Employees as the key to innovations 4 minutes spent reading
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Employees as the key to innovations

Christopher Eberl
Holds editorial responsibility for career topics and for the apprentice website. His stories offer insights into the world of work at voestalpine.

In keeping with the topic of specialists, we would like to introduce employees who have acquired unique know-how and special skills in their fields. One such employee is Tobias Hägele (voestalpine Polynorm in Schwäbisch Gmünd).

Tobias Hägele is 30 years old and has worked for voestalpine Polynorm in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, since 2010. That is where on July 7, 2016, the world’s first plant for manufacturing high-strength automotive parts in a completely new and highly efficient process (phs-directform) will be opened. Full information can be found in the following article.

He has held the position of Project Manager of technology development in the R&D department at the voestalpine Schwäbisch Gmünd site since 2014. He then moved to production management and is currently Project Manager for series integration of new technologies.

Employees as the key to innovations

Tobias Hägele, Project Manager for series integration of new technologies, voestalpine Polynorm GmbH

What products does your company produce?

voestalpine Polynorm mainly produces automotive body parts made of steel, aluminum, and press-hardened steel. Press-hardened steel for lightweight automotive construction is becoming more popular, and more press hardening lines are being set up. On July 7, for example, we set up the world’s first line for using the direct process to produce press-hardened steel components made of galvanized steel strip. The press hardening process consists of sophisticated processes such as partial press hardening. During normal press hardening, parts are heated completely and hardened. During partial press hardening, only certain areas of the part are heated and hardened. The rest of the part is kept at a low temperature and therefore does not harden. Partially hardened parts are now being installed in numerous German premium vehicles. These customized parts help improve crash performance and passenger protection.

What is a normal working day for you? What are your usual tasks?

My working days are very diverse and also very demanding since I constantly have to solve new and challenging problems. To optimize the press hardening lines and increase their availability, the production process has to be examined and analyzed in detail. Many suggestions for optimization come from the line operators themselves. We then have to evaluate these ideas in terms of their technical and economic feasibility. We have regular weekly meetings at the site dedicated only to optimizing the lines. The members of this team include representatives from maintenance and production who work together in a constructive atmosphere to develop solution suggestions. Sometimes my day starts right when I enter the production hall (without a first cup of coffee) when the line operator comes to me with a partial press hardening problem that is causing the line to stand still. In such cases, I put on my work clothes and go directly to the line to search for a solution. I am helped by maintenance and production.

What makes you a specialist? What is your special skill and how do you solve challenging problems?

I made major contributions to the two processes developed at the Schwäbisch Gmünd site to produce partially press-hardened parts. I am therefore a specialist for partially hardened parts and their development as well as for process optimization and the continued development of these processes. One of my skills is that I can quickly come up with new technical and physical ideas and have a good sense of what will work and what won’t.

Problems are there to be solved. Teamwork, acceptance, support, and the trust of superiors are all very important. Each idea is worth being discussed and objectively evaluated. Often an idea has the right approach and only needs to be refined. The key is being able to recognize these basic ideas and see how they could be developed into technical solutions.

"Teamwork, acceptance, support, and the trust of superiors are all very important when solving problems."
Tobias Hägele, Project Manager for series integration of new technologies, voestalpine Polynorm GmbH

In my experience, the basic idea may come from one person but the actual technical solution and implementation is a mixture of other ideas and optimizations that come from the people involved in the project.

What aspect of your work is especially important?

Being able to see the big picture is extremely important. Ideas must be allowed and followed through. Without teamwork and dedicated and motivated colleagues, innovation is not possible. There must be an atmosphere of trust and a sense of fairness within the team. Superiors must recognize and support ideas. Social competency is just as important as technical know-how. The normal workday must have room for ideas. If each day is 100% packed with day-to-day business, then ideas cannot develop. Brainstorming sessions can be used to refine basic ideas that resulted from flashes of inspiration in a quiet moment or then drinking coffee with colleagues.

"Without teamwork and dedicated and motivated colleagues, innovation is not possible."
Tobias Hägele, Project Manager for series integration of new technologies, voestalpine Polynorm GmbH
Employees as the key to innovations

Tobias Hägele and his team

What is especially important for young employees?

Motivation and delegating responsibility as well as trust and challenges while providing support and recognition are of elementary importance for young employees. Mistakes must be allowed in order to learn and improve.

Christopher Eberl

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