How does a PET stretch blow moulding and filling machine manufacturer fit into a company which claims, “Steel is our DNA”?
Niemeyer: Just to clarify, Salzgitter AG is a steel and technology group that has made concerted efforts to diversify over the last few years. Recent events show that our investors consider this strategy to be positive and hold it in high regard. At the last but one Salzgitter AG Annual General Meeting, the management report on the successful use of Plasmax technology to ‘coat PET bottles for carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) was met with a round of applause and praised in the speeches given by the shareholder representatives.
KHS Plasmax GmbH has now merged with KHS Corpoplast. Was this prompted by process- oriented reasons or more for economic reasons?
Niemeyer: You’re right – the two companies have merged. This proved very popular, both in the market and with our staff. The main reasons for the merger were to avoid interface overlaps and to establish more efficient, streamlined processes. This, in particular, is against the backdrop of blocked systems – FreshSafe in this case – in which the stretch blow moulding, barrier and filling technology form a single compact system. Integrating KHS Plasmax has strengthened KHS Corpoplast’s position as a supplier of block systems and as a “PET Technology Centre of Excellence”. This has put us in a good position for the future, so that we can smoothly handle the imminent increase in volumes and the expansion of the service business.
What’s the latest on the Plasmax project?
Niemeyer: Wine, beer and juice are now being joined by CSDs. The advantage is particularly clear when it comes to small PET bottles, with their unfavourable surface to volume ratio. We have increased the shelf life of small bottles with 22-mm necks six- fold for the Indian market. This is proof of how much progress we’ve made. The market is very price sensitive. One single-serve 250 ml bottle, made using Plasmax top technology, costs 18 Indian rupees (approx. 24 euro cents). The first Plasmax machine for CSDs is in India, and the second machine was also delivered to India in blocked design.
Where do you see further potential for the barrier technology that has existed for some time now?
Niemeyer: Aside from sensitive and carbonated beverages, I see great potential with wide-neck containers. The change from glass to PET posed certain challenges, especially regarding batch pasteurisation, though we were able to overcome this hurdle. This application is predestined for converters, whom we are therefore focussing on. It said that I had already overtaken ten of them, in terms of how long I’d been in my job. I’m not saying this out of vanity, the point is really that stability is extremely important for KHS’s existence. In the past, nobody would have believed that a KHS CEO would be celebrating having spent the longest time in this position. This is precisely why we’re so very grateful to our parent company. Certain topics, such as a drastic standardisation, modularisation or comprehensive IT solutions can’t be dealt with in just two years, which is why continuity is absolutely necessary. Horizontal standardisation such as, for example, a consistent introduction of Siemens drives and controllers for all machines, cannot be successfully completed in three months. The heterogeneous structure we previously used, which has developed over the company’s history spanning 149 years, did not give us the best starting situation. With ClearLine Design, which we presented a while ago, we have demonstrated that we can make lines from a single source. Salzgitter AG gives us continuity, puts us back on a stable path and – along with this – allows us the time to develop. They believe in us and are counting on us define our claims clearly.
What is this claim and can you put it into figures?
Niemeyer: Given that key account customers make up 50% of our transaction volume, it is quite difficult to achieve long-term success in such a market. Especially in this day and age, characterised by mergers and large- scale restructuring of customers or, for example, the introduction of the sugar tax and the resulting transformation in consumer behaviour. This presents opportunities and risks. In addition to that, there’s the oligopoly on the supplier’s side. All these factors lead to significant pressure on the market and, therefore, on prices. Our core expertise and key technologies such as, for example, PET stretch blow moulding, Plasmax barrier coating or direct printing are technologically challenging and require intensive research and development that customers only recognize to a certain extent. This is simultaneously a challenge for us, and our ambition. We have worked our way up to second place in our industry through technology and continuity. We don’t just want to keep this place, we want to build on it.
Staying with the comparison to the “others”, how do you set yourselves apart from the competition?
Niemeyer: A crucial difference is evident in our global footprint and here in particular, in our production network. Take TriBlock, for example. Our positioning allows us, for example, to build the filling machine in Bad Kreuznach or have it built by KHS India in Ahmedabad. Local production has the great advantage that our knowledge can be used on the ground with our customers. There is also often a desire for local content – particularly in these times of increasing protectionism. As we build to a global standard, complete functionality is always guaranteed. In addition, we are definitely of the opinion that it is no longer possible to develop the best technology simultaneously in all areas by yourself, so we think outside the box and ‘adopt a stance of “open innovation”. In this context, we always actively involve our partners in our development processes. In doing so, we’re constantly trying to seek out the global or technological leaders in each area of specialisation. Ideally, they will also be a good match for us culturally.