customers, products and markets.

What is set to change, then?

The Röchling Industrial division now has more than 40 locations. This means that activities have to be coordinated between the locations – if only to avoid redundant development activities. It is also a matter of recording existing know-how and making it accessible to the company so that it can be used as sustainably as possible.

Dr. Axel Höfter, General Manager Corporate R&D

"We now want to go further and develop from a component manufacturer to a strategic partner for completely ready-to-install systems."

Dr. Axel Höfter, General Manager Corporate R&D

Is coordination the only task of Corporate R&D then?

No, that‘s only part of its job. Our primary task, of course, is to deal with overarching development issues. It seems particularly important to me that we get to grips with trend topics and so-called megatrends, such as the growing world population, urbanisation, nutrition, etc., derive strategically relevant topics for Röchling Industrial from them and find applications for existing or new materials and product ideas. When it comes to new trends and developments in the industries relevant to us, such as additive manufacturing (3D printing) or lightweight construction, sensor integration or Industry 4.0, we must comprehend these topics in a structured manner and derive innovative ideas from them using modern methods. In addition, as an interface with those responsible for development and innovation in the other Röchling Group divisions – those being Automotive and Medical – we want to improve cooperation and exploit synergies.

Innovation has always been a top priority for Röchling Industrial. How has innovation happened so far and what do you think needs to change?

We‘ve always had a very high level of customer focus; this has also distinguished Röchling Industrial as an innovation driver in the industries. Our aim has always been to meet our customers at eye level, to understand their applications in detail and to further improve them with our materials expertise. This means that we have adapted existing materials to the customer‘s requirements or recommended or developed new materials. In today‘s fastmoving world with ever shorter product life cycles, this is no longer sufficient when it comes to offering our customers a real competitive advantage and to living up to our own claim regarding technological leadership.

Under construction: The Industrial Center in Haren is set to be completed in autumn 2020; it will be home to large and representative conference rooms and new office rooms, and Corporate R&D will also have its home there

What does that mean in concrete terms? 

We used to see ourselves as a supplier of semi-finished products and machined parts made of technical plastics. We now want to go further and develop from a component manufacturer into a strategic partner for completely ready-to-install systems. This is the only way we can make our plastics smart and give them new functions. They can, for example, report their wear condition or operating temperatures or provide digital data to simplify logistical processes for customers.

Röchling is building a new Industrial Center in Haren, where R&D activities will be located. What will the department look like then?

Of course, R&D activities are very closely interlinked with parts of quality control, i.e. quality assurance and materials testing. Therefore, these departments will also be relocated to the new building; the spatial proximity will increase technological permeability. Four engineers and technicians have so far been combined in the R&D Department. We‘re also currently looking for a designer for 3D printing and will need additional specialists from various disciplines in the future to be able to successfully continue on our chosen path. We shouldn‘t, however, carry out our research in an ivory tower; we need close contact with our customers in the markets. To this end, we maintain regular and close exchange with our industry managers, who are experts in the target industries and know about the questions of our customers and the trends. They bring us closer to our customers on the ground to help us improve our understanding of their needs and applications, from which derive ideas for innovations.

Why is innovation so important for Röchling Industrial? 

It is only when we are innovative and offer added value to our customers that we can succeed long-term in volatile and competitive markets. Companies that do not follow this path will disappear from the market in the foreseeable future or will only sell standard products at the lowest prices and margins as commodity manufacturers. We at Röchling, on the other hand, want to be innovation partners for our customers.

"It‘s a matter of recording existing know-how and making it accessible to the company so that it can be used as sustainably as possible."

Dr. Axel Höfter, General Manager Corporate R&D

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