MIDLAND, Mich.—When Freudenberg Sealing Technologies CEO Claus Moehlenkamp says he wants to move the company into a new technological reality, he's not just talking about its product portfolio.
The CEO has been encouraging his engineers—hundreds of them—to learn how to create products on the fly and to think creatively about how to innovate.
Last year, Moehlenkamp ordered engineers to buy themselves personal 3D printers, and to "begin using them to create things."
"We're telling people, 'Please, go and make stuff,'" Moehlenkamp said. "Experiment. Don't get stuck in design and theory. Get faster, faster, faster at making prototypes."
The company is starting to get a taste of how that might pay off in the years ahead.
Last year, the German maker of engine, transmission, steering and fuel system seals, with 2018 sales of $2.7 billion, entered an innovation contest held by one of its customers, the global transmission technology giant ZF Friedrichshafen, in Schweinfurt, Germany. ZF wanted to see what kind of innovative problem-solving its supply chain might use to improve its electric-vehicle e-axles.
Freudenberg was hardly expected to out-hustle the field of scrappy smaller companies.
In the mix of different drive systems, hybrid systems are sure to play a dominant role. This is as true for passenger cars as it is for commercial vehicles. ZF already offers a kit of module-based hybrid components that can be scaled flexibly.
But standing by with humble 3D printing machines, Freudenberg's engineers created for ZF in 15 minutes a product they called a "cooling jacket" for an electric motor. With easy-to-mold plastic parts, the proposed jacket would replace the heavier, more expensive and labor-intensive aluminum pieces currently used on the e-axle.
Freudenberg won the contest and is now financing the idea as a startup to market it to other customers.
Freudenberg also installed 3D printers at its U.S. lab in Plymouth, Mich., carrying out Moehlenkamp's directive to play around with them to see what they might yield. The company was developing a machine vision system for inspection applications and recently asked the lab if it could come up with some of the parts it needed.
Again, 3D printing to the rescue: The lab quickly drafted and created the parts to complete the system.
"We're creating a new culture here of having the freedom to create, and having the resources to create," the CEO said. "That's an innovation culture, of going ahead and executing an idea. These things might still need time to make it to market. But we want people to be free to create."
Freudenberg anticipates big change coming to its business. The bulk of its revenues come from parts for internal combustion powertrains in an industry that is rapidly drifting to electrification.
The company is pursuing a strategy of diversifying into new powertrain-related technologies. Last year, it acquired a 31 percent interest in Xalt Energy, a Midland, Mich., manufacturer of lithium ion battery cells and battery management systems. Last month, Freudenberg increased its stake to majority ownership.
It also acquired an interest last year in a German manufacturer of fuel cell stacks for commercial and industrial vehicles. Freudenberg is now creating fuel cell testing capabilities in Michigan.
"We're moving forward quickly," he said of the new technology. "We believe we will have a functional fuel cell stack ready for market by the end of 2019, beginning of 2020.
"We believe we can bring innovation to fuel cells and also bring down the cost."