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Episode 7: Think Tank – Forge of ideas for innovation?


Text of the current episode:

Julia Ures: „”Nice to have you with us for a new episode of In Sight KTR, our podcast and videocast. And today’s topic is “Think Tank – Forge of Ideas for Innovation” and I have two guests here in the studio, in the virtual booth, in the digital booth. And this is Dr. Norbert Partmann, Head of Engineering and R&D at KTR Systems and CEO at KTR Brake Systems GmbH, who has been with the company for 21 years. Nice to have you with us today.”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “Thank you very much for the invitation!”

Julia Ures: “And Jochen Exner, he is Think Tank Manager Innovation at KTR. Mr. Exner, before we get into the questions, and you both actually, as is the case with In Sight KTR, don’t know the questions. But first of all just to explain, what actually is a think tank? For those who may not know exactly what that means.”

Jochen Exner: “Well, I would say that think tank is first and foremost a modern term, an innovative term, if you will, for the topic, everything that revolves around innovation. You could also say something like innovation management. It is a developing department in the broadest sense. What is very important to me personally at this point is actually the term or the connection in the direction of the future. So if you were to say that a company deals with the past, the present and the future, then you could perhaps say Think Tank goes a bit towards this dimension at this point.”

Julia Ures: “We have the opportunity at In Sight KTR to include your questions and your topics that you would like to see, that we always make the subject of an episode, that you send to us at And one question that has come is for you, Dr. Partmann. In the media, we have recently been hearing about the banking sector in connection with think tanks. So it is an industry that is in upheaval. How is it that KTR, as a product supplier in mechanical engineering, also maintains something like that, a think tank?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “The origin is actually that in the past we actually did the development in the product groups. And the product groups actually work with our customers, advise them. And then it was always the case that the priority was clearly first of all consulting, and when new ideas were pursued, there was often too little time for that.

And then we started in 2012 with an innovation team, that is, three young people were simply sought from the market who did not necessarily come from drive technology, but who had simply managed projects before. They then started here as project leaders, collected ideas and summarised them in a profile. And then there was simply a committee that decided which ideas we wanted to pursue further. The respective innovation managers then accompanied the project and were able to bring in staff from various departments to work on these tasks. That was the start. And we did that for many years, and many good ideas came out of it, including things that we really do have in series on the market today.

And then a situation arose where there was another change. The young people were only supposed to be in the team for two or three years. And then we thought about whether it wouldn’t make more sense to get experienced staff in such a think tank or innovation team. Simply because we were looking for someone who is strong in development, like Mr Exner, and then someone who is very strong on the production technology side. And that’s how it actually turned out.”

Julia Ures: “How big can I imagine such a think tank team to be?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “We started with five employees and now have seven employees on site at the location. Perhaps it is also particularly important that the location is outsourced, not directly in Rheine, but near Düsseldorf, in Hilden, in order to simply have a certain distance. We don’t really want them to be confronted with the daily business, but to focus exclusively on what we have set as our task.”

Julia Ures: ” Now that you mention it, it’s deliberately outsourced a little bit. Mr Exner, a think tank does not mean creating castles in the air, but the whole thing should be rooted in practice. That means delivering concrete results for KTR and for customers. What are the objectives of a think tank in your case?”

Jochen Exner: “It is absolutely true what you say. It is indeed the case that you can develop a lot and that the technician has a lot of ideas. But if at the end of the day they are not sellable, so to speak, or not marketable, then you have gained a lot, you just haven’t done the right thing as a company. So of course we have defined, usually via a business case, pre-checked and analysed strategic topics that we have set out to address, so to speak. In addition, the topic of continuously improving existing products also plays a very important role. Especially this topic of cost optimisation is always in the foreground. And finally, the third pillar, I would say, is to always look at the market to see what opportunities arise, what does the customer need and how does it fit into the portfolio of the KTR company at this point.”

Julia Ures: “Now you have just described a bit, Mr. Partmann. How is that? You just said that we look at what ideas there are. Do these ideas come mainly from within, that is, what can the team of this think tank imagine? What does the market need? What do the customers need? Or to what extent do these ideas also come from outside?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “Well, the ideas come very much from within, because the sales department and our product managers in particular are very close to the market. Of course, they pick up on developments and try to tackle these tasks with the existing technical solutions. But every now and then you realise that something is happening in drive technology, that new ideas are emerging to build certain things, to develop machines. And then you see that you are perhaps no longer optimally positioned with the existing product. And that is actually the approach that we always take, that we always try to realign our existing products, to see how we can make them even better. Even for a ROTEX coupling that we have had for over 50 years, we have come up with new ideas in the innovation team that have gone into series production. We have material developments that simply have to be looked at again and again today. That means that we also make existing products better. That’s also what it’s about.”

Julia Ures: “Are there also sometimes sensitivities that the original inventor then perhaps announces: “Why, it was good as it was? What is there to improve?”
Dr. Norbert Partmann: “I would say that the better always wins at that point. And we are lucky to deal with technicians and they are very enthusiastic when there is something new and something better, so not so much.”

