Day 9: Carbon, Cabbage, and Collaboration

A shining sun awaited me as I awoke on the ninth day of the trip, which was a nice change from the weather of the previous days. After breakfast, we boarded our bus and began the relatively short trip to SGL in Meitingen. Along the way, some of us were talking about social media, and some of the Germans did not know what a “finsta” was. We explained that it was a fake Instagram account with more unfiltered content. It seems that they do not have these here in Germany, which makes sense, since few can rival Americans’ obsession with social media. The Germans did not really understand why Americans would have this other account, and I tend to agree that it serves little purpose.

SGL’s relatively new logo following a rebranding

We arrived at SGL, and immediately upon entering, there was a showroom that displayed some of their different products. Some of the notable things on display included the door of a Porsche 997 GT3, the frame of a BMW i3, and a part belonging to a Tesla vehicle. After browsing these for a few minutes, we headed upstairs (on a staircase with carbon fiber railings) for a presentation about the company and its products. I was struck by how diversified their product portfolio was; they had many different business segments corresponding to the different applications of carbon, such as in the automotive industry, industrial applications, the energy industry, and more. In terms of industries, SGL seems to be the most diversified of all of the companies that we visited, with the other four focusing heavily on the automotive industry. The presenter also stressed the weight versus cost trade-off. While carbon fiber is indeed expensive, with ever-stricter emissions regulations, I can see carbon fiber becoming more common in cars as car companies try to reduce weight and thus emissions. Carbon fiber, however, is only one part of SGL’s business. They also manufacture graphite products, including graphite for batteries, which, with battery electric vehicles poised to explode in popularity, could prove a lucrative product. They produce carbon used in fuel cells as well, so they are well-positioned no matter which way the future of mobility goes.

I was impressed with the flexibility of the company’s business model. They can provide customers with a raw product, such as carbon fiber, process it further, or make it into components and parts. This value chain flexibility gives them the opportunity to satisfy more markets and thus generate greater sales as well as add more value to what they are providing, which bodes well for the business over the long term. They also showed that they can adapt and change, since they sold off their core business in 2017 and have rebranded and reorganized themselves since then. In a number of ways, SGL reminded me of Hirschvogel. The two companies are about the same size in terms of revenue and number of employees; they both have a variety of international locations; they have large and unique product mixes; and they both have smaller competitors for each segment rather than one big competitor. Both of them also command state of the art expertise in their respective fields, which means that they generally compete on quality rather than on price, which seems to be typical of German companies given the country’s relatively high labor and energy costs.

The door of a Porsche 997 GT3, made from carbon and Kevlar materials

Following the presentation, we went on a tour of the testing and lightweight applications center. The tour was very technical, so it was hard for me to understand most of it, but the facilities were quite extensive, which is evidence that they take product and process innovation seriously. The facilities were also clean and well-lit, so they seem to provide their workers with good working conditions. After the tour, we headed to lunch, which was some meat wrapped in cabbage along with rice, vegetables, and a yogurt-based dessert. Once lunch was over, we concluded this final company visit and departed for Augsburg. In the afternoon, we met with the Germans students in our group at the University to work on our presentation. They were thorough in their preparation, digging up some information that we had not received from the company itself. Thus far, it has been a pleasure to work with the German students. They are very good at planning; they do good research; they communicate clearly; and they organize their thoughts well. It is a refreshing change from the normally chaotic style of group project preparation in America.

On my way back to the hotel, I saw someone jaywalk here for the first time. The tendency to follow the signals here in Germany is completely different than how things work in the US. Back home, people jaywalk all the time despite some admittedly meager efforts to stop it, and no one really cares that it happens as long as no one gets hurt. Here, the rigidity of following the signals feels weird to me. I find myself wanting to just go, but when I see that everyone else is waiting, it makes me think twice and I stay put. It does not help that without the countdown on the signals, the changes are abrupt and easier to miss if one does not pay attention. The signals also feel way too short in duration. One has to hustle to get across a wider street in one cycle, which is not ideal for older or less mobile people.

The evening was relatively relaxing, which was nice after the packed schedules of the past week. It was Eamonn’s birthday, so some of the guys went out to a new Döner place recommended by Maxi in celebration. After dinner, I came back to the hotel and got ready for the trip to Ulm tomorrow.

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