Cradle of the future
The nameplate of Knorr-Bremse’s eCUBATOR, set by the door of a lavishly glazed office building in northern Munich, may be modestly sized – but this is a place with big ambitions. This Group development unit acts as a think tank in the field of electric mobility. It’s where innovative systems for electric driving and the modified construction of electric commercial vehicles are conceived and developed. So just how do they do it? We went along to find out.
Welcome to the eCUBATOR, the Knorr-Bremse Group’s newly-formed think tank, located four kilometers from corporate headquarters in Munich. It’s just the right distance – far enough away to facilitate an independent approach with flat hierarchies, yet at the same time keeping these innovators close enough to the nerve center of head office. Dirk Hochstein, an automotive engineering graduate and qualified auto mechanic with 27 years’ experience in the industry, who is Knorr-Bremse’s Vice President E-Mobility, has been in charge of the eCUBATOR since February 2020.
In all, some 60 engineers, software and systems experts will work at the two external eCUBATOR sites in Munich and Budapest, creating innovative solutions for commercial vehicles in the field of electric mobility. And they are in regular contact with the North America and China regions. This, however, is about more than just taking the next logical step forward in the growing electric mobility sector. As Dirk Hochstein says: “This is where we begin the evolution of entirely new systems and ways of thinking, helping to shape the electric driving of the future and using innovation to meet the challenges of electric mobility.”
Interfaces with the Group
Yet the eCUBATOR will not be functioning as a closed ecosystem: The plan is for the ideas that are generated here to be fed into the Group, where they are then further developed in the business units. Interfaces with the Group include regular meetings of the Innovation Board, in which specialists from all departments discuss the latest developments in markets and technologies. “We also maintain an ongoing dialogue with Dr. Peter Laier, member of the Executive Board of Knorr-Bremse AG responsible for Commercial Vehicle Systems, and with the Management Board,” says Dirk Hochstein. The word ‘dialogue’ has been carefully chosen here: “We hold intensive discussions – this isn’t reporting in the traditional sense, but rather a series of meetings where our leaders give us direct feedback and new ideas going forward.”
During the next three years the eCUBATOR also plans to open up new business areas, partnerships and alliances in the field of electric mobility. “The way we work is highly networked and collaborative – something we actively and consciously cultivate,” says Matthias Seidenschwang (Chief Product Owner). The same applies to the 30 specialists at the second eCUBATOR site in Budapest, Hungary, with whom the Munich team collaborate. The links between the two facilities are very close and direct, and hierarchies are kept as flat as possible in Budapest too.
“We also keep a close eye on the markets with a view to identifying possible partner companies and acquisition targets,” explains Seidenschwang. The focus here is on the second-generation electric vehicles that will come to market from 2025 onward. In order to be ahead of the game when that happens, the team is currently working on solutions including future energy management systems, electromechanical actuators and enhanced functionalities related to vehicle stability and propulsion.
New ways of thinking and working
The task of completely rethinking the subject of electric mobility means “setting aside many of our prior experiences and beliefs” – according to Daniel Geis-Esser, Product Manager Customer Strategy E-Mobility. In his view, this new way of thinking can only succeed through new ways of working. And the eCUBATOR is specially designed for this purpose: The modern open-plan office with its start-up atmosphere is located on the third floor of a fully glazed commercial building and the layout is open and bright, configured to facilitate communication and collaboration.
Two meeting rooms are available for greater privacy, one of them designed for video conferences. But there is no sign of traditional conference tables here; no one is hidden away behind an open laptop. Instead you can see the team working at height-adjustable standing tables, or sitting on chairs or beanbags. The team here uses agile methods such as Scrum – a work mode adapted from the world of software development. Projects are broken down into small goals which are completed in concentrated 14-day “sprints”. At the end of that period, progress is evaluated and the next stage is mapped out. This is just one example of the creative and agile methods that the interdisciplinary teams employ.