Julia Ures: “Mr Exner, today’s episode has the subtitle ” Forge of ideas for innovation”, if we now consider this word innovation. How do you define innovation here at KTR?”

Jochen Exner: “Yes, so innovation from my point of view, and I think hopefully also from KTR’s point of view, is a very global term. And I would interpret it very globally. Starting with how you work with customers, how the input into an innovation process takes place, to the actual creative process, the product development, if you will, to the testing, how I do it, how I upgrade the result, to the marketing, to the production of the parts, to the procurement of the parts, so all in all a very global process in several dimensions. That’s how I would see it myself and I think I’m very compatible with the way KTR sees it.”

Julia Ures: “Yes, if you hear noises in the background, it is because we are recording from a very realistic environment. In the sense that we are on the KTR premises and of course there is a lot of work going on, also elsewhere, while we are recording today’s episode. So don’t be surprised if there is a noise or two in the background that shows that people are hard at work here. Mr Partmann, you have just described how the team came about. When you are looking for new employees today, how do you find the right staff for the think tank and how can we imagine a workday there?“

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “Yes, I think on the one hand we are lucky to be relatively well known in the field of drive technology and it happens very often that we receive enquiries and applications that are very interesting for the company. Unfortunately, we can’t take everyone. But that’s how it came about with these colleagues.”

Julia Ures: “That means there is a great interest and people are applying to you on their own initiative…?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “Yes, we have unsolicited applications. Really highly qualified people who find the idea interesting and the opportunity to work so intensively on new developments. And that is actually the beauty of the story. The second approach we have here is to work with the experienced people we get from outside – as you can see, I’ve been with the company for 21 years and I have many colleagues, I’ve had to say for many years that I’m the youngest in the group, because others in technology have been there much longer than I have. And of course you have a certain tunnel that you always do things the way you think is right. And with experienced people from the outside, you also get a push and maybe you think again in the direction of ‘You haven’t done it before, but maybe it makes sense’. And these are also suggestions that I really find very decisive. Because the danger of working with an experienced team for a long time is that you don’t change things. That’s what we’ve actually done here very strongly. We have shaken up many things that, let’s say, had been set for 20 years and where we now say that it can be done differently and it is probably even better, even better!”

Julia Ures: “Mr. Exner, we were also asked about the daily work routine of the employees. What does that look like?“

Jochen Exner: “Yes, you might not imagine it to be quite as exciting as it sounds at this point. The topic of technical work, engineering work and of course this includes the application of CAD techniques, calculation methods, numerical calculations, evaluating test technology, drawing conclusions, bringing the whole thing together somehow and in the end making the right product out of it.

What is very important or what I personally find very exciting about us in the think tank is also, as has already been mentioned, the heterogeneity, the interdisciplinarity that we have in the team. In other words, we are not just designers in inverted commas, but there is also the issue of the market. We actually have sales people in development or in this think tank. And we have the topic of procurement and production of parts, i.e. technology as a component in the think tank. And so you can see how you sort of align different beams to this issue, how we organise that.

The third point that is perhaps important to me at this point would be the topic – I mean, when you tackle a topic like this, the term project management comes up quickly. Project management is certainly important when you develop topics on a daily basis and when you work according to a certain schedule. However, we have made it a bit more, I would say, flexible. We have said quite specifically that the only thing we are really interested in is that on day X or on day X +1 we are further along than on day X now, or clearly the day after.”

Julia Ures: “So always gain a bit of knowledge.”

Jochen Exner: “So I want to know every evening what I have done. And that means we actually talk to each other every day. Every day we agree on new priorities and goals. Of course we have a global goal, we say, for example, that we want to be finished with something in so many months or weeks. But the order in which we do that can’t all be planned. Sometimes things go wrong. The important thing is that we always make progress every day. If you like, it’s important to become world champions or Bundesliga champions. After 34 matchdays, you have to be in front and not on the first matchday, from a scheduling point of view.”

Julia Ures: “Mr Partmann, Mr Exner has already explained that a lot of communication is necessary in this daily work. Are there also lulls in creativity? Or do you have any tips on how to somehow encourage new ideas?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “I think the problem at the moment is more that we don’t have the time.”

Julia Ures: “Ah, too many ideas?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “We already have many topics in our quiver that we actually want to tackle. And I’m pretty sure that if we now take up the next topics, which are very far along this year, we’ll already take up new things. We have just had another discussion together where we said that we must now develop in such and such a direction. There are possibilities or new directions for the future. That’s where we have to go. I’m not at all afraid that we’re missing something.“

Julia Ures: “So the opposite is more likely to be the case?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “As we all know, distribution never has what it can sell. And that’s why there is always a push from that side to do new things as well.

Julia Ures: “Mr. Exner, is there perhaps a positive, concrete example that you can use to illustrate the success and also the work of the think tank for us?”

