The Global village

3 October 2019

As Liebherr's Ehingen plant celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this summer, Will North visited the plant and talked to three of its managing directors about the company's past and future.

Ehingen is the sort of pretty, peaceful, but unexceptional, village that dots rural Germany. A stream meanders through the town, narrow streets twist between old buildings. It's a place where a delicious, nourishing, salad can be put together from a pound of salami ribbons, a few onions, topped off with black pudding for extra protein, all washed down with a beer from one of the local breweries.

Very little, beyond church spires, breaks the skyline of small houses and low apartment buildings. But then, as you wander those narrow alleys, a giant crawler erupts into view in the distance. Here, in rural Swabia, Liebherr builds many of the world's biggest crawler cranes, a new range of rough terrains, and a high proportion (probably a sizable majority) of all of the all terrains sold around the world.

Why here? Hubert Hummel, MD of production at the plant, says that founder Hans Liebherr had wanted to find somewhere rural, rather than a big city, for his plant. That meant, Ulrich Hamme, MD for development, explains, that he could find a qualified workforce, with less competition from other companies.

But, as Christoph Kleiner, sales MD, explains, this wasn't about getting a workforce at the lowest possible cost: it was instead the starting point for long-term investment in a community. Today, many of Liebherr's staff join the company young, starting with split practical and classroom training. At the same time, the company partners with the university of Ulm.

A KPI for the company, Kleiner says, is to have always 6-7% of its staff made up by apprentices. A high percentage of these young entrants to the industry stay with the company.

That reciprocal loyalty of staff and employer has helped the factory deliver innovations that changed the industry. The plant began, in 1969, by building mobile and ship cranes. But by the 80s it was focused on mobile cranes, and, with the LTM 1160/2, introduced the single-cylinder boom concept in 1996, kickstarting a mobile crane industry focused on long booms, high capacity lifting, and optimised roadability.

From the start, Ehingen has relied not just on its investment in its workforce, but on building a network of sub suppliers: for booms, for crawler lattice tubes, and so on. At Ehingen, the key skills have always been in complex welding and cutting edge design. Hamme says that Liebherr has a production depth of 'about 20%'. The other 80% of each crane is built elsewhere, but, those tight supplier relationships mean the company has a deep understanding of every part.

Hummel says around 2,000 units leave the plant per year, over 40 model types. Each machine is further differentiated by the user's needs and local regulations. That means, Hamme says, that each team of factory workers works on four to five a day. This requires both skilled staff, and efficient delivery of components, handled through a modern ERP (enterprise resource planning) system.

The plant's development, and that of its sales, has always been gradual and evolutionary. So, Hummel says, the company pays attention to trends like digitalisation, but these are just one component of a broad strategy characterised by flexibility and responsiveness.

For Kleiner and the sales team, that strategy is implemented in a global sales footprint and broad equipment range: in a volatile market like construction, the company can respond to every opportunity, and try to meet every customer's needs.

Looking to the future, the three MDs take the sort of cautious approach to new developments that comes with decades of experience. While new materials like CFRP may be finding some uses, steel, after three millennia of use, will remain core, Hummel says. Hamme adds, that thousands-of-years long development process continues today, with new steels contributing to longer, stronger, booms. In thirty years, cranes will still mostly be made of steel.

On the factory floor too, change will be incremental, Hummel says: "With the small number of units, and variety of types, we can’t use robots, heavily."

Innovation, Kleiner, says, is not so much just about lifting capacity, "but the whole application: the safety and predictability of working, to have maximum uptime and a focus on total cost of ownership; to add tools to the crane and to to optimise the process for customers."

As much as robots will not find a major role in Ehingen, so, Hamme says, they will find few jobs as crane operators: "There will be no change away from human operators in 30 years.

"We may have some new operational aids, finding the correct load chart automatically. Partial automation may come in more, but this is not new."

As Ehingen looks to the future then, it will continue to be influenced by that key insight of Hans Liebherr's, fifty years ago: the bedrock of the company's success will be a skilled, dedicated workforce, a flexible strategy, helping Liebherr reach the world from a quiet Swabian village.

Crawler cranes in the testing area loom over Liebherr's Ehingen plant.
A component in the factory.
Handling formed boom sections.