2019-08-14

"Digitilization cuts across every area of business"

Stefan Wenzel heads up the IoT Systems team at KION Group and is thoroughly convinced of digitalization’s potential. However, he began his career as a mechanical engineer. No contradiction at all for him. Ultimately, it's all about technology and curiosity.

"Technology has always fascinated me," notes Wenzel. As a child, he was fascinated by all kinds of vehicles including Daimler’s Unimog all-wheel truck and he began working on bicycles at an early age. It was only natural then that he eventually studied mechanical engineering. When he later applied to Linde Material Handling, his fascination with machines and technology once again came into play: "I was the kind of guy who was always tempted to test things on forklift trucks and try to improve them.”

Wenzel was also very interested in new ideas; sometimes with an astonishing foresight from today's point of view. He dedicated his doctoral thesis to endless fiber-reinforced plastics, such as carbon, which is a composite material that can achieve the extreme strength found in metals, but scores with the lightness of plastics. "The technology for carbon was still in its infancy back then," notes Wenzel. The challenge and opportunity for plastics lies in arranging the fibers in such a way that they are resilient and can withstand high load capacities. Wenzel was keen to research how the material could be used for technological applications. Today, plastics are critical in the lightweight construction of e-cars and other trending applications where their unique properties can be beneficial. Coincidentally, Wenzel's research at the time benefited from another technological development that was also taking off: computers.

Rapid development of PCs

"The calculations and simulations for carbon fibers are very complex," explains Wenzel. Just a few years ago, information technology would not have been able to do this, and PhD student Wenzel took advantage of the new options suddenly open to him. It was a time when computers were everywhere including office workstations, but people preferred going to the university computer labs for a fast Internet connection, where the Internet could be accessed without the croaking sounds of the modem. "It was a time of rapid development," recalls Wenzel, adding, "When I began my studies a few years earlier, the first PCs on the market were very expensive. And then suddenly, a few years later, we could access all of our library knowledge with the touch of a button."

That was what shaped Wenzel. A few years later, when networking and fleet management found their way into intralogistics, he immediately made the connection. "Logically, we didn't have our own department for this initially since it was a completely new area," he says. Though the importance was recognized early on, in practical terms, the composite material competed with numerous other improvements to the vehicle; at times, it was also neglected as a result. "We then sat down together and set up our own unit," says Wenzel. He was instrumental in establishing "Connected Solutions" as an official team even though he still doesn't see himself as an IT professional. "An engineering education helps you to gain a certain understanding of technology," says Wenzel. The Connected Solutions unit was deliberately designed to be interdisciplinary: Development, marketing and sales were all represented.

Digitalization leaves no area untouched

"The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – networking – is not limited to industry at all," he says. "This is a social revolution, and I don't think we have a clear picture of it yet." Everywhere you look, networking is happening, sensors have been installed and objects or machines are equipped with the ability to act increasingly autonomously. "Maybe, before too long, packages will find their way to their recipients all on their own," says Wenzel thoughtfully. Of course, all of this will also have an impact on forklift trucks. "The machine has always been the basis of everything," says Wenzel. However, in the future, he is convinced, data and information technology will play even greater roles.

Today, Wenzel is responsible within the KION Group for his own "IOT Systems" team. It is a clear indication for him of how seriously the company now takes digitilization and the further development of IT systems. The team is also organized on an interdisciplinary basis. "It is going to be a great challenge for companies to break down old structures and silos in the Digital Era," he says, adding, "Digitilization cuts across every area of business." It poses completely new questions and proven processes will inevitably be put to the test.

At one time, it was completely logical for customers to maintain a forklift on their own – checking all the various functions from time to time and changing the tires following the purchase of the industrial vehicles. "But if the truck now comes with software installed, a cloud platform and data processing, who operates and maintains it? These questions are being asked right now and their answers are being developed and tested. " At the end of the day, everyone can manage these processes and everyone will have to contribute.

But Wenzel doesn't see these developments as problematic. "I am, and always have been, a developer, someone who wants to think creatively and is always interested in new things. From this point of view, it's just a small leap from the first home PC and fiber-reinforced plastics to the digitilization issues now facing the world of intralogistics.

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