Dream team: Man & machine & product

Johann Soder
Chief Operating Officer
SEW-EURODRIVE

Interview with Johann Soder

Johann Soder, Chief Operating Officer of drive specialist SEW-EURODRIVE, is building the factory of the future today. In Graben-Neudorf in Baden-Wuerttemberg, new factories are being built, where people, products and networked, intelligent technology work hand in hand. At the Lean Smart Factory, orders find their own way through production – right up to dispatch. Individual customer requirements can be met at the cost of mass production.

Helmut Schmidt once said, “If you have a vision, you should go to the doctor.” What is the significance of having a vision in your company?

A company’s vision describes an ideal state in the future that the company wants to achieve. With a good corporate vision, I think you can unleash unprecedented forces, because it allows you to paint a big picture of the company’s future. The vision describes the path ahead. It should inspire people and create a common understanding. It is essential to give employees direction and meaning and create a vision that expresses the change we want to achieve with our organization.

Your company specializes in drives. But what drives you?

We are going to have to accept that we will have to work the way in which technology develops: in a networked manner. We are moving from a hierarchical organization to a network organization, in which each employee has to make a result-oriented contribution. Lean enterprise, Digitization and Industry 4.0 are the design approaches that have enabled companies in the 21st century to remain competitive through agility and adaptability and become trendsetters in the market. My credo is: Maintain what has proven to be successful, develop new things and create added value for customers. Creativity prevents me from coming to a stop and is what drives me!


With your Lean Smart Factory, you are entering new territory. What is it like to be a pioneer and to design processes that never existed before?

One important and vital decision we made was to implement the vision of the Lean Smart Factory at the company’s own plant in Graben-Neudorf and to develop concepts for tasks in logistics, assembly and manufacturing, taking into account the value-creation principles of one-piece-flow and small-factory units. As a pioneer, you should not follow safe, well-trodden paths, because that only gets you where others have already been. As a pioneer you must be pragmatic, flexible, courageous and enjoy change, while always looking at the big picture. You must strike out an unknown path to achieve decisive competitive advantages. We started early and had an understanding for the right trends in the design of Lean Smart Factories.


In the classic movie Terminator, a world is imagined in which intelligent machines have taken power and want to destroy humanity. Is this absurd science fiction or someday a conceivable reality?

My credo is that the technology is subject to humans. A human operator manages the processes and intelligent systems, just like assembly assistants support him or her in providing these services. People must be willing to intelligently work with these assistants in production, then a robot integrated into the production process will no longer be seen as a threat but rather an aid in achieving excellent performance and thereby increasing the company’s competitiveness. The magic phrase is human-technology cooperation!


In the 1990s you went to Japan in order to take part in training for your company. Have we now reached a point at which foreign countries will come to Germany to visit Lean Smart Factories?

Lean production, Kanban or Kaizen as continuous improvement processes: These new industry management concepts were recently provided by the Japanese market.

Today, we can demonstrate in Germany that a great deal of competitiveness can be gained if we integrate the value chain in an intelligent manner. Recently, 36 managers from Japan visited our plant in Graben-Neudorf to see our factory live. In the great lean wave of the 1990s, we all pilgrimaged together to Japan, now it is the other way around. That’s great, isn’t it?

​​Have you had any particular aha-experience in your professional life that impacted you?

In 2007, as Managing Director of Technology, I also took on the task of managing the Research and Development department for production.
After implementing a new R&D structure, organization and the related results-oriented tasks, work on developing innovations was increased and sustainable new SEW innovations were created. The principles of the SEW system of value creation from production also demonstrated their effectiveness when applied in the technical field. This inspired and motivated me to move towards product development organization that is performance-oriented.


What inspires you in your work?

Success only comes to those who succeed in motivating employees to achieve common goals in order to move their organization forward in a targeted manner. I try to inspire and motivate others by personally exemplifying motivation and the highest level of performance and only demand of others what I myself am willing to do. I recognize ideas and creativity independent of hierarchies and strive for continuous improvement.

People who drive business innovation need two things: Passion for their work and project as well as expertise in planning, controlling and implementing defined activities.

