Dig deep, fly high, go far

14.12.2018

Dig deep, fly high, go far

Companies with global operations not only face global problems but also the many local challenges of this world. The response to these challenges is: communication, cooperation, and concentration. With its "Global Research & Development Network", the FUCHS GROUP has created the right instrument for this. 

Silence suddenly filled the room. The American academic giving a presentation had been asked a question by a German chemist. The answer he received proved rather sobering: "I'm sorry, but this information is confidential." The silence that followed lasted longer than usual in such situations. It seemed the German chemist was not the only one who was disappointed. The aforementioned American researcher had received precisely the same answer to his own question shortly beforehand from the very same German chemist he was now rebuffing.

To be clear, this scene did not play out during a session of a political inquiry committee. The setting was an international conference that had actually been organized specifically to stimulate the open exchange of knowledge, i.e. the meeting of all Research Departments from the FUCHS subsidiaries.

The Global R&D Network and the culture of cooperation

Dr. Christine Fuchs, Vice President of Global Research & Development at FUCHS PETROLUB SE, then came to the sudden realization that this moment of awkward silence was the crystallization point of an outdated corporate culture. Digitalization, globalization, the sustainability trend, ever stricter framework conditions, ever shorter development cycles, constantly growing cost pressure… in a world characterized by these phenomena, a company with global operations simply cannot afford to engage in competition with itself. Instead, cooperation must be the key maxim. Not only is everything else simply a waste of time and resources, it ultimately also leads to failure.

As such, this moment around seven years ago represented the birth of a new corporate culture at FUCHS, directly resulting in the Global Research & Development Network. In 16 Global Key Working Groups, scientists engage in collaborative research on fundamental solutions that goes beyond the boundaries of the individual subsidiaries. This figure is set to rise to 20 Global Key Working Groups by the end of 2020.

Of course, the change did not happen overnight. After all, cultural differences do not stop at the laboratory door. The actual challenge was first to understand and then accept these differences. This was no small task, as there are more than 20 research institutes across all continents worldwide with 200 R&D chemists and a further 250 members of staff in other roles. "Only after we mastered the cultural aspect did the network start working as intended," remembers Dr. Christine Fuchs.

Friendships grow from familiarity

Trusting relationships of this kind do not develop at sporadic conferences held every two to three years. That's why the Key Working Groups get together regularly and often, holding personal meetings twice a year and virtual conferences each month. All Key Working Groups – comprising 140 scientists from across the globe – also come together every year for the annual Global R&D Meeting at the HQ of the parent company in Mannheim, Germany.

This new culture of trust and cooperation is today permanently anchored in the FUCHS DNA, where it helps secure continuous further development of the network. "In the beginning we were just a group of individuals but now we are a team and in many cases even friends," explains Dr. Jim Deodhar, Vice President Technical at FUCHS LUBRICANTS CO. in the US. "If colleagues on a different continent have a problem, we go and see them to work on a solution together." In many respects, everyone at FUCHS has been pulling together since the Global R&D Network was established. The strategic direction is developed by a group that is referred to internally and with some pride as "The Matrix". This group comprises the Heads of the Regional R&D Departments in the FUCHS Group, as well as the Vice President Global Research & Development, Dr. Christine Fuchs.

The Matrix gets together several times a year in a friendly and informal atmosphere.

Better research, more efficient development

One of the greatest advantages of the Global R&D Network for FUCHS itself revolves around the increase in efficiency. In other words, avoiding duplicate work within the FUCHS Group. In the past, there were often occasions when a laboratory in the US happened to be confronted with the same customer wishes as a different laboratory in Germany. Both then started work on finding a solution to the same question without knowing it. Cases such as this are now a thing of the past. 

But the benefits of the network go beyond this, as the developers at FUCHS are not only able to research more and with greater efficiency, but also to work better. They are given more time and greater scope to go into greater depth – to understand why certain raw materials or chemicals possess the properties they exhibit. After all, there is no time for such fundamental considerations in the operating business, where customer questions are the priority. "The Global Key Working Groups are effectively decoupled from day-to-day business. The objective here is not only to solve a problem, but rather to understand why this particular solution even works," explains Dr. Christian Friedmann, Head of R&D Industrial Lubricants at FUCHS SCHMIERSTOFFE GmbH.  

