Family Firm 4.0 – in all its variety

Unlike a great many family firms of its size, Frerichs Glas has ­developed a strategic plan for the digital transformation – and laid the groundwork to make that plan a reality.

Would you care to share the secret with our ­readers about how a classic medium-sized ­company is becoming a company where paper will soon be extinct?


Dr. Jan Wennemer: (laughing) Well, paper is a symbol of how we’ll be digitalizing everything that it makes sense to digitalize over the next few years. Our future digital factory will be working “analog-free” in everything – planning, receiving, production, packing, logistics, and all the rest.


Simon Cordes: And since we’re taking this all-around approach, we’re looking forward to not just our new digital plant, but to a Frerichs Glas where quality ­management, controlling, and HR can also be handled largely paperlessly.

Your “FG2018” strategy stands for that entire concept. What have you defined as its cornerstones?


Reinhard Cordes: If our house is going to be stable for the future, we have to lay some important foundations first. For one thing, by 2020 we’ll be expanding our working space for production and administration by about half, to make sure we have the basics in the first place to improve our workflow.


Wennemer: After all, what good would digitalization be if we were just to turn a less-than-optimal process into a less-than-optimal digitalized process?


Simon Cordes: So it’s not about enlarging and expanding, per se – after all, Frerichs Glas’s business is based on innovation and quality, not on bulk. On top of that, we stand out for flexibility down to batch sizes of one, along with short turnaround times.


Wennemer: That means that in the new spaces we’ll be sure to invest only in machines and systems that save us from having a patchwork of interfaces. We’re looking for a higher-level automation solution based on Simatic controls, so we’ll also be choosing our machine suppliers so that we can network everything seamlessly. On top of that, all our systems will be cloud-compatible. The cloud is our future – everything will get more efficient, better, faster, and more secure, we all agree on that. And we need to take the controls we already have and make them workable for the network, and then quickly establish connectivity.

What other changes will you be initiating?


Reinhard Cordes: We’ve already made one of the most important changes. The younger generation took over the helm at the beginning of May. Very well trained, smart, enthusiastic people between 30 and 40 who can now work together to shape the future. We older guys will be stepping back, but we’ll be around to help in word and deed anytime the next generation wants us.


Simon Cordes: We have an exciting time ahead, because digitalization is something that we younger folks have been taking for granted for most of our lives. And that’s another important prerequisite for a ­successful “remodeling” of our corporate culture and structure.


Wennemer: The change of generations is a sign of foresight. Now we can pursue the transformation – and model it in our own conduct – more vigorously than ever. After all, the question of management culture and corporate culture also includes our hope that we can arouse the whole staff’s enthusiasm for digitalization and bring them along on this exciting journey. Working the ultramodern way will also mean we need to get more mobile and more transparent. Data will be downloaded in real time, so it will be available faster, and also in a more reliable form than on a piece of paper.

That’s easy to say…


Simon Cordes: We certainly have to learn that kind of frankness and admit to one another when we’ve made mistakes – because they’ll be visible at the click of a mouse. So we’ll become a learning organization that continually improves – and that, we hope, will be fun rather than scary. Everybody should get actively involved, they should speak up when something occurs to them that could be improved.


Reinhard Cordes: The benefit will be immense, because we’ll be able to respond immediately to real-time data, for example by intervening preventively in production. Transparency will be automated as we go along and learn. So for that we absolutely need a shop floor management system.

What other homework is there to be done?


Wennemer: We need to take a very close look at lean management. Our goal is to avoid any pointless ­expenditures. That goes for space, time, labor, and a great deal more. The point is that we should digitalize our processes under optimized conditions. We calculated out that from the time when goods are received to when products are shipped, theoretically we have 1,900 different ways of adding value – and out of those, we’re taking advantage of barely 1,000 a year. We’ll be able to control that complex work much better digitally. Today we’re trying to get the overview ­without support. In cutting glass alone, optimized controls could realize a great deal more potential.

How will you make sure you have the expertise on hand for such a many-faceted job?


Reinhard Cordes: First of all, our new management is very well trained for innovative entrepreneurship. Jan Wennemer, for example, earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering and business engineering at Darmstadt Technical University with a dissertation about lean production. My son has picked up the right business-administration skills, including on an ­international basis. And that’s just two examples.


Simon Cordes: For new hires as well, we have to pay more attention than ever to making sure that in addition to training in their specific field, they also have digitalization skills. If they don’t, we’ll have to offer appropriate coaching and training in-house.


Wennemer: We’re also making use of the extensive knowledge at German universities, especially the process learning plant at Darmstadt TU.


Reinhard Cordes: And Siemens will also provide us with new impetus as a partner.

What kind of impetus is especially valuable for Frerichs Glas?


Reinhard Cordes: I’ve known Siemens for more than 20 years now, and have found their team very dedicated and motivated. But what’s much more crucial is that our contact people are experienced and skilled in every important field. They know their way around matters of hardware and software both, and they’re at ease with Industrie 4.0 questions for all sectors, especially in plate glass processing. Digitalization at ­Siemens is always based on their core competences in electronic controls, electrification, and automation, as well as the latest data transfer methods. Those are absolute necessities for taking the next step forward.


Wennemer: I like how the Siemens team thinks so systematically and in such structured terms. And that they listen carefully. They don’t hand us prefabricated concepts – they give us custom advice instead. Specifically, one way Siemens helped us was with a clean analysis of our processes. They used demo applications to show us examples of how our grinding and drilling machines affect throughput for the entire fabrication system. Simulating the processing of an order with Siemens’ Tecnomatix plant simulation software provided valuable information. In follow-up workshops, we then worked out a digital road map together that covered all the topics we’ve discussed here.


Simon Cordes: So if we talk again a few years from now, you’ll see the results – a smart company, digital through and through.


Picture credits: Siemens AG

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