Text Ulrich Kläsener ––– Photography
Supplier plant, Schopfheim, November 2015. Things were serious. Shortly after eleven in the morning, three years of development work hung in the balance. It looked like the test run for the profiling of the frame section could end in disaster: “Everything was going well up until the system punching,” recalls Heiko Holighaus, Vice President Research and Development at Rittal, “but then the material started to crumple. We couldn’t get a reliable laser weld seam. It just couldn’t be done cleanly.” Hundreds of designs for the new VX25 enclosure, countless simulations, intensive user research, blood, sweat and tears – had it all been for nothing?
All or nothing?
A sense of foreboding hung heavy in the air – exceptionally, everything came down to this. “Any large enclosure design stands and falls by the profile – it’s the most technologically demanding part,” explains Frank Himmelhuber, Executive Vice President Research and Development at Rittal. “To a large extent, the profile determines the installation space, engineering and assembly efficiency, expansion options, stability and thus security, flexibility in the customer workshop, etc. That means, if the profile fails, we have to start over from scratch.” In the end, it didn’t come to that.
The Rittal engineers put their heads together and went through all conceivable options over months, continuing to work undaunted on the prototype all the while. There was nothing that could be changed about the symmetrical profile itself, so a solution had to be found in the production method. In the end, one small stroke of genius broke the stalemate – the weld seam was reversed exactly 180°. Holighaus explains: “We turned the profile 180°, so we were starting profiling on the inside and then welding on the outside instead of the other way around.” Time to take a deep breath. A new test run was arranged for the modified plant. And it worked. Actually, the tests for stability and rigidity returned top results. Shortly afterwards, the first VX25 sample enclosures were on their way to their pilot application with carefully selected customers.
Just an enclosure?
“At times, it felt like a roller coaster ride. Then again – ‘no pain, no gain’. Projects like that are why you become a developer.” Himmelhuber and Holighaus are very familiar with the highs and lows of product development, which at first glance needs to reconcile complete opposites such as total design freedom and engineering constraints. What’s more, dramatically improving simple things is one of the pinnacles of research and development. “An enclosure is always going to be an enclosure. It’s never going to fly,” Himmelhuber continues: “Reverse-thinking the development and scientifically investigating the processes beforehand with the customer gave us precisely the motivation we needed. The same applies to the work done by the three development teams – start separately then consolidate results and bounce off each other.”
Rittal Innovation Center, Haiger, autumn 2016. They are referred to as design thinking, open innovation or lead-user methodologies. Think tanks in America have poured time and resources into researching the conditions that need to be met for new ideas to flourish. The biggest common factor is that innovation doesn’t come from silent contemplation but rather from interaction and discourse with carefully selected users. The determination to optimise the usability of the new VX25 large enclosure also led Rittal directly to the workshops of its top customers. Members of the customer advisory council have supported the development of the VX25 from the very start – as sparring partners, sources of inspiration and pilot users. Here is a brief summary.