Knorr-Bremse: The missing link

There is something serene and strangely revealing about the two-hour drive between Knorr-Bremse’s busy head office in Munich andthe company’s high-profile brake plant in the country town of Aldersbach, located halfway to Prague in Germany’s rural southeast.

While many attribute the feeling to the country’s signature scenery, abundant with lush pastures and century-old architecture, some merely blame the sudden drop in noise that will set in once the sprawling capital is left behind. Yet, there is hardly a time where the glaring contrast between country vibe and high technology is not palpable during the journey – and it has become symbolic for what could be the most prominent success story in the world of braking technology to date.

Back in Munich, Knorr-Bremse is currently finalising the build of a new €€90 million research and development centre, and waiting ahead is one of the most advanced brake production facilities ever built. But it’s en route between the two where the picture is completed: Soon-to-retire Knorr-Bremse chief Heinz Hermann Thiele, one of the shrewdest businessmen in the game, somehow managed to entrench a healthy dose of down-to-earthness within the €5.2 billion business, a sense of belonging that is visible even now that three in four staff work internationally.

Business analysts say it was Thiele’s firm focus on “making the main thing, the main thing” that has helped him grow Knorr-Bremse from a €254 million organisation in 1985 into the global household brand it is today; and his disciplined, no-fuss approach to business is still defining the company 30 years on – arguably best embodied by his commitment to the Aldersbach plant in country Bavaria.

Responsible for the production of award-winning truck and trailer braking technology, it is operated by a team of highly skilled professionals that can draw on decades of experience – yet there is no sign of elitism here. The atmosphere is calm, concentrated, almost modest, and the focus is solely on getting the job done. Away from the hustle and bustle of Munich – home to the world-renowned Oktoberfest – production staff and management still meet in the canteen to have lunch everyday, but the conversation is more likely to revolve around efficiency improvement and streamlining than the weekend’s top Bundesliga game.

“Don’t let the rural setting fool you,” says Plant Manager, Franz-Josef Birkeneder, as if to summarise the unique juxtaposition of cutting-edge engineering and Teutonic level-headedness in the business. “The plant is one of the most advanced of its kind in the world, with much of the technology developed solely for Knorr-Bremse. Even more importantly, it is connected to all 65 Knorr-Bremse facilities in the world, making it part of a living and breathing innovation organism, if you will.”

Contributing to the commercial road transport arm of the Knorr-Bremse empire, Birkeneder says the more than 1,000 staff at the facility have produced some two million pneumatic disc brakes for the truck and trailer industry in 2015 alone, alongside 280,000 EBS units for truck applications and another 80,000 for the trailer market.

Part of the volume has been driven by the ST 7, Knorr-Bremse’s latest trailer disc brake. Considered one of the most versatile and reliable disc brakes available in the nine-tonne axle segment, it has quickly become the standard fitment for many a European OEM, says Christoph Günter, the company’s Vice President for System Sales & Development in the Trailer and Special OE field.

“The ST 7 has been an important milestone for us and cemented our position as a technology leader,” he explains. “I believe that with it we have found the best balance between braking torque and weight-saving in the nine-tonne segment, as the product’s success in the market has proven in 2015. It’s been amazing to see just how much of an impact the work we do here has made.”

Aligned with the latest in lean management and Six Sigma, the Aldersbach production process is now perfectly streamlined, Birkeneder elaborates, with every part and every man hour used fully accounted for to achieve maximum efficiency. Utilising six high-tech assembly lines, the local Knorr-Bremse team can produce one disc brake every seven seconds on a “normal” business day – equating to 8,000 units per day, with room for another 1,000 or so if demand is high.

Yet, there is more to the success of Knorr-Bremse than process optimisation alone – and the key to it is plant head Franz-Josef Birkeneder himself. During his daily tour of the facility, Birkeneder can’t help but let his enthusiasm reign free – there is no process, no tweak, no tiny improvement the trained engineer hasn’t been involved with. Everything in the building is 3D measured and digitally archived, nothing is left to chance and nothing is ever considered “not improvable”, as he has it.

His refreshingly non-corporate excitement for the product is adding a new dimension to the experience, much in line with the sensation visitors describe during the long drive out to Aldersbach. “I’ve heard it before, but I think it’s just us taking pride in the product,” he says. “As a business, we want to be as professional as possible and always try to re-set the benchmark, but where there are people involved, there is always a certain level of emotiveness. People tend to forget that when they think about a global corporation like Knorr-Bremse.”

Ever so German, Birkeneder is quick to acknowledge that emotion does not substitute engineering excellence, though. “We have been on our continuous improvement journey for a while now and embrace every system that may add value to what we do,” he says, pointing to a dedicated meeting area where the department heads convene once a day to share key production parameters and discuss potential issues. “What we want to achieve is a system of complete transparency that will allow us to make the best product possible and get the most out of every process. It’s an extremely ambitious project but we’re proud to be part of it.”

In fact, Birkeneder says the Aldersbach facility has become so advanced that Knorr-Bremse receives less than five complaints per million units produced – a key competitive advantage in the ‘zero mistake’ world of braking technology. “What you see here is state-of-the-art German manufacturing,” he says, acknowledging that Aldersbach’s somewhat remote location can be just as deceiving as the product itself. “It’s high technology, really, even though people don’t expect such a thing when they talk heavy vehicle braking. Yet, there is an immense amount of work going into what we do, and we take it incredibly serious here. All of us.”

In keeping “the main thing, main thing”, Birkeneder says Knorr-Bremse has become a global phenomenon that is regularly setting the benchmark in heavy vehicle braking. “It’s humbling to see our work helping transport businesses around the world become more productive and keeping communities safe,” he says. “It’d be easy to think we’re just another cog in the machine, but I think it’s more than that. Everything we do at Knorr-Bremse is about braking safely, so we all feel like we’re contributing something essential to the business, which is a really empowering feeling for the team.”

74-year-old company patriarch Heinz Hermann Thiele, known to enjoy the commute between Munich and country Bavaria, would likely take pleasure in the progressive attitude displayed in and around the Aldersbach facility – an unlikely pairing of traditional German thoroughness with a very cosmopolitan approach to knowledge management. But the self-made billionaire has been busy otherwise as of late, with much of his attention taken up by planning his semi-retirement in early 2016.

After a total of 46 years working for Knorr-Bremse – 28 of them on the Executive Board and nine as Chairman of the Supervisory Board – Thiele recently announced he wanted to dedicate more time to his family and personal business interests, including an 8,500-strong cattle farm in South America. “After more than 30 years at the helm of the Knorr-Bremse Group, and in view of the fact that I will turn 75 in a few months’ time, I want to dedicate more time to my private life and personal business interests,” he said – indicating that key personnel like Franz-Josef Birkeneder and Christoph Günter may soon continue his legacy.

Then again, there is no avoiding the unique ‘Thiele way’ of doing business: “Needless to say, as shareholder of the Knorr-Bremse Group, I will retain my close links to the company and will continue to be involved in all important and, above all, strategic decisions,” Thiele clarified in his departure statement – making no secret of the fact that preserving Knorr-Bremse’s unique mix of internalisation and local rootedness is just as personal a mission for him as it is for the team in Aldersbach. Even if it involves the odd 150km drive.

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