The doors of this special place are also open for clients and partners. The “eCUBATORs” work on new solutions in joint projects with experts from universities and other research institutions, for example. These projects draw on the Group’s pool of in-house expertise – aiming to leverage this capability to open up new pathways. In what follows, five members of the eCUBATOR team explain how this works:
NEW BUSINESS AREAS
The eCUBATOR acts like an internal start-up at Knorr-Bremse
"Knorr-Bremse is the global market leader for braking systems and a leading supplier of other systems for commercial vehicles. Our ambition in the eCUBATOR is not just to defend this position but to open up new business areas, partnerships and alliances in the field of electric mobility over the next three years. With this in mind, we keep a very close watch on our markets, sounding out which players might be potential partners or whether acquisitions might make sense. The eCUBATOR acts like an internal start-up at Knorr-Bremse and is a key catalyst for innovative working methods. Everything good and useful that is created here will flow back into the Group and strengthen it."
Dirk Hochstein - Vice President E-Mobility
There is no master plan for what trucks will look like in the future
"Electric mobility and automated driving are triggering a fundamental rethink – exerting pressure, setting the pace. There is no master plan, no specification sheet, for what trucks will look like in the future. Instead there is a proliferation of ideas, scenarios and trends. This fuzziness, this uncertainty is what we work with in the eCUBATOR: We start small, setting ourselves short-term project goals and taking stock before formulating the next new goals. Then we repeat this loop as we work our way forward. In the eCUBATOR we are working on the drive system landscape of the future for commercial vehicles, investigating – for example – what that means for the braking system or pneumatics. Sometimes this means we are operating in completely uncharted territory and we can work in a very free and creative way, which I absolutely love!"
Matthias Seidenschwang - Chief Product Owner E-Mobility
CLOSER TO THE CUSTOMER
Our ambition in the eCUBATOR is to operate in a more systematic, customer-centric way
"We are aiming to advise commercial vehicle manufacturers about which technologies will prove to be both innovative and suitable for everyday use in the future. This means working closely with our customers to explore what the air supply, energy supply or brake control system of a truck or bus of the future could look like. What changes will we see in axle design? How big will the batteries be? What does that mean for the installation envelope and – as a result − for how our systems are integrated? Our ambition in the eCUBATOR is to operate in a more systematic, customer-centric way and to develop demonstrators and, ideally, systems suitable for small-series production, at a much faster pace. This calls for thinking outside the box and adopting a deliberately cross-functional approach, breaking down silos and departmental barriers. For our current projects, it means that their priority status is constantly being re-assessed. I love this juggling, and working with limited resources. It makes us innovative and realistic at one and the same time. The close links with our colleagues in Budapest and in the core organization are hugely important. We may work independently – but definitely not in isolation."
Daniel Geis-Esser - Product Manager Customer Strategy E-Mobility
PURSUING CONCRETE GOALS
We're working on the new technologies and solutions the world needs in the future
"Someone described our development work as a playground for engineers. That’s true in the sense that we can operate very freely and work on brand new ideas. For an engineer like me it’s a dream job. We’re working on the technologies and solutions the world needs in the future, creating products unlike anything currently known today.This is a tremendous motivation – but also a responsibility. In this so-called playground, we are fulfilling a very serious task – the task of developing Knorr-Bremse’s future business. We want to make electric vehicles safer, more comfortable and more efficient. For example with new redundant power management systems or new brake control systems that keep commercial vehicles stable on the road while driving. Another example is electromechanical brakes for electric vehicles. But eCUBATOR in Budapest is not just a think tank – we also have our own workshop for the first prototypes. The things get alive – but that’s the way we engineers like it."
Gabor Fojtyik - Team leader of eCUBATOR Budapest, Hungary
A NEW WAY OF WORKING
Every team is different - that's what makes us so strong
"I support the project teams, enabling them to work in an agile, efficient and above all self-organized way. I observe and analyze how the teams are working and what stage they are at. I coach them too, discussing with them what holds them back, what helps them, and how they relate to each other. The key factor is that I’m not controlling or supervising the teams. Also I don’t bind them into a rigid framework of rules – after all, that would be completely contrary to the individual character of each team and each sprint. This is all about empowerment and individual responsibility. Every team is different and that’s what makes us so strong."
Andreas Anderson - Scrum Master