Robots and cargo bikes instead of gasoline and diesel

Munich The challenges facing auto suppliers are currently immense. The raw material and energy prices have risen sharply. Due to the shortage of chips, car manufacturers have shut down production and are calling out fewer parts. But at the same time the industry has to invest heavily and manage the transformation into the electric age.

At the Upper Bavarian supplier Hirschvogel, however, they are self-confident. “We don’t just want to go along with it, we want to actively shape the change,” says Jörg Rückauf, CEO since July.

Currently one is still two-thirds dependent on the combustion engine. But more than 65 percent of the investments are made in “green businesses”. In this way, half of the products should be green by 2025, and five years later more than 70 percent.

This will change faster than the market. Hirschvogel uses a dual strategy for the transformation. On the one hand, the company develops and produces components such as rotor shafts for electric motors in e-cars at high pressure. At the headquarters in Denklingen, a large new hall is currently being prepared for the highly automated production of electric motor components in large numbers.

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In addition, the group is building a completely new pillar: There are great hopes for the new Aximo platform for so-called micromobile vehicle concepts. With the new platform, different small vehicles can be realized – from delivery robots to cargo bikes. “We want to achieve an annual low three-digit million turnover in the next ten years”, announces Rückauf in an interview with the Handelsblatt.

Hirschvogel manufactures gear shafts and components for the drive train, for example. Sales should stagnate this year at around one billion euros. The pressure on the cost side is high. The company needs between 300,000 and 400,000 tons of steel and aluminum per year, the largest cost item. “The price increases are putting a strain on the result,” says Rückauf. But Hirschvogel will also be in the black in 2021.

“Small suppliers are falling over in a row”

In these times, those who have a solid capital base can be happy, after all, investments in the future must be kept high. Experts are convinced that smaller suppliers could be overwhelmed by the double burden. “In particular, the smaller suppliers with annual sales of 50 to 200 million euros are tipping over”, warned insolvency expert Rolf Hünermann from the law firm Reed Smith LLP recently in the Handelsblatt.

You can be happy if you don’t have to think from quarter to quarter in a stock market-driven way and are financially sound, says Rückauf. “Our company has strong equity capital and we have the leeway for investments.”

The shareholder structure helps here. Hirschvogel is 61 percent owned by the family, the rest of the shares are held by a foundation. The task that Rückauf was given along the way: “The greatest good is securing employment.”

The new CEO Rückauf has been at the helm of the family company since July. Before that, he was at Mahle for 16 years – five of them as Head of Group Advanced Development. At Mahle, too, he was responsible for the development of products for the electric age, such as battery and fuel cell systems.

At Hirschvogel, he now also meets an unusually innovative medium-sized company. Earlier than other medium-sized companies, the company relied on cooperation with start-ups and other innovative companies. The company founded the start-up unit Ceravis and – together with the medium-sized companies Hoerbiger, Hawe Hydraulik and Max Aicher – “Fasttrack – The Family Business Accelerator”.

E-bikes drive sales

The many collaborations are bearing fruit. Hirschvogel developed the concept for the micromobility platform with a self-spun innovation network. The software specialist Eatron is just as much a part of it as the provider of electronic systems Automotive Synergies and the start-up Usaneers, which develops user interfaces.

With the Aximo platform and components for micromobility, Hirschvogel is now serving several completely new growth markets. On the one hand, there is the e-bike and cargo bike segment, which has grown to unimaginable sizes during the pandemic.

In the first half of 2021, e-bike sales in Germany rose by another nine percent to 1.2 million bikes, according to the industry association ZIV. “Due to the increasing demand for bicycles and e-bikes as well as the development of new business areas in the service sector, the bicycle industry will continue to have great growth potential in terms of jobs and value creation”, the ZIV is convinced.

CEO Rückauf, who, as a passionate cyclist, likes to ride his mountain bike across the Alps, sees completely new opportunities for his company. So far, the bicycle industry is still not very industrialized. Hirschvogel, however, has experience in manufacturing lightweight and resilient components with high precision and quantities.

Autonomous delivery robots in planning

With the new platform, Hirschvogel is also advancing into the field of mobile autonomous transport systems. These self-driving robots are one of the great hopes of the robotics industry.

According to estimates by the industry association IFR, sales of mobile autonomous robots for logistics in industry and mail order will increase from 75,000 (2019) to 259,000 machines sold in 2023.

One of the pioneers is the Danish company Mobile Industrial Robots (MIR), which is now part of Teradyne. But there are also many German start-ups such as Energy Robotics and Arculus in the new segment. Arculus has just been taken over by Jungheinrich.

Hirschvogel also presented an autonomous delivery robot at the IAA. “In the future, micromobility will be an integral part of the mobility sector,” says Rückauf with conviction.

Despite the challenges, there is great optimism at Hirschvogel. Only the framework conditions have to be right, says the CEO. Hirschvogel consumes 300 gigawatt hours of electricity a year. The company is currently building a solar park in Denklingen as its own contribution, and there is already one in India.

Germany must invest much more in renewables and the hydrogen economy if one is serious about the fight against climate change, emphasizes Rückauf. “We have to increase our efforts a hundredfold.” Germany must enter into international partnerships and also import hydrogen.

And the car manufacturers would also have to help their suppliers. Currently, the requests or cancellations come at very short notice. “For us, planning security is extremely important.” This also applies to the burgeoning electrical age. The transformation can only be achieved together.

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