Taking off again with greater expertise

Long-established companies in the Metropolis Ruhr often use the knowledge they have acquired over the years for innovations to conquer completely new markets.

Multiple cars are hovering in the same lift. No cable. No contraflow. As soon as the first car reaches its floor, it slides to the side, switches to the neighbouring shaft and starts its journey back downwards. Reminiscent of trains in an underground, it is the most cutting-edge lift system in the world. It is still only undergoing tests. Yet the ‘Multi’ from thyssenkrupp Elevator has already made a name for itself on the global stage. In 2017, Time magazine named the magnetic system one of the 25 greatest innovations in the world. The Multi is to go live for the first time in the new East Side Tower in Berlin.

Unexpectedly, the lift was not designed by a trendy start-up company, but rather by a long-established company in the Metropolis Ruhr. Thyssenkrupp was involved in the development of the Transrapid maglev train in the 1970s. The technology used back then is now being used in a new product. As the cars of the lift system move in an infinite loop, the lift saves space and shortens the waiting time for passengers. That is not something to be underestimated.  Globally, over 12 million lifts complete seven billion journeys per day, transporting over a billion people.

The example shows how a developed structure paves the way for innovation which new recruits need decades to develop. This technological expertise helped the metropolis overcome the structural change of the past decades much more successfully than other regions in Europe. For this reason, the industrial heart of the Metropolis Ruhr still retains an outstanding economic significance. The industrial companies are able to develop products that will remain competitive in the future and open up new markets. In doing so, they rely on a broad base of experts. There are 323,000 people working in the industrial heart of the Metropolis Ruhr, equivalent to 19 per cent of the total number of employed people. Of the 500 top-selling German groups, 40 are based in the region.

  • 323.000
    Employees 2017
  • 21.190
    Companies 2017

Knowledge from deep down

Not to mention the numerous medium-sized enterprises. Often only known to industry experts, these champions and their technology are active all over the world. J.D. Neuhaus, a manufacturer of pneumatic and hydraulic hoists and crane systems, is one of these drivers of innovation. For over 100 years, the manual hoists from this manufacturer have been used to transport loads out of mining shafts. Today, the products of the 270-year-old family-run company from Witten are in use in over 90 countries and over 70 sectors – including in the chemical industry, on oil rigs and in the automotive industry.

The global exchange is a constant for the industrial companies and service providers in the Metropolis Ruhr. Even the number of foreign companies has increased by half over the past ten years. Manufacturers from 160 nations now have at least one branch in the region.

The construction group Hochtief even carries out almost all of its business abroad. At its headquarters in Essen, experts prepare the company for future projects all over the world. The construction industry is facing profound changes in which new technology will play a definitive role.

Taking self-driving cars to the building site

Hochtief too is focusing on artificial intelligence, automation and networked devices. ‘We are dealing with technologies and programming methods that will create a completely different group’, says David Koch, who is in charge of innovation at Hochtief. The company is consolidating its lead with its own innovation-centric company. For example, Hochtief is currently working on software that can optimise earthwork operations. Currently, a geometric team has to be deployed to measure the terrain. In future, it should be possible to do this by computer using special data collection technology. Koch expects that robots will be supporting workers on building sites in just a few years. These robots would not have to look anything like humans like in science fiction. ‘A robot is any machine that is controlled intelligently’, says Koch. Relatively soon, there will be partially automated building sites – namely where earthwork operations take place over a number of miles. This is the case in road construction. ‘Self-driving machines will do that work in future.’ Hochtief has already been testing such autonomous vehicles. The mining services provider Thiess belonging to the group is already using fully automated dump trucks in Australia.

MULTI – the innovative cable-free lift system from thyssenkrupp Elevator

Hochtief is consolidating its lead with its own innovation-centric company

Continuous improvement is the corporate philosophy of J.D. Neuhaus in Witten

MULTI – the innovative cable-free lift system from thyssenkrupp Elevator

Hochtief is consolidating its lead with its own innovation-centric company

Continuous improvement is the corporate philosophy of J.D. Neuhaus in Witten

Suitable experts and young professionals are needed in order to make innovative ideas a reality. The Ruhr meets a lot of criteria. According to a study by the German Economic Institute (IW) in Cologne, the lack of experts is less pronounced here than in other regions in Germany. The IW also recognises that the academic landscape is being expanded continuously.

Moreover, the cities and municipalities score well in terms of digitisation. Around 85 per cent of households have a broadband connection, compared to just 76 per cent for Germany as a whole. The rapid transmission of data is also an important prerequisite for companies in order to carry out their everyday business and implement digital innovations.

The Haniel Group in Duisburg which develops digital products at the Zollverein Coal Mine is one of many examples. On the site of what is now an industrial monument, the entrepreneur Franz Haniel had the world’s first vertical shaft sunk into the earth in 1852 – highly innovative at the time. Today, Haniel uses this trendy atmosphere to test digital business concepts and attract new talent. ‘When we were picking a location, we deliberately chose the Zollverein Coal Mine over Berlin’, says Dirk Müller, Managing Director of the start-up company Schacht One, named in honour of Shaft One in the mine. The first product developed there is a digital planner which enables companies to manage and control all legal inspections and maintenance within the company. Takkt, a subsidiary of Haniel, is already using pruefplaner.de.

Chemicals, the market of the future

The Evonik Group also has its own innovation unit. For 20 years, Creavis has been developing chemical products designed to be future-proof in Marl, Germany. Project Rheticus brings together three fields that will be highly relevant in the future: biochemistry, energy and sustainability. The company is attempting to convert carbon dioxide from industrial exhaust gases into the special chemicals butanol or hexanol using renewable electricity and bacteria. Both substances are used in plastics and food supplements. It is conceivable that the technology can also be used to store energy in order to balance out fluctuations in the power grid. Evonik is working with Siemens to drive the project forwards. Both partners want to open their first testing facility in Marl by 2021.

The high-performance plastic Nylon 12 is another example of the potential of the chemical industry in the Metropolis Ruhr. For example, it can be used to manufacture robust oil and gas pipes that are also so bendable that they can be rolled up, making them easier to lay. Nylon 12 can also be used for pipes in the cooling circuits of electric vehicle batteries and 3D printing. Evonik is one of the largest manufacturers of the high-performance plastic and, in addition to its existing production facilities, plans to build another industrial complex costing 400 million euros in Marl by 2021 – the group’s largest investment in Germany. The global Nylon 12 market grows by more than 5 per cent each year. Its growth rate is even in double digits with regard to 3D printing. These growth prospects show why the expertise of a long-established industry that has been refined over a number of years is needed in order to pave the way for ground-breaking innovation.

Heimo Fischer

Autor: Heimo Fischer

Heimo Fischer is a business journalist and writes for popular newspapers, magazines and corporate publications. He is very familiar with the business of media : He was a founding member of the Financial Times Germany, for which he reported over 7 year as a correspondent from Paris and London.