By T Murrali:
Makes Products Rarely Visible But Always Indispensable For Over 30 Industry Segments
Born exactly 200 years ago, Carl Johann Freudenberg (1819–1898) began his business sojourn in Germany along with Heinrich Christian Heintze by establishing a tannery, Heintze & Freudenberg, in 1849 at Weinheim, near Frankfurt in Germany. The business organisation, over the years, transformed to different entities. The one named as the Freudenberg Group is going strong and has been expanding its product portfolio and reach. The Group is celebrating this year the 170th year of its formation.
Right from inception the group has been striving to combine technology with values, and innovation with social responsibility. Reliability, partnership with customers, products and solutions, service quality and financial soundness continue to be the pillars of the group. The driving force for the success of the Group has been its ability to accept and embrace change. It is no exaggeration to say that Freudenberg evolves daily!
Though founded as a tannery, the group’s first diversification was driven by Simmerring, a successful product which seals rotating shafts reliably, and is used in millions of applications and machines in many industries.
Today, the Freudenberg products are well established in more than 30 industrial segments and thousands of applications. The Group’s products and services – rarely visible, but always indispensable – make valuable contributions to the success of its customers. Without them, for example, indoor air would not be as clean, cars would not drive, suits would not sit properly on shoulders and wounds would not heal as quickly.
In the organisation that began its operations seventeen decades ago with 50 employees, today more than 40,000 people work in diverse teams in international projects to ensure that Freudenberg’s story remains one of innovation.
The two entrepreneurs of the tannery, Heintze and Freudenberg, produced fine calf leather. The innovation journey began from day one as the leather production consists of about 75 processes which were individually optimised to produce high quality finished leather. This culture of high quality is still part of Freudenberg’s self-image.
Following the death of the partner Leopold Heintze in 1874, Carl Johann Freudenberg became the sole proprietor. The company was renamed Carl Freudenberg and became the largest tannery in Germany, and later in Europe. In the same year Carl Johann Freudenberg established health insurance for his employees that became a benchmark. Ten years later, in 1884, statutory health insurance was introduced in Germany.
In 1887 Carl Johann Freudenberg introduced the next generation. His sons, Friedrich Carl (1848–1942) and Hermann Ernst Freudenberg (1856–1923) became partners. At this time, the company employed more than 500 people. On the occasion of his sons joining the company, Carl Johann Freudenberg penned his business principles for successful entrepreneurship: Modesty, honesty, a solid financial foundation and the ability to adapt to change. Even today they form the basis of Freudenberg’s Business Principles. With the death of Carl Johann Freudenberg in 1898, Friedrich Carl and Hermann Ernst Freudenberg took over the business completely. The enterprise was henceforth called the Freudenberg Group.
Things were going well until the outbreak of the First World War. The leather industry and market collapsed for want of orders, raw materials, and employees who had to go for compulsory military service. The sale price for finished calf leather dropped drastically to a fifth of the purchase price of raw hide making the leather industry absolutely unviable.
The difficult economic situation drove the management towards diversification to entirely new products. The first step was the production of leather sleeve seals for the growing automotive industry, in 1929. This became not only the first diversified product but also the first component for the automotive industry from Freudenberg.
From 1932 a new era began for the company with the revolutionary Simmerring sealing technology. Its name was taken from the Freudenberg developer Walther Simmer. Simmerring, a radial shaft sealing ring for sealing rotating shafts replaced the felt seals used earlier, which often resulted in overheating seals and damage to engine and axle bearings. Simmerring delivered significantly better results from the beginning. It consisted of a sheet-metal housing with an integrated leather sleeve. The use of a garter spring improves the radial force and sealing performance. Freudenberg replaced leather with rubber as a sealing material.
In 1936, a sealing ring made of Perbunan/NBR was developed; it had a high temperature and swelling resistance when exposed to engine lubricating oil. The NBR Simmerring was a quantum leap for the sealing technology. This innovation made Freudenberg the leading seal experts. Today the company makes a wide range of seals from half a millimetre diameter up to 3.5metre, in single piece. In segments, it also makes seals in 20m diameter.
Lubricants, Fuel Cell
Freudenberg acquired the Munich-based Klüber Lubrication in 1966, thus opening up a completely new business area. There is a special background for the sole owner Theodor Klüber to sell his company to Freudenberg. Richard Freudenberg spoke at the Bundestag (the German parliament) on December 5, 1952, against the re-armament of Germany, so that “Germans would not have to fight against Germans.” Theodor Klüber identified with this stance and offered to sell his company to Richard Freudenberg.
In 1997, Simmerring undertook additional functions. Encoder technology was developed and the seal became a product that performed tasks beyond sealing. With integrated sensor technology, the encoder could measure the engine revolutions, making it possible to control anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and engine management systems.
Freudenberg Fuel Cell Components Technology was established in 2001. This new business combines the expertise of various Freudenberg activities and develops components for the promising fuel cell segment: seals, gas diffusion layers, filters and humidifiers.
Freudenberg, by then a global umbrella brand, repositioned itself ‘as a values-based technology group that best serves its customers and society.’ This expresses the Group’s aspiration to be a technology leader and to contribute, through top-quality products and solutions, to the success of its customers and to the good of the society. A new brand architecture was created to support this goal. The slogan ‘Innovating Together’ was added to the company logo, reinforcing the new brand identity.
As part of the visit to Freudenberg’s headquarters, this correspondent was shown some of the facilities, including the rubber compound mixing plant, simmering production plant /test facility of Freudenberg Sealing Technologies, Freudenberg Filtration Technologies and Kluber Lubrication in Munich.
