Inside the global axle and suspension market

From the July 2017 issue.

After investing heavily in R&D over the past half decade, the axle and suspension community is all set to jump on the digitisation bandwagon. Is it one step ahead of itself, though?

It’s unlikely Socrates had axle and suspension design in mind when he stated that the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing* – and yet he perfectly summarised the sector’s collective state of mind in 2017 AD, according to some of the most prominent names in the industry.

“Business confidence in the axle and suspension space hasn’t been as inconsistent as it is now in a long time,” says Markus Gehle, Managing Director at German axle and suspension specialist, Gigant. “It’s hard to make sense of it all from a supplier’s perspective – all we know is that we don’t know much at all.”

After the UK’s fateful Brexit vote, Gehle says the spectre of a new Eurozone crisis swept through the transport equipment industry like a chill wind, prompting many in the field to bring down their outlook significantly for the 2016-17 period. “Brexit, Putin, Trump – so much happened in 2016 that I’m not surprised everyone took the foot off the pedal a little during Q3 and Q4,” he says. “Only half a year ago it still felt like the trailer industry was about to go into VF (ventricular fibrillation, ed.), and now everyone is strangely relaxed again – what do you make of that?”

Martin van Willigen, Sales Director at Dutch company, Valx, which is part of the global Fuwa Group, made the same observation since Germany’s IAA Commercial Vehicle Show came to a conclusion last autumn. “Assessing the market is definitely not as straightforward anymore as it once was,” he says – indicating that the industry might be one step ahead of the market with view to next-generation technology.

“The last IAA certainly managed to set the scene for the interconnected future we’ve all been talking about – there was some real excitement about digitisation and the like – but that doesn’t mean we’re there yet. I think there’s a bit of confusion in the marketplace between where we’re headed long-term and how to go about business in the here and now.”

According to van Willigen, the tension between the ambitious future vision many in the industry painted leading up to the IAA Show and the harsh reality of everyday business that set in afterwards – amplified by the unexpected outcome of the US election – may in fact be key to understanding the notion of uncertainty he has been observing. “Regardless of the industry, when the perceived distance between vision and reality is getting too big, we’re starting to focus more on the basics again, that’s only natural.

“I think that’s always the case when you reach that famous glass ceiling but haven’t quite broken through it. Do you focus on the big ideas that are not necessarily commercially viable or do you work with what you have? As an industry, we’re going back and forth between the two poles, and that’s probably where some of the confusion stems from.”

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