Interview with Dr. Ralf Hasler: Game Changer in the EMS Business
Under the leadership of Dr. Ralf Hasler, Lacon Electronic GmbH has developed from a management buy-out into one of the leading EMS providers in Germany. The CEO talks about the company's further development, the return to local engineering, the promotion of start-ups and the connection with the Oktoberfest, as well as trends and challenges in control cabinet construction and the use of AI as a game changer in quoting.
Dr. Ralf Hasler, CEO of the Lacon Group in Karlsfeld near Munich: "Our AI- and cloud-based solution will be a game changer in the preparation of quotations in industrial engineering - with it, the customer will have a complex first quotation on the table, ready and waiting, within 15 min of the request." (Image: Lacon)
Elektrotechnik: Mr. Hasler, although the electronics industry is the second-largest industry in Germany in terms of sales, with more than 800,000 employees, I have the impression that it is perceived far less by the public than the automotive industry or mechanical engineering. Why is that?
Hasler: That was certainly the case at one time, but this image no longer corresponds to reality. Not only every car, every machine, every device, simply everything in our modern living environment consists of electronics. Both hardware and software determine our daily lives. But above all, electronics and electromechanics are becoming the core of the activities of more and more branches of industry. In recent years, the value added by electronic intelligence in many products has already increased quite considerably: In cars, for example, from around 20 percent in 2000 to over 50 percent today. And the public perception of our industry is changing accordingly, as we are also noticing at Lacon.
Elektrotechnik: That means Lacon can also benefit from it?
Hasler: A clear yes - at least for EMS providers who are moving in the direction of original design manufacturing. Whether cars, rail technology, digital factories, network infrastructure, smart buildings or in the home - the use of electronics is increasing everywhere. And we are benefiting specifically from the strong demand in the ODM segment, in the New Energy and e-Mobility markets, and also in the B2C business.
Thanks to our know-how, we are increasingly involved in customer projects right from the start and can design development strategies together with the customer and then implement them competitively throughout Europe directly at one of our two production sites. For example, we were involved in the development of e-car chargers, home energy distribution, railroad technology and much more. We currently have an exciting task in the form of control cabinets for electron beam systems.
Elektrotechnik: Switch cabinets for electron welding systems? Can you say something more about this?
Hasler: The pro-beam group is a worldwide leading company in the field of electron beam technology and realizes systems for welding, hardening, drilling and coating of components by means of electron beam technology as well as systems for the UMH (Uniform Magnetic Heating) - heating process. And we develop and build the complete control cabinets for the electron beam systems. The systems are used, for example, to weld turbine blades in aviation, large components in aerospace or drive shafts for e-cars.
The pro-beam group is a worldwide leading company in the field of electron beam technology and realizes systems for welding, hardening, drilling and coating of components by means of electron beam technology as well as systems for the UMH (Uniform Magnetic Heating) - heating process. Lacon develops and builds the complete control cabinets for the electron beam systems.
Elektrotechnik: Are there any special challenges in the project with regard to the control cabinet?
Hasler: However! The process requires very high current voltages and strengths. For these high loads, we have newly developed or specially designed practically every part in the control cabinet: from the connectors to the electronic boards.
Elektrotechnik: How did you receive the order data from pro-beam?
Hasler: We received a drawing as a PDF and on the basis of this our engineering department developed the control cabinet and built it as a prototype. The prototype was released and now forms the basis for the various versions that we configure and build in each case on a project-specific basis.
Elektrotechnik: And how else can the data transfer of the customers take place?
Hasler: In virtually any form - from hand sketches to 3D drawings. In our engineering department, we use an Eplan Electric P8 system for development and project planning - which, by the way, also allows us to provide customers with the digital twin of their control cabinet.
Elektrotechnik: What trends are you registering in control cabinet construction in general?
Hasler: Control cabinets are the brain and heart of every technical system. They are becoming increasingly complex and digital, and so is the development and construction of control cabinets. While control cabinet construction has always been fundamentally in a state of flux, the current dynamics resulting from the digitalization of all technical areas are new. Other challenges are the growing price pressure, the enormous supply chain issues and the increase in just-in-time requests with ever shorter delivery times. Pre-planning must therefore be given much greater attention today.
