On a recent press tour of igus’ Cologne, Germany headquarters, I had the pleasure of chatting with Frank Blase, the company’s CEO—and one of the most approachable and down-to-earth manufacturing leaders you are apt to find.
Blase shared some of what has helped him grow his father’s small German company—over several decades—into the global manufacturer with hundreds of millions of dollars in sales that it is today. Here are four important takeaways:
- Don’t have a big ego. Blase said the company’s original formulas for success were “very, very superficial.” He explained that it took them eight or nine years to understand how much research they had to do to get the business really going. They’ve been doing fundamental research since about 1990. “In 1983, I could only say, ‘My father thinks it’s a good product. Test it,’” Blase said. Today, the company realizes they have to prove that their products will work in an application before getting the sale. In fact, there is a huge R&D area set aside in their manufacturing facility, with everything from cable carriers to bearings being tested continuously—under some pretty extreme circumstances.
- Make it easy for the customer. igus has built a large IT platform around online configuration tools to simplify design, specification and ordering. It’s also been working on product lifecycle management tools for its site, as well as building up product information and educational resources online. And it now allows customers the flexibility of 3D printing—a part can be printed there in Cologne, or if the customer wishes to print it themselves, igus will sell them a reel of the material, used to make the part
- Bigger isn’t always better. Although the company has grown to thousands of employees, Blase attributes some of their success to keeping smaller pods of people together—like business units that function separately. This company-within-a-company mentality helps to keep employees working toward specific goals, and allows for individuals to feel like they are an integral part of everything that’s happening. Plus, Blase has found that smaller teams are more nimble and agile—they can quickly bring about change.
- Don’t be afraid to try something totally new. One small business unit that has been growing within the company is the Robolink system. The idea grew out of the fact that they wanted to get the word out that plastic components, such as gearing, could work in industrial robots. But as they designed different parts, they realized that they could actually offer a low-cost industrial robot based on their engineering accomplishments. Today, customers can design, piece by piece, what they want on the company’s online robot configurator. And that business segment is poised to expand rapidly, meaning a whole new revenue area that wasn’t in anyone’s business plans, even a few years ago.