Energy-efficient factory to cut costs by 35 percent

Velden In view of the high energy costs, fears of de-industrialization are raging in the German economy. One way out could be the more efficient use of electricity and gas. “Companies are looking for inexpensive measures that can be implemented in the short term,” says Alexander Sauer, head of the Institute for Energy Efficiency in Production at the University of Stuttgart.

For example, the room temperature in offices is reduced. But larger investments in the area have even been declining since 2019, says Sauer, who collects an energy efficiency index twice a year. “There is a fear of a recession, so many companies are reluctant to make major investments despite the rise in energy costs.” There is also uncertainty about the future political framework.

One company that has not been deterred is Schaltbau. The electrical engineering specialist has just commissioned the first production islands in its new Next plant in Velden, Bavaria. The 60 million euro factory is highly automated and one of the first in the world to be equipped with a direct current network, which, among other things, avoids conversion losses when using the installed photovoltaic systems. There are also thermal and electrical energy storage systems.

Energy costs are reduced by 35 percent

“With Next, we are showing that investments in Germany pay off by combining digitization and a high level of automation with a progressive, decentralized energy concept based on direct current,” says Schaltbau boss Jürgen Brandes in an interview with the Handelsblatt.

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In this way, the foreseeable further increase in costs can be counteracted technologically and the location can also be secured in the long term. According to Brandes, highly automated assembly lines require correspondingly competent employees. Germany has an absolute competitive advantage here.

The energy costs in the plant are to be reduced by 35 percent compared to conventional concepts. “Overall productivity could increase by around 15 percent, also with the help of fully automated warehouse logistics,” explains Schaltbau Managing Director Dirk Konrad. That would be a quantum leap for industry.

“The new Schaltbau plant can be a model for other industrial companies in Germany,” says Tobias Heinen, who plans efficient factories with his Grean GmbH and optimizes existing production facilities. Especially in medium-sized companies, the topic only really arrived with the Ukraine war.

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Companies must now act quickly to avert possible deindustrialization. “The answer can only be that industrial companies are now investing their full energy in energy efficiency, there are many organizational, technical and spatial starting points for improvement,” says Heinen.

Energy costs in Germany will probably remain permanently higher than in large parts of the world, especially in the largest economy, the USA. “This is the new reality,” said Economics Chairwoman Monika Schnitzer in December. “We will experience a new energy price regime and have to deal with it.”

“It is a competitive advantage to deliver from Germany”

A fundamental decision had to be made at Schaltbau because the old plant was bursting at the seams. Locations abroad were also examined, says Managing Director Konrad. But there are highly qualified staff and important customers here. In view of the experiences with interrupted supply chains during the pandemic and the Ukraine war, the following applies: “It is foreseeable that you will have a competitive advantage if you can deliver from Germany.”

Customers are also increasingly demanding sustainable production. “We take this into account with our CO2-free factory,” says Konrad. The new plant integrates a 1.4-megawatt photovoltaic system on the roof, battery storage and the DC grid.

The latter is regarded as a forward-looking technology for the integration of renewable energies into production, partly because there are no conversion losses. Direct current is interesting for many companies, says energy efficiency professor Sauer. “There was a chicken-and-egg problem for a long time.” The technology was not yet available in large quantities at an affordable price because there was no demand. But that is about to change.

It is foreseeable that they will have a competitive advantage if they can deliver from Germany. Dirk Konrad, Managing Director Schaltbau

Schaltbau also had to contend with obstacles. Some parts had to be made as prototypes. “In addition, the experts, for example, were afraid of getting involved with a new technology,” says company boss Brandes. Now one hopes for imitators.

The industry association ZVEI, supported by the federal government, has set up an initiative for the technology. According to the association’s position paper, the reduction in conversion losses and the use of braking energy from moving masses in a factory’s direct current network lead to energy savings of six to ten percent.

Existing factories could also rely on direct current

A direct current network, says Schaltbau Manager Konrad, makes sense not only when planning a new factory on a greenfield site. “This is also possible for parts of an existing factory, for example if you equip the roofs with photovoltaics on a larger scale.”

Schaltbau is thus using a technology that is also the focus of its own business. Because the company with a turnover of 526 million euros in 2021 produces protective technology that enables the safe use of direct current. Switching off direct current creates an arc, which is dangerous. Sagittarius should ensure safety.

For a long time, the products were primarily in demand in the railway industry. But they are now also being used in high-energy batteries for electric cars and in industry.

The even greater efficiency lever in the factory is automation. In the hall, for example, several dozen swarm robots are used to supply the production cells with parts. The machines travel on rails on the ceiling and independently coordinate with each other which shuttle will do the next job. The degree of automation is also high in assembly.

Warehouse at Schaltbau

Automation is the greatest efficiency lever.

(Photo: Schaltbau)

Efficiency specialist Sauer is convinced that other companies will soon follow suit. If the downturn does not materialize or is over, there will be a wave of investment. Historically, companies in Germany have increased their energy efficiency by 1.0 to 1.3 percent a year. A doubling of the previous rates is possible, says Sauer.

Schaltbau now has to completely relocate production and get teething problems under control. Brandes admits: “The end-to-end digitization of our manufacturing processes is certainly complex and time-consuming.”

It is more important that the market really grows as strongly as hoped. With six million shooters, the new plant has five times the capacity of the old one. But Brandes says he is absolutely convinced that Schaltbau will benefit particularly from the energy transition and electromobility. “We made our investments in Next at exactly the right time.”

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