“Some people wear rose-tinted glasses. We wear green ones.”
In conducting their work at the Remscheid location, Development Engineer Harald Riecke and Research and Development Project Manager Sven Hanfland always keep an eye on the Vaillant Group’s sustainability targets.
A natural need for discussion
80 per cent high-efficiency products, –15 per cent greenhouse gas emissions from the product portfolio, +15 per cent material efficiency:
The Vaillant Group sustainability strategy S.E.E.D.S. defines binding and verifiable targets, which the family-owned company aims to achieve by 2020 – specifications that regularly lead to no-nonsense meetings and heated discussions between Development Engineer Harald Riecke and Research and Development Project Manager Sven Hanfland. The two men have worked together on the development of sustainable products for more than a decade. Over this period, they have developed and launched many innovations – and overcome several hurdles in doing so.
Mr Riecke, Mr Hanfland, the sustainability strategy establishes ambitious targets. You are partly responsible for their implementation. How does this affect your work?
Harald Riecke: (laughs) We are at loggerheads even more than we used to be.
Sven Hanfland: There is no doubt about it: the targets are ambitious. We have to adopt a systematic approach to the work. A highly efficient approach leads to highly efficient products.
Harald Riecke: Highly efficient – that is a key phrase. We are tasked with creating products that are ever more efficient; in other words, products that are particularly effective. From a technical perspective there is a great deal that is not only conceivable, but also possible. However, development activities also depend on many other factors such as costs, timing, the procurement of raw materials, and production processes. It is not always easy to align all of these elements.
What exactly does that mean? Can you give us an example?
Harald Riecke: Oh yes, a certain situation immediately springs to mind. Sven, you have probably already guessed what I am talking about. All I will say is this: acoustic lab.
Sven Hanfland: That was a pretty frustrating situation. Our team had great hopes for new kinds of acoustic insulating material. But the very first material failed our tests. So did the second. And the third. After umpteen non-starters, I applied the brakes.
Harald Riecke: It was not so much our need for efficiency, but the fact that the practical tests were far too expensive. We then simulated the material tests in our acoustic lab.
What was the outcome?
Sven Hanfland: The simulation activities enabled us to keep to the schedule.
Harald Riecke: An important result was that we finally found an optimum insulating material, which meant that our efforts had been worthwhile after all.
Sven Hanfland: Of course we always keep an eye on all the important factors. We have specifications that stipulate the technical requirements and we also take account of the project goals with regard to quality, costs and time. The project progress is documented using milestones.
Harald Riecke: (laughs) Every time we have a milestone meeting, Sven asks the same question: “Are we on track?”. Sometimes I even hear the question in my dreams.
Sven Hanfland: It goes without saying that we have to meet our deadlines. Otherwise we will exceed our allocated time budget, which can have serious consequences.
I presume a lot of coordination is required?
Harald Riecke: Indeed. Our projects take an average of two years, during which the managers often have more to do than the developers.
Sven Hanfland: The project manager has to do far more than maintain an internal overview and ensure that schedules are met. If we get a new supplier on board, other tasks also arise – and that takes up time. Every Vaillant Group partner has to undergo an internal certification process based on the Global Compact principles.
We are now part of the way through the process. But where is the starting point? Where do the developers begin?
Harald Riecke: The basic parameters play an important role here.
Sven Hanfland: Exactly. The basic parameters describe the conditions under which a product has to be developed, including the sustainability requirements. My department uses these to make suggestions, for example on the use of new technologies.
Harald Riecke: Developers like me then implement the suggestions, in other words we make the move from theory to practice. The developers make the ideas a reality.
Sven Hanfland: Doing this is again dependent on various factors. Sustainability does not always mean the same thing everywhere and under all circumstances. A product that is not regarded as particularly efficient in Germany could still make a real contribution to resource conservation in other regions.
Harald Riecke: Flow heaters, which use electricity to generate hot water, immediately spring to mind. In Germany, these do not have a good reputation. In Norway, however, they are extremely popular. That country uses hydropower plants to produce electricity in an extremely environmentally friendly manner. The use of flow heaters can therefore certainly play a part in increasing sustainability.
Sven Hanfland: You have to differentiate and look at the market for which a product is being developed.
Harald Riecke: Far too many rash decisions are still being made about entire product categories or product details. At first glance, everything appears to be very simple. When you take a second and third look, however, a very different picture is often formed.
What do you notice during the second and third looks?
Sven Hanfland: I will give you an example. Cork. A renewable resource. This form of tree bark has been put to uses of all kinds for centuries. Cork is also a brilliant sealing material for heaters. After a meeting with our purchasing department, they said: great, we can procure sufficient quantities of cork at an acceptable price. We agreed on potential suppliers. But then...
Harald Riecke: Sealing material has to comply with fire regulations. Natural cork does not. Cork fulfils the strict requirements only after receiving intensive chemical treatment. However, the chemically treated cork is less environmentally friendly than the synthetic sealing material that has already been used successfully for years.
It would seem that sustainability is a very complex issue.
Harald Riecke: Definitely. But that is why it also has such great potential. As a result, our customers benefit from technology that is ever more green and efficient.
Sven Hanfland: And thanks to this focus on customers, our teams continually find solutions that gradually enable us to progress. We sometimes hit technical limitations, but even these can be overcome thanks to our clever project team.
Harald Riecke: We have reached just such a limit with condensing boilers. These are now so efficient that we have virtually exhausted what is physically feasible. Despite this, though, there are still ways in which we can improve their efficiency. One option is to optimise the boilers’ control system. Software algorithms play a major role in this area.
Sven Hanfland: It is like driving a car. The same vehicle can consume entirely different amounts of fuel depending on how it is driven.
Harald Riecke: What are you looking at me for when you say that!? I am not a heavy-footed driver!
Sven Hanfland: Of course not!
Harald Riecke: Incidentally, sustainability is not something we focus on just because we have to. We also pay attention to our ecological footprint in our private lives, and not just when driving. You could say that it is an issue close to our hearts.
Sven Hanfland: You got a new heating system in your house just a year ago, did you not?
Harald Riecke: It was about time. My old system was almost ten years old. The new one is an impressive 20 per cent more efficient. I opted for condensing technology that also uses the waste heat.
Which type of technology is most efficient?
Sven Hanfland: There is no simple answer to that. To put it somewhat flippantly... it depends.
Harald Riecke: Homeowners have to find the solution that is best for them. That could be a condensing boiler or a hybrid system that also integrates a heat pump. A solar-powered system can reliably supply a large proportion of your hot water. For larger properties, it is often worth installing an integrated system with a mini-combined heat and power system.
Sven Hanfland: One thing is certain: anyone who chooses products from the Vaillant Group is immediately helping to improve sustainability.
Harald Riecke: Definitely. And the warm feeling that comes with doing so is an added bonus.
Mr Riecke, Mr Hanfland, thank you for the interview!
A natural need for discussion
The development of new products is based on the ambitious targets of our sustainability strategy. In an interview, Harald Riecke and Sven Hanfland explain how this affects their everyday work.