We Don’t Just Deliver Silicones – We Deliver Reliability
High-quality products, outstanding service and new product ideas that create added value for our customers – these critical factors underpin WACKER’s strategy for expanding its leadership position on the European silicones market. Long-term customer relationships are an important part of that, as demonstrated by the cooperation with Bosch, a global corporation based in Stuttgart, Germany. Bosch awarded Preferred Partner status to WACKER in 2014, which will allow WACKER to work with Bosch to develop new high-tech silicones for the automobile of the future. This innovation partnership will benefit both parties.
A Key Role for Silicones
“There you are again with your prototypes,” joke his colleagues as Dr. Markus Jandke comes in the door. Unperturbed, the silicone expert balances his collection of electronic components on a stack of paper and gingerly places them on the conference table. To the casual observer, they look like nothing more than unremarkable black plastic boxes. What’s on the inside, however, is pure high tech: microprocessors, sensors, printed circuit boards and plugs. Jandke proudly points to one of the boxes, which has a narrow, shiny gray silicone bulge along its edge. “A Bosch ABS device,” he explains. “Our silicone connects the control unit to the hydraulic unit and forms a seal at the same time.”
The only distinguishing feature of the component is a silicone bead a few centimeters long – a detail that hardly seems worth mentioning at first glance. Yet the role that the silicone plays is essential: it has to protect the sensitive electronic components in the antilock brake system from moisture, exhaust gases and dust, says Jandke, a technical manager. That makes reliable silicone an extremely important concern for Bosch – after all, the company would not want to initiate a major recall at some point because the adhesive had disintegrated.
Sales to Bosch Doubled
Bosch began building ABS antilock brake systems in 1978. Since that time, the ABS unit has developed from a massive block into a streamlined box weighing little more than a kilogram. For over 25 years, WACKER has been supporting Bosch’s continued development work on this and other applications. “It’s our silver anniversary,” says Jandke reverently.
Key Account Manager Dr. Bianka Paul has not been on board quite that long. Her role as a major contact at WACKER for questions pertaining to Bosch began in the summer of 2014. Unlike her colleague Jandke, who provides technical support for Bosch, she is responsible for strategy and major commercial issues. That puts her in constant contact with Bosch’s Purchasing Department, conducting price negotiations, offering quotes for new products, monitoring payments, coordinating executive-level meetings and discussing important aspects of the companies’ collaboration. “Bosch is a highly technology-driven company,” Paul observes. “Quality and technical specifications are almost always their biggest priority. That puts us under a lot of pressure as a material supplier.” Working with Application Technology, she sets everything in motion that is needed to meet the customer’s expectations and requirements. “When Bosch launches a new project, it involves the entire supply chain – that way we can find the best possible solution. After all, our customers rely heavily on us,” she notes.
Over the past ten years, WACKER has doubled its sales to Bosch. Jandke, who specializes in silicone adhesives and sealants, has liased with Bosch for several years. During that time he has worked with over 200 contacts, at least half of whom he knows personally. “We started customizing silicones for Bosch over 30 years ago, in terms of both product and processing properties. A lot of those just involved niche applications, but unlike other companies, as silicone experts we know what we’re doing in niche markets too.” WACKER was also the only silicone supplier in Europe in a position to provide Bosch with appropriate contact persons. “Trust and personal relationships play a huge role,” says Jandke.
Maximum Flexibility Required
According to Jandke, the requirements are ultimately always fairly similar. The top priority is quality, of course, which has to be on the mark – only high-quality silicones provide reliable protection for electronic components. Understanding the production process plays a significant role too, however: manufacturers have to be able to process a new silicone easily with their existing equipment. Other important factors are supply security and maximum flexibility for times when the customer needs to find quick solutions or when production bottlenecks arise – as Jandke points out, WACKER is in a better position to meet those demands than others, because it also produces the key raw materials for its own silicone production. “When it comes right down to it, what we offer Bosch isn’t just silicones – it’s reliability.”
“As a Preferred Supplier, we are able to cooperate with Bosch on a comprehensive and global basis.”
Innovation Leaders Need to Network
And that pays off. In 2014, Bosch awarded Preferred Partner status to WACKER, which was selected from 4,000 suppliers of assembly parts and materials. “What especially impressed us was the extremely constructive, forward-looking collaboration,” says Dr. Norbert Neumann, senior vice president of Purchasing and Logistics at Bosch, when presenting the award. Neumann also praised WACKER’s quality, delivery reliability, innovation and strategic collaboration.
