“First there was Porsche. Ever more customers then wanted us to develop cable harnesses for them”
Leoni turning 100: Contemporary witness Bernd Käfer talking on video about innovation
“Porsche complained that a flexible cable harness was too unmanageable to fit under the dashboard. The question was whether we could make the component more rigid,” Käfer recounts. That was 1987. Until then, he did not have anything to do with polyurethane and mould-making. But that was about to change; he was to become the driving force behind development of the pre-formed cable harness. It facilitates space and time-saving installation and is nowadays fitted especially to the engine block and transmission of commercial vehicles. Another advantage is that it is resistant to vibration and durable, and protects the wiring against dirt, humidity, oils as well as chemicals thanks to absolutely tight cable bushings.
A great eagerness to experiment was called for at the beginning. “The designated head of development placed a 20-litre bucket of polyurethane with a suitable hardener in our workshop and said ‘now let’s mix that stuff and see what happens’.” This was the start of a success story – underpinned by solution-oriented action, close collaboration with the customer as well as love of tinkering and trialling. “There was no such thing as CAD yet,” Käfer recalls while smiling, “so, for the R129, which was the Mercedes convertible of the time, we drove to the customer with plastic sheets and filler to mould our shape in the car’s bodywork.”
The demand for this Leoni service then rose: “Ever more customers then wanted us to develop cable harnesses for them,” Käfer recalls with delight. The foamed, pre-formed cable harness is now a standard feature in the motor vehicle industry. Bernd Käfer and his colleagues guard their knowledge of foaming tools and processes like gold. The stories of “huge foam cushions” and the casual approach that prevailed at the time still provide amusement in the department. The ingenuity has remained. Compared to the beginnings, however, development work meanwhile follows standardised processes and is supported by sophisticated tools. This is appreciated by the customers, who are increasingly shifting development work to the supplier – in particular with regard to wiring systems.
Innovation nowadays has high priority in both of Leoni’s business divisions. In total, the Group employs about 1,700 people in research & development. Spending on R&D was up by about 12 percent to more than € 130 million in the 2016 financial year. This is worthwhile for both customers and staff, Bernd Käfer believes: “Had we not been that early to start development work at the time, our facility in Kitzingen might now not even exist any longer.”