The mixing facility in Weinheim is the largest of the Freudenberg Group, as close to 60 percent of the compounds used for making rubber products is supplied by this unit. It produces over 1,000 active recipes using about 900 raw materials. It is the competence centre for process and production. It supplies the compounds in various forms including stripes, endless stripes, sheets and coils. The company tests a minimum of two new materials every week for developing new products. According to Dr Richard Zuber, Operations Manager, SEO, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies GmbH, it takes 18 to 24 months to develop a new material and another two years to begin production. “We are working on fuel cell materials; already some products are running in China. Next-gen products for fuel cell are under test; these are low viscosity elastomers; that’s the future business. We are also developing heat shield for battery separators,” he said. For these developments the company is investing to scale up processes and applications.
The specialty lubricant for the initial fill is the core business for Kluber Lubrication. The company offers expert tribological solutions by supplying tailor-made specialty lubricants directly to customers in almost all branches of industry. Its customers include producers of components, modules, machines and systems as well as companies using the equipment for their own production or processing activities. It offers about 2,000 different specialty lubricants including 450 for automotive industry. The packing ranges from three grams up to 8,000kgs. To manage these complexities the company has a direct supply model to customers, Frank Werner, Head of Global Business Team, Automotive, Kluber Lubrication, said.
Now the Freudenberg Group deals with five brands: Kluber, Chem-Trend, OKS, SurTec and Capol. He said the Group has been growing at 11 percent CAGR for the past several years. According to him the Group’s strength is in global footprint, sophisticated process flow, R&D, non-replicable products and lower cost. About 190 people work in R&D in four countries. Freudenberg has test fields with over 110 test benches.
Kluber’s direct business with auto OEMs is currently at 15 percent. It is 23 percent with the allied auto industrial segments. The company has 31 subsidiaries across the world. With over 80 years of presence, Kluber has an archive of lubes for almost all kinds of materials and tribological needs, Werner said. The test facilities have been built with capabilities to test the products in a wide range of temperatures from minus 70 degrees Centigrade up to 1,000 degrees Centigrade. Now it is working on lubes for compressors for fuel cell applications.
Freudenberg has been running tests to see whether Simmerrings are actually delivering on their promise of sealing reliability for a long lifespan. The tests have been taking place at Freudenberg Sealing Test (FST) facility, the world’s largest, which has about 250 test stands and measurement devices. They include equipment to determine frictional losses, pressure test stands, handling up to 220 bar, and dirt and dust test stands.
FST closely scrutinises seals as part of its internal quality control process and also examine them on behalf of the customers who are mostly makers of lubricants and additives, and end-customers like gearbox manufacturers. The Oil Seals Division experts carry out more than a million testing hours a year, and the number is rising.
This strong demand for testing can be traced to the complex interactions of the simmering, the lubricant and the shaft. They have a decisive impact on the functioning of industrial gearboxes. If the lubricant and the seal are not ideally coordinated with one another, the lapse can lead to premature seal failure. As a result, gearbox manufacturers want confirmation that lubricants and additives are compatible with the seals in the unit – the FST test lab in Weinheim provides it. Since 2016, FST has also been offering highly dynamic test procedures with alternating rotational directions to add to the test facility’s appeal and to handle the rising demand. Rolf Vogt, Manager, Product Development, Oil Seals Industry Division, said, “We are benefiting from our close cooperation with the lubricating oil industry. The lifespan and reliability of the seal are crucially dependent on the lubricant used. If we can participate in the development of oils, we have an opportunity to take preventive action and prevent complaints.”
FST is developing Levitex seals, which will be the future of crankshaft seals. Testing is in progress at present and hopes to commence commercial production soon. The first supplies will be to one of the largest automotive manufacturers in Germany.
The filtration lab carries out extensive tests to ensure the performance of the filters meant for various applications, including automotive. Some of the tests conducted include pressure drop, remittance, gravimetric, mass resistance, dust holding capacity and fractional collection efficiency. It has particulate counter to measure upstream and downstream flow. The equipment can measure six varieties of gases including SO2 and NOX. Interestingly every testing machine has been named after ‘wind’ such as Buran (cold) Mistral (French wind), Marin, Scirocco and Khamsin. The R&D team at the lab works on pre-development processes for developing new products.
One year after the establishment of the company, Freudenberg developed its first innovation and flourished with the production of patent leather in 1850. Five years later, patent leather accounted for more than 80 percent of production. Perhaps this became a norm for Freudenberg on two counts – one to spend more on R&D and two, to get certain percentage of revenue from the new products. In 2017, Freudenberg’s investment on innovation and R&D reached a new peak at €427.8 million (previous year: €335.1 million), corresponding to 4.6 percent of sales.
It has mandated itself that about one third of its revenue should come from sales of products introduced less than four years ago. The CEO of Freudenberg Group, Dr Mohsen Sohi, said, “The fact of the matter is that if we do not make our products obsolete, somebody else will. There are cases where we introduced a new product that was not there earlier. But several times we have introduced products that were better than the generation before and replaced them. We have to do that to stay successful otherwise our competitors will.”
From the automotive industry perspective, every car that rolls out of the assembly line anywhere in the world will have a minimum of 60 parts made by Freudenberg. The maximum is 300. In addition it supplies about 200 chemical applications also for the automotive industry. About 90 percent of the lubricants in civil ships is supplied by Freudenberg. The company makes more than 150,000 products, but still invests in R&D to stay ahead of industry expectations. Freudenberg continues to see success through change.