Christian Grosspointner has been CEO of the AICHELIN Group since March 2022. In the interview with HEATPROCESSING, he provides insights into his first months in the new role, the strategic direction of the company, and current issues and problems surrounding the energy and raw materials crisis.
What were your most important tasks in the first few weeks after taking office?
Christian Grosspointner: Listening and learning. Since there was an appropriate transition period with my predecessor Dr. Peter Schobesberger, it was important for me to “absorb” as much information as possible and get a good overall view of the entire AICHELIN Group. We also took the opportunity to visit all ten sites of our Group together -except China due to the Corona measures. In this way, I was able to get to know all the managers and many employees personally and also got to know the historical development and the site-specific “specialties” from my predecessor during the travel time.
What strategic goals will you set as the new CEO?
One of the most important points is to make the organization fit for the ever faster changing framework conditions. Current events show us that you can no longer rule anything out and you have to prepare as well as possible for all eventualities. Crises will become more frequent in the future; those who manage to cope with them better than others will be more successful. Resilience is the new buzzword. The AICHELIN Group is strategically well positioned with its footprints in Europe, Asia and the USA. The task now is to intensify internal cooperation even more and to offer our customers the best solutions from all worlds. The increasing expansion of service and after-sales business also plays a major role in this. Another very important project for our Group in the new plant installations business is the construction of the new production site in Celje, Slovenia. There, from the end of 2022, we will manufacture all plants of the AICHELIN, BOSIO, SAFED and AFC-Holcroft brands for the European market in a joint “Assembly Center Europe” with high efficiency. This is a major step towards making our European business fit for the future and further strengthening our competitiveness.
What growth markets will be the most important for the AICHELIN Group in the future?
Looking at current developments and forecasts, the Asian region will continue to be the strongest growth driver. The currently very positive development of our locations in China and India underlines this trend.
What are currently the biggest challenges for thermoprocessing companies?
The energy crisis – especially the supply of natural gas – as well as the high cost of energy, the shortage of skilled workers, price increases in almost all sectors and the requirements with regard to decarbonization are the most significant tasks ahead to me.
Decarbonization is the central issue for energy-intensive industries. How can CO2-emissions in heat treatment be reduced and brought down to net zero by 2050?
This is possible by switching to electric or hydrogen heating. However, the rapid expansion of renewable energy generation plays a key role here. Currently, there is still too little “green electricity“ to heat the plants or to generate hydrogen. In addition, the infrastructure for large-scale power supply for the heat treatment plants is simply lacking at present. Hydrogen would have the great advantage that it can be stored and the existing gas infrastructure could be used. Conclusion: generating hydrogen from wind and solar power and store and distribute it via the existing gas grid.
Will decarbonization lead to a surge in investment in the industry?
I think that as soon as the framework conditions are created and alternatives to gas are available sufficiently and at reasonable cost, there will also be an increased conversion of existing plants or replacement of old plants. Technically, this would already be possible now, but unfortunately an investment is not really economically feasible yet and the renewable energy sources are lacking.
How is the AICHELIN Group positioning itself in this market?
We have already invested extensively in the development of highly efficient electric heating systems or in the use of hydrogen as a heating medium, and the technology is ready for use. With our “Green Check“ we offer a special service where existing plants are examined for potential energy savings as well as possibilities to convert to electric heating and then appropriate conversion measures are offered and implemented.
What impact have the exponentially increased energy and raw material prices on the industry?
As in all other industries, price increases affect the final price of products. Manufacturers are now forced to pass on the increased costs to end customers in order to survive. For Europe in particular, this has a very negative impact on competitiveness.
What role will green gases like hydrogen play in the future for heating industrial furnaces?
Hydrogen will become more and more important in the medium and long term, but before that, the efficient and sufficient production of “green hydrogen“ must be ensured. Currently, a large part of the hydrogen is produced from natural gas, and the necessary amount of sustainably generated electricity is also still lacking for production using electrical energy.
Induction and electric heating are gaining importance. How large will the share of electrically heated plants be in the future?
As soon as the necessary energy is available, I can imagine that a good proportion of the plants – if technically possible – will be electrically heated. But same here: The electricity must first be available at a reasonable cost and the network infrastructure must also be designed for this, as we are talking about very highly connected loads in this context, which cannot currently be provided for many customers.
Will there be changes in the product portfolio of the AICHELIN Group?
We expect an increase in the service and conversion business, especially in Europe, which is also a major focus for us. That is why in recent months we have bundled our entire service business in Europe in a joint organization, „AICHELIN Service Europe“, in order to become even more powerful here. Also with the transformation of our subsidiary NOXMAT from a pure burner manufacturer to a specialist for heating systems, we expect additional business outside of pure heat treatment.
What significance does digitalization have for the Group and how is this manifested in the company‘s strategy?
Digitalization has a very high priority in the AICHELIN Group and is also firmly anchored in the strategy. With our process control system „FOCOS 4.0“ and our maintenance tool „#jakob“, we have developed two products that enable our plants to be connected to the digital world. By doing so, we offer our customers modern tools to make optimal use of the collected plant data and to generate clear added value in the area of plant availability.
What can digitilization achieve and what are the limits of heat treatment process automation?
Advancing digitilization means that a large amount of data is collected automatically and processed and evaluated in the next step. This gives the plant operator a very good overview of the ongoing plant processes and allows conclusions to be drawn about stability. In addition, the plant can readjust itself on the basis of the evaluations and pass on data to upstream and downstream plant sections. These analyses can also be used for preventive maintenance. The resulting reduction in unplanned downtime significantly increases plant availability. AI is already being used here to calculate the expected service life of components under current operating conditions. However, when it comes to initial plant settings for complex components or when heat treatment processes are to be optimized to the limits, the many years of knowledge and expertise, i.e. the experience of the heat treatment specialists, continues to be indispensable. Often, only countless trials help here until the optimum settings and processes are found.
There is a trend towards de-globalization. What impact can this have on companies that are strong exporters?
The AICHELIN Group has always had a decentralized organizational structure with strong local setups. We live by the motto „local for local“ and are therefore also more independent of selective disruptions in supply chains or local market fluctuations. „Think globally, act locally“ certainly has a major impact on our positive international development as a strong group. If we had to serve the whole world from just one region, it would be much more difficult, and that would severely limit our scope for action.
How do you assess Europe as a location compared to other economic areas?
Europe will always remain an important market, but it is definitely no longer a growth market and I think we have reached the zenith. Competitiveness has declined, and other regions have caught up strongly in many areas or have already overtaken us. The difference is that European countries have to defend a high level of prosperity, while other regions are hungry to reach a certain level of it. Europe will definitely have to tighten its belt in the future and we will have to make more of an effort again in order not to lose, at least in the area of technology and development.
Mr. Grosspointner, thank you very much for the interview.