In KSB’s Business Innovation Lab, Dr Stephan Timmermann and Dr Stephan Bross answer some questions about the company’s 150-year history and provide useful insights into the present and future.
We are here at the Business Innovation Lab, where KSB is developing new, digital business models. What would the founders of the company have thought of this facility?
Dr Stephan Timmermann: No doubt they would be thrilled with our think tank. This place is about skills that made KSB strong through the decades, and are still important for every company today: Trying out new approaches, identifying customer benefits, developing creative solutions and adapting to different markets with inspirational ideas. In a nutshell: The team here at our innovation centre understands and meets the needs of our customers. And that is a timeless asset!
Over the past 150 years, companies have often had to adapt to new markets. What were the most important changes for KSB?
Dr Stephan Bross: At the end of the 19th century, electrification opened up completely new possibilities. New markets and applications emerged, as established technologies such as the steam engine faded away. The same was true with the advent of automation technology at the end of the 1970s, and we are now seeing something similar in the age of digitalisation. KSB has responded to each shift with innovative products. But the company’s image has also been shaped by geopolitical changes and market developments. These include both the reunification of Germany and the consequences of climate change. Energy products, for example, were the driving force behind our company for a long time. However, conventional coal-fired power plants will – depending on the region – only play a subordinate role in the energy supply of the future. We are responding by applying our know-how to the demands of a changing market: For example in renewable energy generation or recycling schemes aiming to generate energy from waste.
KSB has launched many products to market which have gone on to set standards.
Bross: Over the last 150 years there have been quite a few. Worthy of note from today’s perspective is without doubt the standardised water pump that KSB has been offering since 1935. Throughout the company’s history, our design engineers have developed ever more sophisticated large pumps that have had to meet increasingly stringent requirements. This development was crowned by the RUV reactor coolant pump certified in 2019 for the Chinese reactor type CAP 1400, for which KSB is the only approved supplier to date. But we have also set the bar with our standard and series products. These include PumpDrive and the associated KSB SuPremE motor – both the result of successful developments in the field of automation and drives. Other ground-breaking achievements have been seen in materials development, investment in new production methods and product configurators able to combine standard products with individual customisation options. But this remains just a snapshot of the milestones we have passed.
Is it reasonable to presume that such a long company history must also feature some less successful developments?
Timmermann: Of course! Failure is simply one step on the road to creating something amazing. What matters is how you deal with it: Only through our setbacks can we learn, gain experience and ultimately develop new, more successful ideas. Sometimes a product only flops because it came on the market too early. KSB developed a solar-powered pump back in the 1970s. It was brilliant, but unfortunately the global drive to achieve sustainability wasn’t strong enough at the time.
What role does digitalisation play in this context?
Bross: Digital transformation is leading to drastic changes in all areas. A few years ago, we clearly defined what digitalisation should mean for KSB. This led to concrete developments such as the concept of the customer journey, which focuses on customer needs in the digital age, or to specific product innovations that make pumps able to communicate. In addition, we are developing digital business models here at our Business Innovation Lab which will allow us to accompany our customers through this phase of transformation. Digital transformation does not represent entirely new territory for us: In 2002, we were the first pump and valve manufacturer to have an online shop.
Timmermann: We are obviously also driving digitalisation forward within our company. This affects our processes – whether in administration, production facilities or service centres. And it promises us an edge over the global competition. Today, we already have a digital factory at our Pegnitz site. This approach to smart production will serve as a model for other locations.
Bross: End-to-end digitalised processes have enormous potential and will transform the future world of work. This will require a willingness on the part of all employees to actively tackle new tasks and opportunities as they arise. But this does not particularly worry me, because our staff are keen to shape KSB’s digital future.
KSB is celebrating its anniversary year under the motto of People. Passion. Performance. What is the idea behind this motto?
Timmermann: First and foremost, it is the employees who ensure the company’s success with their passion and commitment. We must never forget that! Nor must we ever lose sight of the incredible amount of work that goes into everything our employees do. As members of Management, this leaves us humble – but also proud.
Bross: KSB is also distinguished by the tenacity with which our employees pursue their goals, especially in difficult times. In the recent past, for example, we weathered the 2008 financial crisis well, and during the coronavirus pandemic our employees around the world have shown dedication to their work, completing important service jobs, manufacturing under adverse conditions and staying in contact with our customers.
Regarding the pandemic: KSB seems to have handled the crisis year of 2020 relatively well.
Timmermann: Here, too, our company DNA has proved helpful. In dealing with the crisis, we reacted quickly but carefully. Our staff were extremely disciplined in complying with all the measures we have taken, in agreement with the employee representatives, to protect their health. We have thus been able to steer the company and its people through the crisis with a steady hand and a sense of confidence.
Bross: In a way, the company has been aided by the structure it has developed over its history. Over the years, KSB has adopted a very broad positioning. This means that we are now active in different regions and markets with a balanced product range. And this makes us less susceptible to crises than other companies.
What makes KSB an attractive company, even after 150 years?
Bross: We may not be as hip as the start-ups or the tech giants. But we do offer something that I think is becoming increasingly important to many young people: We combine the chance to help shape the future with the experience of working in a company with an established set of values. KSB continues to build on what the company’s founding fathers created 150 years ago. For our employees and our management, it is this heritage that keeps our feet on the ground – even as we look to the future. And that is quite rare.
Timmermann: The team spirit we have at KSB represents a strong foundation in a fast-moving world. The company is made all the more fascinating by the elemental utility of its products for people everywhere. It is our job to navigate the waves of global megatrends such as increasing demand for water and energy. With our products, we can make a small contribution to meeting this demand in the most environmentally friendly and sustainable way possible.
What future tasks do you anticipate for KSB?
Bross: For us, the future has already begun – and not just at our Business Innovation Lab. We will certainly continue to develop the first digital products and business models we have already launched. After all, these innovations are also subject to trends that will affect the needs of our customers. We see promising new business opportunities in fields such as hydrogen, which offers enormous potential for the future. Even if this new technology still needs some time, we are already preparing for it.