Beckhoff is celebrating its 42nd anniversary this year, and the company has announced a number of major product launches. Is that just a coincidence? Ronald Heinze, editor-in-chief of Open Automation, caught up with Managing Owner Hans Beckhoff to discuss the highlights of the past year.
In the world of software development, programmers often use “42” as a magic number. In fact, Hans Beckhoff is convinced that “The number 42 has a special meaning for half of the world’s engineers.” Its origins lie in the legendary science fiction story “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, in which 42 represents the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”. Yet while this answer may seem straightforward, it remains difficult to comprehend since the question itself is far from clear.
It would appear that there is no definitive answer to what the number 42 actually means, or perhaps we aren’t asking the right question. All we know is that it seems to be an answer to a philosophical or profound question, with the meaning of life as one of its fundamental themes. Google “the answer to life, the universe, and everything” and you will automatically be shown that it is 42.
Managing Director Hans Beckhoff is just as fascinated by the story behind it all: “As a physicist and fan of the novel ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, this number has always held a special place in my heart.” Walking through the parking lot, there are no prizes for guessing the owner of the car with the license plate number 4242. “Since the pandemic put paid to our 40th anniversary celebrations, we decided to commemorate our 42nd anniversary this year instead, with a huge party at the Hermannsdenkmal for around 3,500 employees from 40 different countries,” he says.
50% growth in two years
“As a technology-driven company, we’ve been trying to find the answer to all questions since day one,” proclaims Hans Beckhoff. With product areas including IPC, I/O, Motion, TwinCAT, the MX-System for control cabinet-free automation and Vision, the Beckhoff New Automation Technology already holds the answer to virtually all automation questions.
This is also reflected in the company’s results: “We are doing well,” confirms the entrepreneur. “After seeing 28% growth last year, our growth rate in 2022 is set to be greater than 20%,” he notes, going on to add, “Our incoming order numbers also continue to rise. Maybe a little more modestly than before, but still certainly moving in the right direction. Certainly in terms of machine building, there are no signs of a crisis right now.” The managing director points out that similar trends are being reported worldwide, but also reveals that many experts in the industry – and specifically in the automation industry – are expecting a crisis in the second half of next year due to the general economic conditions.
“The growth rate is currently greater than expected,” notes the company owner. “This will result in an approximate growth rate of over 50% in 2021 and 2022 across all areas, taking us from 923 million euros to approximately 1.4 billion.” According to Hans Beckhoff, this level of development can be felt throughout the company: “We are having to build up our capacity to shore up production and material supply both now and in the future.” To this end, the company is now in the process of building new warehouses and production facilities. “We have acquired a new industrial area of 15 hectares for greenfield projects, so we now have a total of 30 hectares of reserve land. In terms of space and construction, this will provide us with scope to grow for the next five to ten years,” he says, looking to the future. “Growth is taking place at all levels of the company, not just in production,” he goes on to add. The company’s global sales network will also be further consolidated and expanded, as will the areas of research, development and product management.
“Material procurement is currently still difficult due to supply chain bottlenecks,” Hans Beckhoff notes, expecting this situation to continue in the next quarter. “That said, there are signs that the situation may ease in the first quarter of the new year.” Until then, he believes the best course of action is to work closely with customers to meet their most important needs, and to ensure the available inventory is distributed fairly. “Whatever happens, we will spare no expense on ensuring our delivery capacity remains as high as possible. That is our number-one priority,” he confirms. “It’s not about making money right now, it’s about being able to deliver.”
The company’s future as an innovative family business is secured for this 1.4 billion euro enterprise. “Our generational transition is already in full swing,” notes Hans Beckhoff. “Both of my children, Frederike and Johannes, are already actively involved in the company. Our economist Frederike has been with us for six years now, and Johannes, who followed in my footsteps as a nuclear physicist, has been on board for three. So, as you can see, we certainly have solid economic and scientific credentials to support our next generation, which definitely bodes well for the future.” Nevertheless, Hans Beckhoff is quick to point out that the size of the company alone calls for an efficient team of managers, technologists and other specialists beyond just the family. Here, too, the company considers itself to be in a strong position, as the highly experienced Beckhoff team already counts an impressive number of talented young professionals among its workforce.
Platform thinking for maximum benefit
In the world of automation and digitalization, the prevalence of terms such as platform economy, co-creation and ecosystems is really on the rise. According to Hans Beckhoff, this reflects what is normal within the industry: “We have actually been thinking and working with these terms for quite some time. Co-creation used to be known as mid-market collaboration, and we had – and still have – plenty of examples of that.”
“With our New Automation Technology, comprising IPC technology, EtherCAT, I/O, Motion, and now the MX-System and Vision, we have created an extremely powerful platform that offers our customers real benefits,” he continues. “We are maintaining this toolbox and expanding it to become more powerful than ever before.” The EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG) alone now has well over 6,000 members. “EtherCAT is the most widely used industrial communication system in the world,” he comments. “Countless companies, including our competitors, are benefiting from this technology.”
“2022 was a huge year for product launches,” continues the automation visionary. The MX-System and the ATRO modular industrial robot system were followed by a comprehensive portfolio for industrial image processing. “If we compare control technology to a human organism, the eye is the universal sensor of humans, and performs an incredible number of tasks,” he shares. “The camera can be used universally in machines or industrial production processes.” Beckhoff has long mastered the world of image processing on the software side with TwinCAT Vision, and is now offering the hardware to go with it.