In conversation: SAF-Holland CEO, Alexander Geis, and President EMEA, Christoph Günter.
Q: 2020 is an economically challenging year. How does the SAF-Holland Group master the current situation?
Alexander Geis: Of course, we are living in a particularly challenging market environment, and the economic situation resulting from the Corona pandemic is affecting our sales and earnings development. However, we now benefit from the fact that we have already launched a global programme in autumn 2019 to reduce our sales and administrative costs. Thus, even in the current difficult market environment, we have not posted any losses. We are now consistently continuing the program at all locations, so that our activities here will have their full impact later in the year. As in previous decades, SAF-Holland plans for the long term, thinks strategically and acts wisely.
Q: The commercial vehicle market is on the move despite the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you perceive the changes and how do you react to them?
Alexander Geis: Currently, the commercial vehicle markets in all parts of the world are declining, also exacerbated by the economic uncertainties resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we experienced a sharp market slump in the US, but also in Europe the trailer market is declining after a still strong first quarter 2020. We respond by consistently consolidating our plants and optimising processes across locations. In China, we opened our new ‘best in class’ plant in the city of Yangzhou last autumn. In the state-of-the-art Smart Factory, we bundle our manufacturing activities in China and can now optimally serve our customers on site.
Q: The IAA Commercial Vehicles in Hanover would have been the most important event for the industry this year. What highlights would you have brought to the fair?
Christoph Günter: In recent months, we have consistently aligned our developments with the industry’s megatrends – digitalisation, electrification and autonomous driving. We would have been looking forward to show the new products from these areas also at this year’s IAA Commercial Vehicles and to discuss the innovations with our customers. Of course, we will move forward to share these future-oriented innovations with our customers and partners even without an official trade fair.
Q: What is the SAF-Holland Group doing to tackle the digitalisation megatrend?
Christoph Günter: We are concerned about digitalisation in two ways. As a premium supplier in the field of axle and suspension systems, on one hand we are focusing on the digitalisation of our products. We are launching a sensitised axle that enables greater safety and targeted maintenance. In addition, less unintended vehicle downtime conserves resources and optimises the total cost of ownership. From a few sensors in the right places, a wide range of applications can be derived to increase customer added value. On the other hand, we deal intensively with digitalisation in the area of the interface with our customers and for optimising internal processes. This focus is also on increasing customer added value.
Q: To drive electrification, SAF-Holland has developed two electrically driven axles. When will they be on the road for the first time?
Christoph Günter: We have developed our E-axles SAF TRAKe and SAF TRAKr to series production. Both axles use recuperation to reduce emissions and fuel consumption of the vehicle. SAF TRAKe supports with the stored energy the main drive of the tractor, while the SAF TRAKr is the ideal energy source for electrical consumers like a cooling unit. In particular in this area, we think in terms of cooperation and have tested our two developments intensively together with partners – with the aim of gaining as much experience as possible in a timely manner and bringing the E-axles to the road as quickly as possible.
Q: Autonomous driving and automation are other topics that drive the industry. Where do you see opportunities for the SAF-Holland Group?
Alexander Geis: We support autonomous driving, where early adaptation will be relevant in loading and forwarding yards, in the field of automatic coupling. In this area, we traditionally see SAF-Holland as an interface between truck and trailer and assume our responsibility. We have developed an automated fifth wheel that will be ready for initial driving tests in the coming months.
Q: Outside of megatrends, the classic product portfolio is of course an important factor in everyday business. What does SAF-Holland focus on here?
Christoph Günter: SAF-Holland has led the way with its proven axles and chassis systems with durability, ease of maintenance and low operating costs. But here, too, we are constantly evolving and supporting our customers in their daily transport tasks. The topic of lightweight construction is particularly important, because the low weight of our axles is also often a decisive purchasing criterion. That is why we are constantly developing our product range in this area.
Q: The market for spare parts is fiercely competitive. How does SAF-Holland fare with its products?
Alexander Geis: We keep our ear close to the market and the needs of our customers. On the one hand, we are currently driving the integration of our Italian acquisition V.Orlandi, whose products will be available directly from our aftermarket warehouse in the future. On the other hand, we are working on a customer portal as a digital interface for our customers. On this internet platform, they will be able to combine all their activities in the future, for example around service, guarantees and aftermarket.
Digitisation: Sensitised axle
The new sensitised axle from SAF-Holland helps to keep the vehicle in optimal condition at all times. Among other things, it monitors the wheel bearing temperature, the brakes and the tyre pressure. It also determines the load status of the trailer. The system always knows the condition of the vehicle and can react to it in real time. Monitoring can avoid vehicle downtime, which is the basis for future predictive maintenance. The data collected by the monitoring also form the basis for autonomous driving (monitoring of errors and maintenance without drivers). Thus, the sensitised axle provides additional security, allows targeted, predictive maintenance and thus reduces operating costs and resource consumption. SAF- Holland’s package of sensors and telematics is expected to be available mid 2021.
Electrification: Technology and service
SAF-Holland has developed electric axles that meet the current requirements: they require little or no additional installation space and are capable of powering auxiliary components. In addition, they comply with the legal requirements for C02 emissions. The complete system consisting of axle with gearbox, electric motor and components such as battery or control electronics is installed in a compact unit. In the coming months, SAF-Holland customers will be able to test a trailer with an E-axle and thus gain experience with the system, which will be incorporated into the further development of the recuperating axles.
Automatic coupling: Competence at the interface
Automatic coupling as part of autonomous driving is a fully automatic process that is completely driverless. This reduces driving times and costs, and vehicles can be used 24 hours a day. Other advantages of automatic coupling over manual coupling: less damage to the vehicle and fewer accidents in which drivers are injured. Trailers can be retrofitted for automatic coupling without the need for additional space. The system also creates the basis for high-speed communication with the trailer. The first driving tests on cordoned-off terrain are planned for the end of 2020.