Fastest guardian angel in the world
German SMEs are suffering from supply bottlenecks and inflation. FOCUS Online talked about this with Peter Schwenk, head of the Altendorf Group, a manufacturer of safer sliding table saws. Schwenk explains what the digital transformation looks like and why he is looking ahead with confidence.
FOCUS Online: Mr. Schwenk, the Altendorf Group is a typical German medium-sized company that sells to commercial customers such as carpenters, furniture makers or the carpenter. How have you coped economically with recent crises such as Corona or the Ukraine war?
Peter Schwenk: We have been facing new challenges every day since 2020. But we have solved this in the classic way and, for example, increased our inventories in Corona times to cushion bottlenecks.
Are you currently affected by supply chain problems and material shortages?
Schwenk: In the summer of last year, the procurement market was very tense, but we got a handle on that by changing our supplier structure and maximizing flexibility.
Your core business is sliding table saws and edge banding machines. These are not products for the do-it-yourselfer.
Schwenk: No, these are professional machines. Accordingly, we also have a broad worldwide customer base, including the woodworking trade and also Dax corporations such as Siemens and BMW.
How are you doing economically? Satisfactory, because the trend of citizens to beautify their own homes has also continued and investments have been made in these areas?
Schwenk: Definitely. We had a far above-average order intake in 2021 and are growing faster than the market segment. The market is positive, we all have good work to do. This is also apparent in the first quarter of 2022. It’s also positive that we’ve had hardly any payment defaults.
The Ukraine war has not changed that?
Schwenk: Until February, we were unreservedly confident. As a result of this unspeakable war, we have of course analyzed our business, but we do not see any problems in the sales markets or even a slump.
So you are in a comfortable situation.
Schwenk: We can’t complain, but it doesn’t run by itself. It’s a daily effort, not only our purchasing department is busy.
How much are you affected by inflation?
Schwenk: Pre-products are becoming more expensive, which is why we – like our competitors – have made a moderate price adjustment of five to seven percent
You advertise your flagship product as the world’s fastest guardian angel – that’s a nice slogan. How do you fill it with life?
Schwenk: Our Hand Guard is a sliding table saw with two cameras. And it reacts so quickly that it can prevent accidents.
The Hand Guard is designed to protect hands. How many accidents occur each year with what I would call a normal professional saw?
Schwenk: In Germany, there are around 120 reportable accidents per month, or about 1,500 per year. And half of them result in permanent disability, they can no longer practice their profession. There are no global figures, but that’s tens of thousands of people who suffer serious accidents every year.
How did the development with the cameras come about? The start of the series was in 2021.
Schwenk: The actual start of series production is in April 2022, but we tested the safety system in trial operation with 50 customers last year and developed it accordingly, both on the software and hardware sides.
What is special about this saw?
Schwenk: The camera-based system with the two cameras, which is diverse and redundant. If one camera fails, the other continues to function. We started this development three years ago and are pioneers here when it comes to detecting a hazardous situation in good time. AI, or artificial intelligence, helps us with this.
Three years sounds like a long time.
Schwenk: Preliminary investigation, concept phase, readiness for series production – that all takes time. And developing the software doesn’t happen overnight. And we even signed an exclusive cooperation agreement with a European specialist for hand recognition software, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened so quickly. You have to imagine that the AI also recognizes when the carpenter is wearing a suitable glove. In the meantime, we have stored around half a million image data, all to protect against injuries.
You have also just received an award for this system.
Schwenk: In a technical study, the Fraunhofer IPA analyzed various safety systems on sliding table saws and came to the conclusion that only camera-based systems currently on the market reliably protect the worker’s hand from injury. We therefore conclude that Hand Guard is currently the only camera-based system on the market that offers effective protection against hand injuries.
German SMEs are known for being highly innovative – a prerequisite in a high-wage environment like Germany. How do you promote innovation in-house?
Schwenk: We have about 20 ladies and gentlemen who are involved in product development, and we exchange ideas on a regular basis. This can happen via Innovation Days or regular brainstorming sessions. There is also a particular focus on technology partnerships.
What are you planning for the future?
Schwenk: By the end of 2022, we want to have Hand Guard Version 2.0 on the market and develop an entire Hand Guard family. Alongside safety, digitization is the second focus of our development work – we are investing heavily in software-based innovations to make life easier for our customers. Keyword “Easy to use”. After all, carpenters don’t sit in front of their laptops, but rather take their smartphones. And that’s where our new service app helps him order spare parts, etc.
So you think from the customer’s point of view?
Schwenk: We always think from the market, talk to customers, exchange ideas and find out what their needs are. And the topic of digitization in particular is becoming increasingly important.
What else are you planning?
Schwenk: I can’t reveal everything, but apart from innovations, it’s mainly software packages. It makes sense for our customers to be able to operate an edge banding machine by voice control. Industrial Internet of things – even today’s medium-sized businesses can no longer do without digitization.
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