When you understand the core issues, you can answer any questions

It may sound like a luxury to regularly take R&D employees away from day-to-day business and have them focus on fundamental research. Yet it is actually the prerequisite to creating what is ultimately a far more efficient development process than is typically encountered in industry. 

Rather than developing products locally for the requirements of a specific customer, the R&D Network at FUCHS adopts the opposite perspective and sets it sights on an entire market. In other words, it identifies the problems that are common to all members of the market. The automotive industry is a good example of this. The entire sector is facing the challenge of e-mobility. In the Global R&D Network, this led to a group of carefully selected key international researchers getting together to develop products for this new challenge. "We utilize the fundamental research in our Key Working Groups to develop new platform technologies – core formulations for a product range – which we then use to generate new product lines. The next step is to derive individualized products for individual customers," explains Dr. Christine Fuchs.

With this approach to research, FUCHS is laying the foundations for the technologies of tomorrow. "This is also why we have no fear of the changes that our sector is facing as a result of e-mobility," comments Dr. Christine Fuchs. "The new mobility concepts also require lubricants, just different ones. We are prepared for this and are already working on it."

By developing new platform technologies, FUCHS is also building on its already strong market position and not only in one sector. If the core formulation is cut back to the essentials, it can be applied to other sectors. An example? A lubricant developed by FUCHS specifically for machining in the production of aluminum aircraft components. This project was launched five years ago and is now almost complete. "It genuinely looks as though it could be a game changer – not only in the aviation industry," explains Dr. Jim Deodhar. The platform technology developed can be individualized for specific customers in the market, but can also be used in a wide range of other industrial sectors as the basis for machining products, from aviation to the automotive industry

From global challenges to universal solutions

With the Global R&D Network, it seems as though FUCHS has found a way to create universal solutions from global challenges. It is the Group's response to phenomena such as digitalization, globalization, the sustainability trend, stricter legislation, local differences – and all interdependencies between them, which can quickly become highly complex.

Dr. Martin Stork, Head of R&D Automotive Lubricants at FUCHS SCHMIERSTOFFE GmbH: "We are not the only ones adopting an increasingly global strategy, as our customers are also following the same path. In the automotive sector, for example, we might develop a lubricant for a European auto manufacturer which is then produced in China.

What might not initially sound particularly exciting has very complex implications for development work at FUCHS. This is due among other things to the ever greater emphasis being placed on sustainability. Legislation on handling chemicals is also being increasingly driven by this. More and more raw materials and chemicals are being classified as hazardous to health or the environment. For a chemicals concern, this means that its new products should ideally not fall into any of the hazard categories.

This is already a great challenge in itself, as legislation throughout the world is far from uniform, despite international efforts. Indeed, a certain raw material can be classed as harmless in Europe but not in the US – and the same goes for many other materials. The result? "Simply the number of raw materials that can be used to develop a product with global approval is then significantly reduced," comments Dr. Christian Friedmann.

Anyone looking to develop a technology platform that can be used across the globe – and maybe also in various sectors – is therefore severely restricted. However, companies that succeed in achieving this then enjoy even greater benefits. This is precisely what FUCHS specializes in with its Global R&D Network. "We then come into possession of patents for a technology that can supply entire industrial sectors and no longer need to patent every single product individually," explains Dr. Christine Fuchs.

From silo to platform – to fruitful cooperation

"This network," adds Dr. George Wan, Vice President R&D at FUCHS LUBRICANTS in China, referring to the Global R&D Network, "is extremely powerful as a research and communication platform. It is also unique, as it can only be found at FUCHS." Everyone brings their personal strengths to the table and the others benefit from them. "Ideally, this will inspire us to adopt completely different approaches from other research fields or research cultures to tackle the challenges we are facing," comments Dr. Thorsten Görz, Head of R&D at FUCHS LUBRITECH. The Global R&D Network at FUCHS is all about give and take. A fruitful cooperation. And it appears to be the perfect instrument for meeting the challenges we currently face.

 

 

 

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