Jochen Exner: “Not just one, but several in fact. For one, I am thinking of our new product, which we are now introducing in these days or these weeks. This so-called EVOLASTIC® is such an example of an innovative and novel product. It is actually an existing solution on the market, but we have taken the product and turned it inside out and looked at how we can make it better. The only thing that we have more or less adopted in this product is the connection pattern, which has already been set as the standard, I would say, by a competitor. And at this point it is simply clever to continue and adopt this standard. Everything in between we have redone, we have made better, we have extracted design and performance potentials, we have optimised procurement costs. And when you look at the potential KTR has, especially on the logistics and sales side, it is certainly something that will have a great future here.

Another topic is that we not only have our strategic development topics, but we also have projects that come to us through the informal channels, so to speak. We recently implemented a high-load coupling for wind power, so to speak. Thirteen and a half, fourteen million Newton metres at that point. So that’s quite a lot. This has not been done before. This is the first time that KTR has been used on this so-called slow drive side of the windmill and has also worked in a very interdisciplinary way with our colleagues in China. So you can see that we are also networked to a certain extent. That is a bit of what makes it tick and where it comes from.”

Julia Ures: “Mr. Partmann, another question with a perhaps somewhat triggering… with such an entry. The mechanical engineering industry often seems rather conservative, someone writes to us. Surely you also keep an eye on the trends in the think tank. What trends do you see for the near future? And how is KTR positioned to meet these trends?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: „”So similar to the automotive sector, e-mobility will certainly also, for example, in the mobile sector, let’s call everything that has a diesel gearbox. When we see that, so whether I now have an excavator and so on. There, too, the changed drive technology will really be very important in the future. That means we also have to think about what we can offer for hybrid drives in this area, what we have to offer and what products we need for this. So this is certainly a topic we will be dealing with in the near future. So, similar to the automotive sector, we will also see trends there. And what is also very important is that there are innovations… We have already had an innovation team on a product that was really super well developed, really! Where I said, “I really like this.” Unfortunately, I have to say today that it turned out to be a raw deal. Maybe it was just too early, maybe we have to get it out again in five years and then it fits.”

Julia Ures: “Is there a resubmission folder or something?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “No, not that. The product is still there and it is also in the catalogues. But unfortunately it is not yet as successful as we had imagined. But I think there is… Maybe we were just too early. There is always the right time for innovation. You have to find the right time. What is very important, I think, in what we are doing is that we can only take one step, the development. And this transfer into marketing, I would say, takes at least as long as the development. That’s why we also have a transfer phase here with the product we started with this year. This means that we now have a young product manager who was previously in the innovation team, who has worked in the product area for many years, and who is now taking over this new product as product manager. And this task, the market launch, certainly takes at least as long as the development phase. And if you don’t do that properly, it’s like if we don’t do our work properly, it won’t work and it’s the same there. So the development is far from finished.”

Julia Ures: “How can I imagine that, from the first idea to the prototypes, how long does that usually take?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “If you look at this product now, Jochen and his team were really very dynamic, I would say. And it took us a good year. We now have the status that we can really market. We have all the products that we have listed in the catalogue available. That means that it is always important for me, or for both of us, not just to come up with something new and only have it on paper. We really want the customer to say, “Okay, you have this. I would like to try it tomorrow”, that we can actually do that. So that is really a very important aspect for us. Everything that we have shown in the catalogue today, we can also deliver. Very important!“

Julia Ures: “Mr. Exner, Mr. Partmann has just described that sometimes there are or there are often more ideas and more requirements than can be implemented immediately, because perhaps not all projects can be tackled at the same time. To what extent is it also the case that sometimes things have become superfluous simply because they are lying around and later, perhaps two years later, you say, we don’t really need that anymore?“
Jochen Exner: “That’s a really difficult question. Where I would say that there are many interesting topics and as an engineer, let’s say, you also live for the topic somehow. And even if it’s not necessarily on the agenda now, you always take a look and see what’s actually in there in depth. Is there potential for a company? And so of course you also try to find a lobby for it in the organisation. I have to say that I have been in the sector for some, I would say more than 20 years. I can’t remember a situation where something was actually no longer needed.”

Julia Ures: “Mr. Partmann, the podcast and videocast In Sight KTR is subtitled “quick questions, concrete answers”. We are approaching the 20-minute mark, so now we come to the last question, which is the one you sent us to, how high do you rate the factor innovation power with regard to KTR’s entrepreneurial success?”

Dr. Norbert Partmann: “Yes, it is very decisive. I think that is the very special thing we have. If I look back today or 20 years ago, customised solutions, i.e. not away from the standard, really specially developed for the customer, only accounted for a very small share. Today, we achieve almost 50 percent of our turnover with customised solutions. And that shows how strongly we respond to customer wishes and that is also one of the reasons why we have such a strong technical team. So we have already changed. We see that the market really needs customised products, some of which are really developed specifically for a plant. And we do that and we can do that because we have this broad experience in the company.“

Julia Ures: “Dr. Partmann and Mr. Exner, thank you very much for our really exciting conversation. And thank you very much for your questions. We look forward to your interest next time, in the next episode of In Sight KTR. Feel free to recommend us to others and take care. Bye!”

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