In addition, we sense that companies are increasingly turning to our know-how, expertise and production capacities, not least because of the challenges described above. And this is not only true for control cabinet construction, but also for many customer projects.
Elektrotechnik: That means you see good growth opportunities in Germany for original design manufacturers like Lacon?
Hasler: We recognize tendencies toward relocation - in other words, a kind of return to the importance of keeping electronic competencies in Europe or bringing them back. We even believe that the digitization of all products has set in motion a shift in supplier structures in Europe that will benefit us ODMs and whose development dynamics cannot even be foreseen yet. Companies and groups that previously purchased complete units with digital functions from large suppliers are noticing that they now lack this expertise. They have now started to manufacture the components again under their own responsibility. To do this, they are increasingly drawing on the engineering know-how and capacities of electronics specialists like us - without the detour and loss of know-how via the global - disrupted - supply chains to Asia.
Elektrotechnik: Has this development already made itself felt in figures at Lacon? How did the Corona year 2021 go?
Hasler: Despite the difficult framework conditions, Lacon 2021 was able to achieve powerful growth: With sales of over 55 million euros and growth of 22 percent, we have clearly exceeded the targets we set ourselves. This year, we are also seeing an increase in incoming orders and strong demand for Original Design Manufacturing. Business is picking up particularly in the New Energy, e-Mobility and also B2C markets.
Elektrotechnik: Lacon and you personally are also very involved in promoting startups. Next week, on Sept. 25, 2022, Bits & Pretzels begins in Munich, one of the largest startup events in the world. The event will open with a speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger and you will also give a talk at the event. How many startups have you and Lacon already supported?
Hasler: In recent years, the Lacon Group has supported more than 40 high-tech startups in prototyping, industrialization and series production. We take care of the hardware and software, the engineering and the important area of marketing.
Elektrotechnik: How does startup funding work?
Hasler: What most startups have in common is that, especially when it comes to production, we often have to go back three steps before an industrially clean foundation is laid. First, the device or assembly is often still in a state that is not suitable for series production. Lacon acts as an experienced industrialization partner for many startups and supports the transfer from a prototype, which at best can serve as a proof of concept, to a series product that can be profitable and successful in the target markets. On the other hand, we are usually a supply chain partner. The startup focuses on product and market development, while the supply chain is provided by Lacon. This focus reduces the risk and shortens the time-to-market.
Elektrotechnik: Is Lacon then also involved in the start-ups?
Hasler: No. The Lacon Group itself does not invest in the startups it supports. Occasionally, I personally participate as an early stage investor through my investment company. I currently have four angel investments, two of which are in the renewable energy sector. I also see myself strongly as a kind of tour guide and coach for young entrepreneurs, who can set important impulses with a mixture of 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur and personal insights or even philosophical wisdom.
By the way, our masterclass at Bits & Pretzels will also be available as a video on the Lacon website after the event and is entitled "Distilling the essence of Philosophy for empowering you and your business. With the convenience like Blinkist and a passionate tour guide and entrepreneur."
On Sept. 25, Bits & Pretzels begins in Munich, one of the largest startup events in the world, which will open with a speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lacon CEO Dr. Ralf Hasler will also give a speech at the event. (Image: Bits & Pretzels)
Elektrotechnik: Speaking of tour guides - you will also continue to drive Lacon's path from electronics manufacturer to engineering service provider?
Hasler: For sure! We will continue to consistently pursue our orientation as an ODM and full-service engineering provider with IoT development and AI know-how. For example, a solution developed together with the AI start-up Luminovo for the costing of assemblies is about to be rolled out across the Group. Beyond costing, the tool forecasts supply chain dislocations in real time and suggests alternatives. Just imagine having a complex first offer on the table, ready to go, in 15 minutes after the request.
This AI and cloud-based solution will be a game changer in industrial engineering quoting - we are investing in such disruptive technologies that will also give us advantages over Asian players. Because such projects are becoming increasingly important for our growth strategy. [hjs]