“We really have to push the envelope here”

With the energy transition, electromobility and increasing manufacturing productivity, cable systems face a host of brand-new challenges. But anyone deploying digital tools to keep tabs on the state of their system has a better chance of pushing the envelope – and getting more bang for their buck. An interview with Torsten Schierholz, Chief Digital Officer at LEONI.

Mr Schierholz, the digital transformation is progressing quite steadily at LEONI: how has this changed the company so far?
The consistent orientation of LEONI as a solutions and systems provider is a key pillar of our strategy. All the initiatives in the area of digitalization over the last two years have had the common objective of further establishing LEONI as a technology partner for our customers. And we’ll continue to do so, while focusing our activities ever more strongly on customer benefit and strategic relevance.

What’s been your employees’ reaction?
Many colleagues in the various operating entities are well aware and supportive of our transformation from product to solutions provider. Of course, those business units with stronger systems business background have a certain head start here. Conclusively, the paths to new, digital business models – e.g. in robotics, automation or electromobility – are more likely to be found in places where we already have a broader systems expertise. And we also need to focus on solutions that enable us to improve our own supply chain and production processes. Virtual and augmented reality can help us to achieve long-term cost savings and improved defect rates, for example.

And have you had to deal with any doubts over the last two years?
There was a certain amount of scepticism expressed at the outset – but that’s absolutely normal for a transformation process. Soon, however, positive feedback from customers and technology partners like Microsoft showed we were on the right track. In this kind of situation, the key thing is strong communication between all stakeholders. We introduced monthly webcasts involving many of our employees, for example, which kept them up to date on the current state of play with digitalisation at LEONI. These online conferences can be attended by any employee, whatever their location, unit or job role.

Digitalisation is not an end in itself: so what are the most important benefits of digital solutions for customers?
For clarification, we differentiate between two separate areas: Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things. Industry 4.0 is primarily aimed at the processes in production and the value chain, while the Internet of Things is more oriented on the end customer, the application and additional product benefits. Our focus has been clearly at this product and solution level: we ask ourselves how our cable systems can create an additional benefit within the application. Even more specifically: how can energy and data transmission be made safer, more reliable and more efficient? Digitalisation enables this additional benefit, as we turn what was originally a passive electrical system like a cable into something that’s actively monitored…

… which is something LEONI’s also piloting in industrial manufacturing with intelligent dresspacks for robots.
Exactly. In one project, for example, we’re combining our LEONiQ technology with the Berlin-based start-up Relayr (recently acquired by MunichRe, incidentally) to set up a smart robot line. The first step here is to equip the dresspacks of welding robots used in “body-in-white” production with intelligent cable systems. We then combine the data we harvest with data from the robot control unit and other systems. This creates transparency about the state of the robots, reduces maintenance effort, prevents unplanned outages and therefore increases overall plant productivity. And the data model that we’ve developed here doesn’t just enable us to offer monitoring solutions to the robot owner: more advanced business models are also conceivable– such as guaranteed availability. With LEONiQ, we’re going well beyond the kinds of hardware previously supplied.

Greater transparency is also the goal for intelligent cables in distribution networks. What progress have you made here?
We’ve been working with our colleagues in Adaptricity to implement a LEONiQ installation at a major Swiss distribution network operator, with the aim of measuring a specific parameter – the cable temperature. The interplay of the intelligent cable with integrated sensors and the data analytics centre, which represents the software side, is already working very well. However, it’s also important to state that our data models also let us create sensors that are entirely virtual: these calculate temperature from existing data sets in addition to the hardware readings. The results of our analysis show that it is possible to use a 30% thinner cable to transmit the same amount of electricity because our monitoring solution avoids overheating while still ensuring that the cable is pushed to the limits of its performance envelope. Or, put it another way: we can calculate how much reserve capacity we have and then use the same infrastructure to move a much larger volume of electricity around the distribution network. And this offers major benefits in the ongoing energy transition.

Distribution networks now have to handle increasing numbers of electric vehicles. How can their charging systems be improved?
In this example we’re focusing on virtual sensors in the medium term. In the test phase, we’ll first be using hardware readings taken with LEONiQ technology so as to verify our mathematical models and train our algorithms. We then create a ‘digital twin’ of the cable and charging system. The aim is to deploy a software solution – running on the battery management system, for example – to always know how hot the charging cable gets between inlet and battery.

What advantages would this offer?
Drivers of electric vehicles are not interested in long charging times. But fast-charging systems can make cables run very hot. Once our software can accurately calculate the maximum amount of power that can be sent through a cable under certain boundary conditions without damaging it, we can offer drivers the shortest possible charging times technically possible. And this is where we need to push the envelope if we really want to see a major breakthrough with electromobility.

Mr Schierholz, we thank you for your time.