R&D at B&R—and a sitdown with the company's General Manager

Hannover Fair is a bit of an overwhelming affair. More than 20 large halls, dozens of technologies, hundreds of thousands of attendees and 6,500 exhibiting companies practically take over a small town in northern Germany for 5 days each April.

So it was nice to get away for a day from the show floor, and travel south to visit the international headquarters of B&R in Eggelsberg, Austria. B&R might be familiar to you from their lines of automation components, including operator interfaces, industrial PCs, network and fieldbus modules, and control systems. While I knew of the company, I came away perhaps most impressed with the research and development being conducted there.

The company, which was founded in 1979, has grown to 2,300 employees and boasts an impressive main facility. It has five R&D locations in Austria alone and a total of 340 employees working in the R&D department. 75% of B&R’s research is now in software tools. As Peter Gucher (photo, right), general manager of B&R, explained, “the reason the iPhone beat Nokia is because of the software.”

B&R produces an amazing 60 million electrical components per month, and has a circuit board output of 400,000 in the same time frame.

View from the top
Gucher sat down with Design World for a Q&A. He explained that, “they want to be in the pyramid of automation as much as possible,” saying that they need products that will address a wider range, including simpler applications where there are a lower number of I/Os. Part of that includes a brand agreement with Schneider for some of these more basic needs.

“We want to be the leader of the high end of [automation] technology,” he stressed.

But who is driving the technology?

“The main driver of technology is the end customer,” said Gucher. “He’s driving the OEM.”

Gucher said that more and more is being individualized, especially on the consumer end of thing. As a result, companies like Unilever have to be able to produce highly specialized packaging—from colors to shape to design—often for the same product going to different users. This, he says, is where new technology in automation is critical.

Energy looms large on B&R’s radar, although Gucher said the company has long been a disciple of the whole energy efficiency movement. He gave the example of intelligent hydraulic control, which they use on injection molding machines, through their own servopump, algorithm, and software. Their solutions can save 50-70% of the energy used by injection molding machines (and 80% of the noise). If you take into consideration the fact that 80,000 of these machines are installed each year and the life cycle is about 15 years, there could be 1.2 million in existence. That’s a lot of energy to be saved, and a big potential market for companies like B&R in this increasingly green-focused economy.

Other thoughts from Gucher:

• The complexity of machines is increasing—and customers are demanding individual functionality.
• International opportunities are enormous. He said there are 50 to 60 companies in China and India that build wind turbines—and about 20 companies in the rest of the world that do so.
• The company has saved 35% on energy on its own robotic stocking system (see video below) by recovering energy when raising/lowering loads and accelerating/decelerating the pallet mover. (The idea was actually the doctoral thesis from one of their engineers.)
• B&R is passionate about open standards, particularly in the area of safety. They feel they are sort of in the Netscape role with open safety, and they hope that a Microsoft-like competitor doesn’t come along and put up walls.

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