"Green" as an end in itself? Climate policy without industrial policy? That doesn't work, says André E. Barten, CEO of the Achenbach Group. And explains why lean, green & digital are just facets of the same issue.
Aluminum industry: Why lean, green & digital cannot be separated
ALUMINIUM: Mr. Barten, you define the future of industry as 'lean, green and digital'. An inseparable triad?
André E. Barten: Yes, I see these terms as facets of the same topic. Sustainable, i.e. 'green' production, digital measurement and analysis with AI, lean production: All of these ultimately lead to increased productivity. Even 'green' production is only sustainable if it leads to better results at the end of the day.
The three terms are always in danger of slipping into arbitrariness.
Barten: That is precisely why the focus on productivity is so important. If you put the quality output in relation to the input with its respective CO2 footprint, you get a productivity figure that contains both a statement about the quality of the production process, the share of CO2 emissions and the economic productivity. This is how you get out of this catch-all arbitrariness trap.
How sustainable do you consider your industry to be?
Barten: First of all, it's not about going 'green' per se, it has to serve a purpose. 'Green' is not an end in itself, it's about benefits that are convincing not only economically, but also ecologically and socially. Now there are some political goals that can be discussed in detail, but can be rallied behind. We do not operate machines in the aluminum industry - we develop and build them. So we are enablers for more sustainable production. And because we understand the processes and products very well, we are leading the way in developing new solutions for our niche, both in terms of digitalization and resource efficiency.
So we think about: What can we offer the market that will make our customers and their customers even better? That's extremely exciting, that's what we do every day. And that's why I say that every one of our new products touches on the Lean, Green and Digital facets and hopefully fulfills them as well as possible.
André E. Barten is President & CEO of the Achenbach Group and leading the family company in 8th generation. He studied mechanical engineering and business administration and is award winner 2021 of the famous ‘Social Market Economy Award’ of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Together with his team he was awarded by the Handelsblatt Diamond Star Award 2019 ‘Best Industrial Solution 4.0 – Smart Solution’ for the Achenbach OPTILINK System. As part of the Industry Advisory Board of the Cluster of Excellency ‘Internet of Production’ of the RWTH Aachen, André E. Barten is engaged in various activities around the digitalization of production technology.
The other dimension is your own production.
Barten: Yes, we have the clear goal of producing in a CO2-neutral way. That will still take a few years, but it's only possible step by step. We have a firm plan for our main production site in Buschhütten, but we still have to integrate the supply chain. This also has to do with digitization and with an understanding of waste, i.e. the lean concept.
You say industry can rally behind climate policy goals?
Barten: At least in Europe, that is common sense in large parts. A second goal, a second premise, has not yet been formulated as hard by policymakers in my view: to keep industry in Europe. Add to the ecological goal a European industrial policy that protects competition, and it would be an incredible opportunity. And with the inventive spirit we have in European mechanical and plant engineering, we can do it. Each for his product, in his niche and with his resources.
Does the topic of sustainability overshadow the topic of location?
Barten: I do concede that not everything can happen simultaneously, as we are facing a major turnaround. The parallelism of sustainability efforts and digitization alone - these are big issues. But at least the second step must be a clear industrial policy statement: "If you produce and process aluminum in a certain way, then we will also protect you from it being produced with dirty energy at Europe's external border." That must be the next consistent step.
How do you assess the state of R&D in terms of sustainability?
Barten: The curve for new products is really exciting. There are a number of highly interesting developments in current technology, but of course there are also many new technologies. We are also getting better at modernizing older machines. That is, after all, a fundamental idea of the circular economy: not to recycle as much as possible, but to use as few resources as possible. The rolling mill that grows with the customer is up-to-date and does not have to be scrapped. We are trying to implement this across the entire range of components.
Which brings us back to digitalization?
Barten: Of course. Predictive maintenance, condition monitoring, digital twin and simulation - these tools can shorten developments that used to take years to months.
"Add to the ecological goal a European industrial policy that protects competition, and it would be an incredible opportunity. And with the inventive spirit we have in European mechanical and plant engineering, we can do it."
I assume that "digitization" can also only be removed from arbitrariness by using productivity as a criterion?
Barten: Yes, and the core criterion is data. From their analysis, products can be developed and added value generated. These, in turn, can only be monetized if they also lead to a certain increase in product quality. There are a lot of small levers at work here.
Can you give me an example?
Barten: Think of films, for example: at a thickness of 4.5µm, the physical rolling models have long since come to an end. If you like: Newton no longer applies here, I would need Einstein, but unfortunately I don't have him. So I use empirical data, in large quantities, and I have to evaluate them cleverly. Finally, I have to attribute the data of the entire production process to each square centimeter or cubic centimeter of the product. Only then can I prove the Footprint - across the entire supply chain.
Industrial IoT is mostly negotiated via the linking of technology. Is it possible that the linking of people is sometimes neglected?
Barten: I sometimes get that impression, yes. One important question is: In a digital world, how can I make the process with the value creation stages upstream and downstream of my machines so lean and optimize it via digitization that I really achieve a global optimum? And not just a collection of suboptimal solutions that may sound good, but are of no use to the overall process. To achieve this, people must also network and search for solutions together and across companies. This also includes the question of networking with competitors.
But that also touches on questions of culture.
Barten: Yes, there is a cultural and a technical dimension. It only really works well if people talk to each other, agree on standards. Especially in niches like ours, there is a good chance to develop this thinking further with some strategic partners.
And is that happening?
Barten: I think that especially networking to customers usually works well. Within a market, it's more difficult because everyone thinks very strongly about their own product. But technical networking may also help here: It simply creates the need!
The interview was conducted by Bernhard Fragner.
Experience André E. Barten at the
ALUMINIUM Business Summit 2021
September 28th–29th, 2021
Altes Stahlwerk Düsseldorf