From optimising factory processes to having a hand in massive movements of iron ore to checking in bags at airports: sensors are everywhere, making things work. So is SICK.
The importance of customer feedback
“The Qantas bag drop, new generation check-in is probably one of the most high-profile provisions of sensor technologies that touch virtually everybody, the travelling public,” explained David Duncan, managing director of SICK in Australia.
“We were able to develop and take Qantas’s vision and provide the necessary sensing technologies to allow their new generation check-in vision to become reality.
“By using RFID technology, barcode technology, and unique RFID antenna technology that was developed for us in Australia, we combined the smart sensing technologies to enable the new generation check-in to become reality.”
Duncan’s company is the Australian subsidiary – one of more than 50 subsidiaries worldwide – of SICK AG, the German sensor and automation specialists.
A classic Hidden Champion
A prime example of the “Hidden Champion” concept popularised by strategy guru Professor Hermann Simon (see Manufacturers’ Monthly’s feature on the subject, including an interview with Simon, here) of Simon-Kucher & Partners, SICK is a highly specialised company that operates off most people’s radars yet has a global reach, enabled by innovation, a superior focus, and a close understanding of and collaboration with its customers.
SICK’s technology is found in countless applications in factories and elsewhere. Factory automation is one of its three specialties, with the other two being logistics automation and process automation.
However, there are other applications, with a notable case being the use of SICK’s technology to protect the Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum. As with other Hidden Champions, innovation is often led by a deep understanding of the needs and close relationship with the customer.
“Innovation usually comes from two sources,” explained Duncan during a visit by Manufacturers’ Monthly to SICK’s Heidelberg West factory, which opened last year.
“One is from the customer; if the customer has a vision that they wish to try and improve or to reduce costs or – in one area in particular for mining – improve safety, these are usually the drivers for innovation. And innovation can be not only product, it can also be structure, it can be organisational as part of that process.”
Solutions to boost productivity
Upping productivity is a big part of what SICK offers those it partners to, Duncan said.
“There are a number of areas of innovation that our sensing technologies drive, and also the innovation of our sensor technologies is driven by the requirements of the customer,”explained Duncan.
Closeness to the customer has also been important in working in developing solutions for mining companies, for example with Rio Tinto on its automated Mine Of The Future project, as well as in serving many companies in the oil and gas sector.
“We supply the world’s most accurate ultrasonic flow meter for custody transfer of gas,” said Duncan.
“We also provide significant sensor technologies through our gas analyser systems, that are provided to underground coal mines, where we analyse and monitor the atmosphere in underground coal mines, where we are looking for various levels of toxic gases such as methane and others," explained Duncan, whose company’s sensors are used where a canary might’ve been in the past.
Investing in R&D
Another of the qualities shared by Hidden Champions is the emphasis on investing in innovation. It is often a response to clients’ specific issues, and it is on average twice that spent by other companies.
While SICK, with global revenues of 971.3 billion Euros, isn’t a minnow, it’s hardly a huge consumer brand, and falls well within the Hidden Champion definition. It also shares the emphasis on innovation characteristic of those fitting the concept.
SICK’s team of research and development engineers numbers about 300, said Duncan, and he puts the company’s R&D investment at about 10 per cent of revenue.
“There’s a strong link between headquarters R&D who predominantly develop products as part of that process, and a lot of the R&D in Australia is done on the application of those products,” he said.
“And that is one of the exciting parts of the international corporation, because SICK AG, our headquarters, and also the local SICK company, work together. What we’re striving for is a global partner with local competence.”
Following its founder’s lead Innovation is hugely important to the company, and has been since founder Erwin Sick went into business in 1946.
He went on to register a patent for the world’s first light curtain – which has changed industrial safety – with the first marketable version presented at the Hanover Machine Tool Exhibition in 1952.
Since then the company has registered firsts in many areas, including the first high-speed, high-quality colour 3D camera.
“That’s a clear alignment with the philosophy of SICK and also the vision, which is Independence, Innovation and Leadership,” pointed out Duncan.
“The founder of SICK, Dr Erwin Sick, was an inventor, first and foremost. And so his legacy to the organisation, which is recognised in the vision statement, is that we continue to build innovative products, leading technology products that solve and/or develop market areas for sensing.”
As he puts it, he will discuss how the Australian chapter of SICK goes about, “continuing the spirit of Erwin Sick as an inventor, as a developer of innovative products.
“We are continuing that mandate that he gave the organisation.”