In the lead-up to K 2022, the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, VDMA is conducting a series of interviews with leading businesspersons in the industry, under the title Way2K. This week features Uwe Rothaug, Managing Director of Kurtz GmbH & Co. KG
Mr. Rothaug, Kurtz Ersa is a very old and long-standing company. What does sustainability mean to you?
It’s precisely because we are a company with such a long tradition that sustainability is our main priority, and why we have also set ourselves the goal of being completely CO2-free by the time we celebrate our 250th anniversary in 2029. We are working intensely on both on our internal processes – sustainable development, sustainable sales, sustainable purchasing – and on the products we supply to our customers.
Is it easier to achieve this goal internally rather than through your products?
Internally, you are the one in control, while at an external level it depends on whether the customer wants to buy a product that is more sustainable and serves climate protection. For example, we have developed a machine that can weld particle foams, such as EPS, without the use of steam. So, you no longer need a steam generation system or a cooling tower installation with a water basin. This saves not only water, but also a considerable amount of energy and therefore CO2 emissions. This machine is based on completely new technology however, and many customers are not yet ready to replace their conventional equipment, as they are generating money with their current processes. In the daily production process, climate targets such as those postulated by the European Green Deal for 2050 are a long way off.
What is so fundamentally different about the new machine?
This machine, which we call Wave Foamer, uses a radio frequency process. It makes the molecular chains vibrate at an alternating voltage, they rub against each other, and the resulting heat leads to the welding process. Previously, we supplied steam from the outside, which entailed heating the water beforehand until it became steam. That was a CO2-guzzling process. We can now produce the same foamed parts as before, like car parts such as shock absorbers or sun visors, except now these are emitting much less harmful greenhouse gas. The electromagnetic process is also much more finely adjustable, and you can dose the electromagnetic energy very well, allowing you to process materials that you couldn't process before.
What impact does the new process have on recycling?
With the new process, we are able to replace recycled EPS with new polystyrene in a much better manner. There is currently already up to 20 per cent recycled EPS used in foamed parts. With our method, you can process up to 100 per cent EPS; that's a world of difference, considering the amount of EPS used in the global packaging industry alone. EPS in packaging will not survive without recycling. That’s one aspect that needs to be fully understood.
Despite all these advantages, your customers are still apprehensive regarding the innovation.
For the customers, this is a paradigm shift – one that is initially also expensive. It will take some time to get a good grip on our new process. There is no doubt that sustainability comes at a cost, but those who start making their processes sustainable in time will emerge as winners. With our new machine and processing method, energy consumption can be reduced by 90 per cent, water consumption by up to 100 per cent. We have calculated CO2 savings of 70 percent over the entire process; that is our contribution to climate protection.
Will the image of plastics improve as a result of technological innovations that serve to protect the climate and resources?
I hope so. It's a fact that the plastics industry is putting a lot of effort into contributing towards climate protection and also to the circular economy; something that is not perceived by the public however. We have to become more visible, in line with the motto "do good and talk about it". We have to inform the public in a broad manner, by using all available communication channels. Nowadays, this also means making greater use of social media.
Will a better image also help to remedy the shortage of skilled workers?
The young people of Generation Y and Z look very carefully at which company they want to work for. They don't want to work in industries they consider harmful or dirty; that's why a good image is key in terms of recruitment. We already have a shortage of workers in Germany, and it will become even more severe over the next few years because of demographic developments. I’m convinced that only those companies that act sustainably will find the skilled workers they need in the future.