A congress participant came up to me after my talk and said: Mr. Soder, you are now 64 years old and not even a bit tired. Your enthusiasm and passion for your company and innovation is unparalleled. You are a creative force who keeps coming up with new things and has been for several decades. Such statements motivate me and drive me every day.

That is why I said that Industry 4.0 does not destroy jobs in a new Smart Factory, it changes them.

Johann Soder, Chief Operating Officer at SEW-EURODRIVE
Cooperation puzzle partnership teamwork for support together with connect jigsaw puzzle together.

A kind, all-knowing fairy appears to answer one research question. What would you want to know?

If the concepts of Lean and Industry 4.0 are combined into a “Lean Industry 4.0,” will value creation and people be placed at the center of the production concepts instead of technology being maximized as an end in itself? Do we have the freedom to develop a human-friendly Industry 4.0?


What advice do you give to companies that have exhausted all their potential through Lean and CIM and now want to reach the next level with Industry 4.0?

The key to further productivity gains lies in improved interaction between people and technology. This simplifies, partially automates and accelerates activities and processes. I am convinced and have demonstrated that intelligently combining humans and technology in accordance with lean and the principles of Industry 4.0 can increase productivity potential by 50% in a company’s value chain.


You are an experienced lean practitioner. Was there ever a point where you said, “Okay, there is nothing left to improve”?

The path to permanent improvement never ends. We all have to come to work every day with the mindset that what we encounter today is the worst condition, and how can we make it better and more efficient. We must also use the knowledge of our employees in the age of Industry 4.0 to create and implement intelligent value chains with excellent processes. This approach of creative destruction must be practiced every day!

Some say that Industry 4.0 will eliminate jobs, others say it will safeguard jobs. What do you think?

In general, routines are now increasingly being completed through automation, and special cases and new developments through people. That is why I said that Industry 4.0 does not destroy jobs in a new Smart Factory, it changes them. Innovative technology has always created more jobs in the past than it has destroyed. This change in work brings a new quality to the phrase “lifelong learning.”

Do you think that machines can also work creatively and develop product innovations, for example? Or will this always be done by humans?

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are now part of our daily lives. But the cognitive abilities of humans are still far superior to these systems.
Assistant systems, however, can help people work, granting them more time for more attractive and responsible tasks and space for creative, innovative solutions. We must take advantage of this opportunity if we want to create an excellent company.

You come to your Smart Factory and your machines tell you that they want to establish a trade union and demand breaks to play chess. How do you react?

That is not going to happen in my factories, because technology is subject to humans, and it is not going to run our lives. We will always need people to train and fine-tune AI-based assistance systems. People and machines are not competitors, but instead partners in the Smart Factory of the future!

Processes in Smart Factories are nearing perfection. And now more people expect this perfection from themselves. What do you think of this interest in personal optimization?

Success makes you happy! With structured self-optimization, we can gradually achieve our goals and create success that motivates and activates us in a lasting manner. Self-optimization at work is important to meet the demands of work, to grow into the tasks and become really good at what you do. We adapt our working methods to the challenges, learn more, improve our processes and achieve better results with growing experience.

Smart Factory Industrie 4.0 Animation | SEW-EURODRIVE

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Are there any considerations on how the intelligent interaction of humans and machines can be used not only in factories but also in other areas such as logistics, care and education?

My thought is that the focus will not be on replacing people with intelligent machines, but rather creating the optimal cooperation between man and machine. Artificial intelligence will be increasingly able to imitate human thinking in the coming years.

Human-technology cooperation can then be applied in a wide variety of fields – from regulatory work, administration and production to finance, insurance and commerce, as well as applications in mobility, health and care.

What was the most important invention of the last 100 years for you?

Using computer technology in the context of a machine tool! Starting around 1960, the first numerical controls for machine tools were developed and built. The emergence of the “NC” (numerical control) was one of the prerequisites for the rapid reconstruction of the world economy after World War II. Thanks to NC machines, requirements for e.g. automobiles, aircraft, consumer goods, etc. could be met that also fulfilled quality demands. Starting in the mid-seventies of the 20th century, NC became CNC, i.e. computerized numerical control technology. This new control technology led to large increases in industrial productivity in the area of machining, forming and automation of machines and plants.

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The Staufen Magazine

Dream team: Man & machine & product

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