The award demonstrates how important good suppliers are today for companies like Bosch. The number one automotive supplier in the world with sales of € 49 billion, Bosch registers 18 patents per working day. European companies that want to be successful on the global market can do so only if they are leaders in innovation. Yet innovation does not work without reliable collaboration with strategically important suppliers. Aware of this, manufacturers like Bosch incorporate their suppliers’ knowledge and perspectives at an early stage in the search for ideas. Networking and collaboration are in high demand.
High Demand from the Automotive Industry for Silicones
Joining forces in this way also has a number of advantages for WACKER. “The award puts us much closer to new developments at Bosch,” says Bianka Paul. “We’re going to be involved in trends and plans for the future at a much earlier stage now.” That will allow WACKER to gear its research and development more closely to the needs of customers in the automotive sector. “Ultimately,” the key account manager observes, “companies like Bosch aren’t just looking to buy some silicone – they’re looking for a solution to a technical problem. What they need are special properties or better processes.” High-tech silicones for the automotive sector represent a business with a future, Paul says. Our Engineering Silicones business unit already generates one-third of its sales from products for the automotive industry, where demand for silicones is on the rise.
“That’s because cars are constantly being fitted with more and more electronic systems,” explains Marketing Manager Peter Walter. Where there used to be just starters and turn signals, today’s vehicles have dozens of control systems on board – and the trend is likely to continue. Walter also sees electromobility as a potential source of future sales. “For parts like cables, we’re going to need all-new materials because of the high currents involved,” he says. “That’s where we have a lot to offer.”
WACKER already sells over 30 different silicone products to Bosch in quantities both large and small. As Jandke explains, “Bosch has a major presence on the premium market, where volumes are often not very high. But when it comes to cars, today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s standard features.” Plus, he adds, WACKER can use that expertise to its advantage in the semiconductor and electronics industries.
Jandke always takes his customers’ standards seriously, even if only a few grams of silicone are at issue. One example of this is a silicone gel he developed especially for protecting sensitive pressure sensors in the exhaust system. “Ultimately, Bosch may only need a few milligrams per sensor, but then we’re talking about a silicone that has been specially developed for this application and has no equivalent among standard silicones, either in terms of price or quality.”
Specialty Silicones in Use Around the World
Quality is the critical factor for these new high-tech silicones. Jandke’s customers, for instance, expect new materials to work perfectly in production, which is why he regularly invites developers from Stuttgart to visit Burghausen. “Looking for the best way to encapsulate certain electronic parts is one example of what we do at our test facilities,” he explains. And while physical proximity is a major advantage, it also helps that the two corporate cultures are similar: “We have the same mentality.”
According to Jandke’s colleague Dr. Thomas Frese, there are times when no one can really look back and say where the idea for a development actually came from. “Take self-adhesive liquid silicone rubber, for instance. That was an idea that has since become well established in the automotive industry,” explains the technical manager. “It’s even used in dishwasher control panels,” Frese laughs.
Greater Efficiency in Production
Collaboration often focuses on new processes. “We have to do our part to help Bosch develop more efficient, cost-effective workflows and manufacturing processes,” says Jandke. European manufacturers have a large number of mass-production processes that are fully automated, he observes, adding: “For those processes it makes a big difference whether it takes days for the material to cure or just a few minutes.” WACKER developed UV-curing silicones, for instance, that cut production cycle times from 30 minutes to nine seconds. “We also offer systems that reduce curing times from two or three days to just a few minutes. That allows manufacturers to conduct leak tests during the production phase.” Having silicones that cure in the presence of UV light also eliminates the need for expensive ovens, slashing energy bills.
Jandke and Frese are also the go-to people whenever the production machines that process the silicone are tested or when Bosch starts up production. For these two technical experts, customer service means finding robust solutions – quickly and reliably – whenever a problem arises. “Anytime a problem needs to be ironed out in a plant somewhere in the world, we’ve got the expertise and we’re ready to help,” says Frese. And that holds true whether an engineer from China is on the line or a developer from Stuttgart urgently needs a WACKER laboratory to mold a few components.