Get connected: New boss explains BOSCH’s reach

There is much more to BOSCH than power tools and white goods, and as the world becomes more interconnected a strong UK presence for the German engineering giant becomes more important.

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Steffen Hoffmann webStand in a typical street or house and you will probably be within shouting distance of a BOSCH product. The Eu49 billion German engineering group is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of automotive components and its sensors and software are found in everything from washing machines and radars to gaming consoles and robotic lawnmowers.

“We focus on products and innovations that really add value to people’s lives,” says BOSCH UK’s new president, Dr Steffen Hoffmann, at a press briefing on June 5. “Our job is to find out what it is that really makes our lives easier, and engineer it better.” Dr Hoffmann succeeded Klaus Peter Fouquet at BOSCH UK in April and has also joined the board of the German British Forum.

From a reputation in Britain as a power tools company, BOSCH has moved into total connectivity, in homes, cars and factories, is a leading supplier of sensors across industry and a major player in the rapidly unfolding ‘Internet of Things’, connecting machines to the internet and people.

BOSCH is a foundation and still works on projects with a strong social connection, following the original direction by founder Robert Bosch in the 1880s. Despite its size, its challenge is that the technology it develops moves so fast, consequently in 2014 BOSCH invested Eu5 billion in research and development, or 10.1% of sales, the biggest in absolute terms in its history. “We are also decentralising the R&D, in a process that reflects key market growth such as Asia,” says Dr Hoffmann. BOSCH acquired two 50:50 joint ventures in 2014, BSH Home Appliances which it wholly acquired from Siemens, and Bosch Automotive Steering from ZF, which supplies fast switches from hydraulic to electrical steering systems.

These takeovers increased global sales up by 6.3% in 2014 to Eu49bn and, including the two new companies, global headcount is now 360,000. The has grown to be BOSCH’s fourth biggest market, behind Germany, the US and Japan, and the second in Europe – indicative of the impressive growth of Britain’s carmaking industry since in the last six to seven years. UK sales were up 2% to £1.9bn in 2014, with 5,100 employees and 41 sites.

Like much of German industry BOSCH is focusing on connectivity, centred on sensor design and production. The company doubled its output of radar sensors in 2014, and it makes a staggering 4.5 million MEMS (micro electro mechanical systems) a year. Its biggest market, rebranded as ‘mobility solutions’ – despite some teething issues with the British market’s tendency to think of mobility as motorised wheelchairs – covers electric, automated and connected vehicles. Mobility is one of BOSCH’s mega-themes for society, along with Connectivity & Automation, and Electrification.

“The electrification of the powertrain is a trend that won’t reverse,” says Dr Hoffmann, a self-confessed car fanatic. “We believe that in 10 to 15 years about 15% of cars will have all-electric powertrains. The advancement of this is in sync with emissions controls and environmental legislation – but it is also about the fun of driving. Electric power can deliver a very good driving experience.”

A video showed BOSCH’s vision of driverless cars. The driver negotiates the heavy traffic of the inner city, before the car’s dashboard provides a 30 second ‘staged gateway’ countdown to entering automated driving mode for a freeway. The car takes over, automatically changing speed and braking in response to the conditions, while the driver emails and goes online. Before an urban area, the driver is warned before taking back manual control.

“Young people don’t want to own a car in urban areas, but in places like South Africa there is still a lot of enthusiasm for driving,” says Dr Hoffmann, referring to his previous home with BOSCH. “A typical guy will be happy to have an automated, driverless car in traffic and drive it himself on the open road.” Asked about the potential demise of diesel engines as an increasingly emissions-conscious public turn away from polluting cars, he advices to look at the facts. “Diesels are actually hard to beat in certain driving situations, for fuel economy. Our BOSCH diesel engine plant in Germany is still getting more from engine efficiency.”

One of 41 UK sites is BOSCH’s global headquarters for the lawn and garden business. This is where Indego, the robotic lawnmover, is designed and manufactured. The Indego can be ‘driven’ from a mobile phone and new laser measuring tools can transfer data to images on a tablet, telling the owner how much of the garden is mown.

Sensors is a huge part of the business and perhaps represents the most exciting business opportunity, since the emergence of the Internet of Things. The German government has invested heavily in the High-Tech 2020 strategy, including its “Industrie 4.0” moniker for interconnected “cyber physical systems”; consequently sensors will be in high demand. “Connectivity helps with planning manufacturing decisions,” says Hoffmann.

The Bosch Rexroth plant in Hamburg makes 200 types of drives using more than 2,000 components. It is highly connected, getting close to a Industry 4.0 vision with machines talking to one another and the sales and order planning system. Every employee is identified by a device that measures his/her use of resources and therefore their productivity, which has increased by 10% at the multi-line plant.

Another video shows BOSCH’s range of sensor-driven climate control devices for the smart home. Its new range of ovens sense temperature and moisture in the food so carefully that it is practically impossible to burn the cakes, bread or any food. Looking ahead BOSCH will be connecting other appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and the company is working on a robotic vacuum cleaner.

Finally at Worcester Bosch, the largest plant in the UK, they are developing new boilers with touchscreen control and online interface. “You can monitor and takeover the heating system remotely. Again its about making improvements to the quality of life,” says Hoffmann. The days of panicking at the airport that the central heating or oven has been left on may be over for good.


The German British Forum says Wir heissen Dr Hoffmann herzlich Willkommen in Grossbritannien.