March 6, 2019

Article in the Sonntagsblick special edition car

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Turning Point

The switch from fuel to electricity affects not only the car brands, but also the Swiss car industry, which serves the big players with know-how and high-tech. A look at a badly underestimated industry in transition.

The future of the car is being created in Sindelfingen, in Detroit, in Wolfsburg – and in Niederbüren. I’m sorry, what? Niederbüren SG: 1500 inhabitants, Thur, A1 - and Aluwag AG, since 1971 an expert in aluminum die casting. Four fifths of it for cars. An example: Stator supports in electric motors in the top power league have to meet top requirements and come from Aluwag. «Because we have the material expertise, are flexible and fast. Switzerland is good at that,” explains co-owner Markus Wagner (43), who is the second generation to run this family business with cousin and CEO René Wagner (45). “We have developed our own alloys that meet the highest requirements so that our customers can use lightweight aluminum and not have to switch to heavier materials such as steel. Every gram less counts, especially in an e-car!» Not afraid of the switch from fuel to electricity? “No. This has been an issue for us for about three years. Our development effort is increasing, but that’s exactly why we’re prepared,” emphasizes Markus Wagner with a smile.

The people of eastern Switzerland are typical of the automotive industry country of Switzerland: quality instead of mass, brilliant instead of cheap and highly automated. With 110 employees, Aluwag is an SME – like nine out of ten companies in the Swiss automotive industry. It manufactures components - like almost half of all these specialized companies. And they, in turn, are mostly for the drive - as with 42 percent of the local parts manufacturers.

Nobody knows numbers and the industry better than Anja Schulze (45), director of the Swiss Center for Automotive Research (Swiss Car) at the University of Zurich: After 2008 and 2013, she and her team published the standard work on the publicly almost invisible - and underestimated! – Branch renewed. Her analysis of the Swiss car industry comes to 574 companies that have sales of 12.3 billion Swiss francs a year (i.e. without their foreign plants) and thus keep 34,000 people in wages and bread here.

“Of the companies involved in drives, 27 percent still assign their most important products to the combustion engine, but 19 percent already to the electric drive. In 2013 it was only seven percent. That is almost three times as much and shows how important this area is," explains Schulze. Whether everyone pack the turn? “That can’t be said in general terms,” Schulze sums up. “It is still more of an evolution than a revolution with electric cars making up a single-digit percentage of new cars. The Swiss auto industry can do it, but business as usual is not enough. And in view of the higher price level, Switzerland must also have something to offer in the highly price-sensitive sector. But the industry is doing pretty well at the moment. So the means for change would be there.”

No wonder, because there is a piece of Switzerland in almost every new car, whether as know-how or as a component. We are one of the development laboratories of the global automotive industry - and above all of German luxury brands. A fifth of the companies have been in business for at least 50 years, another fifth less than ten years: established giants such as Feintool from Lyss BE or Sonceboz Microtechnique from Boncourt JU are joined by young people such as the start-up founded in Lausanne and now based in Zurich Wayray, which has holographic head-up displays for augmented reality up its sleeve.

Very Swiss, the industry is teeming with hidden champions: Nobody knows them, everyone uses their products. Who knows that in Sennwald in the St. Gallen Rhine Valley, very big car brand names call on Brusa Elektronik if they only want the very best components for electric cars? Or who is aware that Autoneum (formerly Rieter) from Winterthur ZH is the world market leader in acoustic and heat management and ensures that no annoying noise interrupts the quiet running of e-cars and that the insulation still does not weigh heavily?

The Autoneum solution: high-tech. The same applies to companies that are not even on the radar when it comes to e-mobility. For example, the lubricant specialist Panolin from Madetswil ZH, which occupied the eco niche with a good 100 employees before it became a trend - also typically Swiss. Panolin had already developed eco-hydraulic oil in 1993 and low-particle motor oil in 2000, and a coolant for electric motors has been in the works for a year and a half. “Our company is 70 years old and for the first time the market is changing completely,” says Silvan Lämmle (39), third-generation boss of the family business. “Waiting would be fatal. Innovative power is the Swiss strength. And our!" And what is the liquid made of? “The recipe is as secret as Appenzeller herb schnapps,” says Lämmle with a wink.

Still others do not have to adjust to e-mobility because they were already electrifying when people smiled at them for it. Be it Carrosserie Hess from Bellach SO with trolleybuses for public transport that were initially declared dead and are now in demand again. Or Kyburz Switzerland. The last Swiss passenger car manufacturer, Martini, went under in 1934, but e-vehicles were developed and built here in Freienstein ZH and Embrach ZH. When Martin Kyburz (54) founded the SME in 1991, which now has a good 100 employees, he was the guy with the electro whim. Today, 20,000 Kyburz are in operation all over the world and ensure that the letters arrive quietly and without emissions, all the way to Australia. Because Kyburz builds the e-tricycles of the Post Office and the e-Roadster e-Rod (with its own stand for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show). “Switzerland is also an image advantage,” explains Martin Kyburz. «We are not the cheapest, but innovation and quality are top. The future can come!»