Interview with Christoph Günter, President of the EMEA Region at SAF-Holland, discussing the potential of electric axles and the plans for telematics.
Mr. Günter, demand is increasing, and vehicle manufacturers and, thus, suppliers are flooded with orders, too. Is your investment in a new plant in Russia a reaction to this boom?
There are different reasons for this. Firstly, Russia is one of the most important single markets for SAF-Holland. We have a very good standing there, and there is also a high proportion of vehicles delivered from Western Europe to Russia with SAF axles. We can now meet this demand regionally by investing in a new plant in northern Moscow. Secondly, we are responding to the legal regulations in Russia that regulate the proportion of added value from regional production. Our local commitment means that we can secure the “Made in Russia” label.
With all your expansion plans – to what extent are you being slowed down by supply bottlenecks?
The situation is still very fraught, with major and minor bottlenecks occurring daily. But everything seems to have settled down now. The good news is that as the manufacturer of axles and chassis systems, we are not the largest bottleneck in our customers’ supply chain. It is not usually down to us if delivery times are not met. That’s what our customers tell us. The availability of electronic products is much more fraught. There are no chips in our axles. We could increase our production even further, but we don’t want to add any more shifts – in case something should break in the chain after all. We operate three shifts in all our plants. If we needed to, we could also produce at the weekend, something that we are not currently doing.
The “powertrain revolution” is one of the hot topics of our time. You are actively involved in this by offering to electrify trailers. How are things going here?
We demonstrated four vehicles from different customers that are already fitted with electric axles at Solutrans in Lyon in November 2021. Around ten pre-production vehicles are already in operation in Europe, and one more in Australia. In 2021, we plan to equip a total of 50 vehicles with our TRAKr recuperation axles. In the USA, too, we are building a vehicle together with a large trailer manufacturer. All of this has gone as we imagined it would. At the Future Congress Commercial Vehicles in Berlin, we wanted to showcase a vehicle that we developed together with Kögel. Combining a Carrier cooling unit with an AddVolt battery offers an exciting application for temperature-controlled transport. We are currently focusing on the TRAKr recuperation axle, but we are also offering the TRAKe electric axle, which we are currently trialing with Lohr in three test vehicles.
Do you also consider there to be a rapid business case behind the complex work – for customers as well as for SAF-Holland?
There will be a number of positive benefits for customers. Apart from eliminating CO2 emissions when diesel is used for cooling units, there is also weight reduction due to the omission of the diesel tank. The electrically-powered cooling unit is very quiet – this is a benefit that should not be underestimated for drivers who have to spend the night in their trucks. We will be able to make the battery packs even smaller in future, which will have a further positive effect. At the moment, they are somewhat larger, because we are concerned about the reliability of energy supply. And then, coming back to the business case, we need to consider the numbers required in terms of scaling up production.
In terms of numbers: when will series production start?
We are already running the 50 units as a pre-series. A further 50 units are planned for 2022. We aim to enter series production by the end of the first quarter of 2022.
Which companies are already using your recuperation axle?
They are well-known companies from the food logistics sector, including Meyer Logistik, GFT, Dennree and Bünting. The trailers come from different manufacturers, including Lamberet, Chereau, Ackermann or Kögel. We are concentrating on its use in heavy vehicles. This sets us apart from the competition, which tends to generally focus on small or medium-sized vehicles. As an axle and chassis specialist, we are geared towards heavy vehicles.
Apart from electrification, you are also committed to digitalization. What is a modern IT system capable of in terms of predictive maintenance?
We have three vehicles in operation at the Wormser forwarding company, which are all equipped with intelligent sensors on the axle and chassis. We have fitted vibration and temperature sensors to obtain early indications of a possible need for maintenance or repair. Certainly, the sensors fitted in the trailer prototypes are deliberately oversized to obtain as much information as possible on the correlation between the data from the sensors and the other systems, including the trailer EBS. The additional sensors on the chassis and axles also result in additional costs. That is why we need to find a middle course between the additional functionality and the business case.
What findings do you expect to gain from the additional information?
The aim is to offer practical functionalities in the short and medium term, which will then influence the series product and one day lead to a digitalized chassis. The telematics system can access this data, which is delivered to the cloud, at any time – specifically, the information on temperature and vibration.
Speaking of telematics: you are launching a new product on the market. What can your solution do?
Our new Trailer Master solution is targeted at OEMs in continental Europe. We do not wish to become the next standard telematics manufacturer, but rather specifically combine axle and chassis-related functions with the telematics system. Among other things, predictive maintenance would be possible on this basis. We regard ourselves as an open system and have no problem providing third parties with our data. It is important to us that we offer intelligence in the cloud and make it available to vehicle operators through interfaces.