“Innovation requires focus and speed”
© Schaeffler
January 2024

“Innovation requires focus and speed”

By Daniel Pokorny
A dynamic market environment requires a clear focus on future-oriented innovations. In an interview with Schaeffler today, Chief Technology Officer Uwe Wagner (59) explains the structure of Schaeffler’s innovation strategy and how the company aligns its development activities with customers and the market in order to guarantee its future success.

Mr. Wagner, how has Schaeffler advanced innovation in 2023?
This year, the Schaeffler Group has taken important, forward-looking steps in the area of Innovation & Technology. Firstly, in the summer we strategically positioned the Schaeffler Group as a motion technology company. In doing so, we clearly show that motion is the core element of our products, which have evolved continuously over the past years. We have strategically organized them into six product families in order to demonstrate our expertise in different aspects of motion technology. The breakdown is as follows: Sustain Motion, Energize Motion, Drive Motion, Generate Motion, Transmit Motion, and Guide Motion. In addition to this product focus, we have consistently driven forward our innovation-to-business strategy. Schaeffler is currently facing a number of challenges. To be successful as a company in this environment, we need innovative solutions. With our strategy, we ensure that innovations at Schaeffler are successfully implemented right from the start. We analyze trends and future requirements at an early stage, define focal points, and search for potential in a targeted manner. We then concentrate on developing the right ideas for our future business. Involving the business units from the outset is critical to success in this context, because innovation is not created in an ivory tower. In this way, we are operating across the entire spectrum of innovation.

How do you make sure that you are looking for the “right” innovations?
The right focus is crucial. Based on the future trends relevant to Schaeffler on the one hand and the company’s expertise on the other, we have defined six innovation clusters for products and two for production topics – Energy Solutions, Material Solutions, eDrive Solutions, Mobility Solutions, Robotic Solutions, Digital Solutions, Advanced Manufacturing, and New Production Concepts. These 6+2 innovation clusters with their closely coordinated combination of product and production innovation are a powerful asset for Schaeffler.

What is behind these clusters?
In these focus areas, we analyze our innovation potential, taking a comprehensive approach. For example, we look very closely at the future landscape of mobility and the evolution of sustainable energy generation. Schaeffler utilizes its large network of research cooperations with universities and research institutes, as well as the SHARE program. The company-on-campus concept enables our employees and researchers to work closely together on strategic topics of the future. We systematically evaluate the resulting ideas for their future business potential. So, we pursue our innovation projects very rigorously. Generally speaking, innovation requires focus and speed.

During project implementation, you work in an open project house. What does that mean?
Schaeffler involves the relevant business units in all innovation projects from the very beginning. Projects are carried out on a cross-departmental basis: The project teams in the innovation clusters are generally made up of members from the various divisions and central departments. The same applies to the composition of the management functions: Our six product innovation clusters are currently managed by three colleagues each from both our business units and corporate functions. In this concept, we specifically allocate resources and budgets for cross-organizational work in order to create room for new ideas.

“Innovation requires focus and speed”
Schaeffler’s six product families, which are linked by the element of motion© Schaeffler

How do such innovative ideas find their way to implementation?
Market and customer focus are of central importance to implementation. Our business divisions do an excellent job in this regard. They know our customers, in particular their needs and pain points – i.e., they know their specific problems for which Schaeffler can offer a solution. This is the only way we can develop the “right” ideas and turn them into successful products. The right development strategy is important as well. We are developing more and more system products in which electronics, software, sensor technology, and much more play a decisive role. To master this growing complexity, Schaeffler must develop platforms that we can then use in our system solutions.

“Innovation requires focus and speed”
With research projects such as in the area of fuel cells, Schaeffler is working intensively on offering increasingly sustainable products and solutions on the market© Schaeffler (Getty)

What other aspects are crucial for successful innovation?
There are some aspects of efficient innovation work that are not necessarily apparent at first glance, such as the important role of the patent system and research funding. Analyzing the property rights situation at an early stage is also crucial for the successful implementation of innovations. Schaeffler already uses very powerful digital solutions in this area. Knowledge and the professional use of funding opportunities are of course also important. In the area of open innovation, we are now working very effectively with the business divisions in the search for and cooperation with innovative startups. In addition, there are other topics such as systems engineering and the requisite engineering IT. Complex systems projects can only be implemented successfully if you use the right method and the right development tools. Topics such as technical compliance also play an important role early on in the development process, as we can only develop in a targeted manner and identify new potential if we are aware of current and future regulatory requirements.

What role does sustainability play in innovation in general?
Schaeffler is pursuing very ambitious goals for its products when it comes to the strategic topic of sustainability. We aim to integrate the reduction of CO2 emissions directly into the product development process as this offers an opportunity for differentiation. To achieve this, sustainable innovations must be established as a central and integral part of our innovation strategy.

“Innovation requires focus and speed”
Uwe Wagner, Chief Technology Officer
© Schaeffler

“Schaeffler is operating across the entire spectrum of innovation – from the detailed implementation of innovations to disruptive, entirely novel solutions.”

Let’s look ahead: What is the next milestone in your field?
The next milestone is already underway and you can watch its progress: The central laboratory in Herzogenaurach is taking shape. In this ultramodern new building housing 15 laboratories, Schaeffler will develop technologies and product solutions of the future in a more expeditious and focused manner across all divisions. The building is a central element of the Roadmap 2025, serving to ensure the company’s continued competitiveness and corporate success.

Why is the central laboratory so important?
With this new facility, we are investing in areas such as materials, surfaces, chemistry, and sustainability. These are becoming increasingly important for both our existing and new products. On the one hand, our R&D activities support Schaeffler in achieving its sustainability goals, and on the other, we are constantly expanding our “materials toolbox” with new product developments. Take hydrogen technology, for example: In order to manufacture electrolysis stacks or bipolar plates for fuel cells, we need in-depth expertise in the field of electrochemistry. In the new central laboratory, we have invested in precisely these and other areas. For example, we are building a new electronics laboratory with an EMC chamber to conduct precise electromagnetic tests.

In conclusion: How will Schaeffler’s research and development network be further expanded?
We currently have a global network of 20 research and development sites. This year, we opened a state-of-the-art development center with new testing and laboratory facilities in Kysuce, Slovakia. In Bühl, Schaeffler is expanding its development and production campus by adding another building complex and a new competence center for electric mobility. Together with the central laboratory, all of this is clear evidence of our forward-looking and globally oriented approach to innovation. At Schaeffler, we consistently promote innovation as one of our strategic priorities in order to further advance our success and technology leadership in global competition.