As Part 1 of our series has shown, it isn’t just research departments at Germany’s blue-chip DAX corporations that are driving innovation. In fact, it is primarily the countless small and mid-sized companies – many world leaders in their niche markets – that have shown enormous potential when it comes to digitization and the development of new business sectors. As the German Mittelstand continues to blaze trails, we want to offer you an insider’s perspective by featuring the individuals leading the charge.
In Part II, we look at the numbers 11 through 15 on our list of the country’s top innovators. Stay tuned for our next installments.
Confronted with the demographic decline of skilled workers in Germany, especially in the area of industrial production, Frank Maier homes in on one question: how can I instill the knowledge of an employee into a machine?
Mr. Maier’s answer: increased IT, more digital control and more powerful computers.
“We must make complex technology so simple that even employees with minimal training can use it,” said the 54-year-old electrical engineer, who heads up innovation at Motion Centric Automation and machine learning specialists Lenze in the eastern state of Lower Saxony.
Having started his career as a developmental engineer at Hewlett-Packard, Mr Maier is now focused on accelerating software applications in the gearboxes and motors that Lenze builds for industrial customers. “In the future, the machines will have many more different jobs to juggle, and with that must come lower energy consumption and shorter changeover times – that will only be possible through intelligent control,” Mr. Maier said.
Concern that an IT or internet giant such as Google or Oracle could interfere with his business doesn’t bother Mr. Maier. “Broad data analyses are not of use in such cases,” he said, confidently. “How I actually gain knowledge from this raw data – that is the problem I now have to answer.”
Carla Recker, 52, has a doctorate in chemistry and pioneered the development of a new type of tire made of dandelion rubber for auto supplier Continental. The revolutionary material is known as “taraxagum,” a name dervied from the Latin word for dandelion. The innovative tire could prove to be Ms. Recker’s most important invention, for which she was recently awarded awarded the GreenTec Award and the Joseph von Fraunhofer Prize in Germany.
Indeed, rubber trees, the traditional source of rubber used for tires, are considered a scarce raw material, and are in particularly high demand in emerging Asian markets. Which is why using the dandelion has proved smart. The flowers are indeed easier to cultivate and flourish even in harsh climates.
Dandelion rubber still needs some work, but Ms. Recker estimates production for the first dandelion-rubber car tires will began by 2020 at the latest.
Martin Wild, 38, is the chief digital officer of Saturn, a subsidiary of German electronics retailer Media-Markt. He is responsible for having introduced the company to virtual reality and robotics and has played a leading role in transforming Media-Markt from latecomers to forerunners in the online shopping game.
Indeed, Mr. Wild already has a history with digital sales, having founded the website Home of Hardware while still a college student studying computer science. And, like many talented tech entrepreneurs, he would eventually drop out of college to focus on the company full time. With his focus now switched to Media-Markt, the retailer’s future is looking bright.
Tarek Müller started out 11 years ago selling drain pipes. Today, the 28-year-old is developing the online business platfortm of Hamburg-based retail giant Otto Group. The target audience? Digital natives.
This marks a significant change for the company, which had preciously focused on mail-order catalog customers – many of which have only recently gotten Internet access.
Mr. Müller’s current focus: About You, a mash-up of online shop and social network, which is growing by the day. As is his reputation as a millennial-whisperer.
The move from the mobile phone sector to Commerzbank was a challenge for Ole Franke, who is now head of direct banking at Germany’s second-largest financial firm – and that’s not just because he had to swap his jeans and T-shirt for a suit.
The 45-year-old wants to further digitalize Commerzbank, which is still largely operating analog.
To this end, the management expert has launched a platform called One, which is designed to offer the bank’s services on all channels – over the cell phone, on the computer and in the bank’s branches. It’s not hard to find the progress in that.