Tick, tock, tick, tock. The climate change clock ticks continually. “If we want to achieve the established climate goals, we need to get the required innovations off the ground as soon as possible,” urges Professor Tomas Smetana. The Doctor of Engineering has been leading the Advanced Innovation department at Schaeffler since September 1 – and is putting the pedal to the metal. “As the saying goes, the future begins today. When we’re not talking about evolutionary but truly new, potentially disruptive technologies, we need to kick them off now if we want to use them in 2030. That’s how long a development process takes from the initial idea to implementation to production and scaling for the markets.”
To pick up speed in the development process as quickly as possible, Schaeffler concentrates its research and development competencies. “We don’t want to use a shotgun approach of kick-starting as many ideas as possible but focus on those that match market demands, problems that customers are facing as well as our areas of expertise,” says Smetana. That’s why the new Advanced Innovation unit that was established at the beginning of this year concentrates on six plus two focus fields: six in the area of Product and two in the area of Manufacturing. In the Product area, the range extends from applications in the fields of Energy, Robotics and Digitalization to Mobility Solutions and Electric Drive Systems to Material Solutions. Each of these teams conducts its research and development work as a self-sufficient entity. “Obviously, though, collaboration between colleagues from various divisions, functions and regions in joint project teams is a key to the success of an innovation,” emphasizes Smetana.
Holistic approaches to thinking are important
As an example, Smetana, a 48-year-old Czech by birth who has been working at Schaeffler in various roles for 21 years, mentions a reduction gearbox that has found its way from internal combustion engines into robotics. Another case in point: drawing on traditional core competencies such as precision forming and thin-film coating, Schaeffler paved its way into the hydrogen economy a few years ago, where the company focuses on the production of bipolar plates for fuel cells and industrial-scale electrolyzers. Smetana: “The ability to combine product innovation and system understanding with material and manufacturing expertise as well as top quality is one of Schaeffler’s great fortes. This concentration puts us in a position of developing ideas to market level within a short period of time. Clustering in focus fields establishes guidelines that additionally accelerate the processes.”
“The innovation clusters are our playground on which the creativity of our team members can develop freely.”
In any case, developments for forward-thinking and sustainable mobility do not progress very far without holistic approaches to thinking. When it comes to sustainable transportation solutions for passengers and goods, energy sources as well as digital and automated applications play a role in which software is becoming increasingly important. Essentially, new concepts such as autonomous people and logistics movers are robotic vehicles. Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications are digital fields of application that are of major importance for autonomous driving as well as for smooth, emission-reducing traffic flow.
A playground for creativity and innovation
However, to ensure a high level of stringency, each innovation cluster has firmly defined project structures. “As a result, we have clearly defined development directions as well as responsibilities,” says Smetana. New vehicle platforms such as people or logistics movers are located in the Mobility Solutions cluster, where teams from the Automotive division are active as well as the specialists from Schaeffler Paravan. Other sub-clusters there are the electrification of commercial vehicles as well as of aircraft, autonomous driving and, as an extended research field, infrastructure. E-Drive Solutions encompasses novel kinds of drive systems, propulsion electronics and sensors, transmissions and bearing systems. “These innovation clusters are our playground on which the creativity of our team members can develop freely,” says Smetana.
The autonomous mobile robotic platform DEX that has been recognized with the Red Dot Award is a good example of how Schaeffler drives innovations together with partners. DEX was visualized in close collaboration with Orcadesign Consultants Pte. Ltd. and the team of the Schaeffler Hub for Advanced Research (SHARE) at Nanyang Technical University (NTU) in Singapore. DEX can carry heavy loads of several hundred kilos and can be deployed, for instance, in urban delivery services. Other examples include autonomously moving beds in hospitals from A to B. Schaeffler itself is planning a research pilot run to deploy DEX for its production facilities and to optimize manufacturing workflows.
However, innovation does not necessarily have to emerge from the company’s own universe. “We also deliberately seek to collaborate with external innovation drivers,” Smetana continues. That area is called Open Innovation. “We systematically work together with startup platforms and are now also moving into the area of venture capital to accelerate our developments.” As cases in point Smetana mentions new forms of mobility, which he rates as particularly urgent innovation fields due to the increasingly apparent shortage of skilled staff. While Schaeffler is responsible for system development, individual components, for instance in the areas of sensors or digitalization, may well be supplied by an external source.
Innovation field: Sustainable Transportation
Regarding development projects in the area of Sustainable Transportation the informative tech talker says, “A key question we’re asking ourselves is: how can I design an electric motor electromagnetically to achieve high efficiency? That, no doubt, is an area with significant improvement potential. Another one is electronics. Here we’re asking ourselves why it looks the way it does. What can we achieve with a different architecture as well as with other materials and, of course, with software. What we’re seeing here is efficiency enhancement potential in the double-digit percentage range.”
It may sound surprising but Smetana wants to have the internal combustion engine mentioned as well in the context of Sustainable Transportation. “Obviously not in the passenger car segment,” he quickly adds to correct that statement. “However, in other vehicle categories such as ships, aircraft or in some heavy-duty applications it will take some time to replace it across the board. That makes it even more important to decarbonize its operation with green fuels like hydrogen or ammonia. Our enthusiasm for electric mobility notwithstanding, we’re working on that as well.”