The president of Bosch’s UK business talks to Jon Excell about investment in technology, the implications of Brexit, and how UK industry can remain competitive in the years ahead
Of the many overseas businesses with significant operations in the UK, German industrial giant Bosch has been here longer than most.
The family run firm – which was founded in Stuttgart in 1886 – opened its first UK office just a few years later in 1898 and began manufacturing here in 1931, after acquiring a share in Acton-based automotive equipment manufacturer Vandervell & Co Ltd.
Today, as well as being one of the best-known UK based manufacturers of consumer goods, Bosch is a major presence in the UK’s engineering landscape. It employs 5,300 people across 41 sites, and has key operations across four different divisions: automotive, consumer goods, industrial technology and energy & building technology.
Over the course of the last 100 years, the firm’s relationship with the UK has weathered some pretty tumultuous global events. And as Britain prepares to negotiate an exit from the EU, it’s a relationship that will be tested once again by the political climate.
Dr Steffen Hoffmann, Bosch’s current UK president and the man responsible for charting a course through the uncertain times ahead, spoke to The Engineer recently about his concerns for the future and what he views as some of UK industry’s key strengths and opportunities.
Supply chains have been designed on the assumption that we would be operating in Europe in the single market
In common with many industry leaders, Hoffmann is concerned about the impact of Brexit on the so-called four freedoms: freedom of movement of goods, services, people and capital. And he’s particularly worried about the impact any erosion of these freedoms might have on the automotive sector – an area in which he’s spent a large chunk of his career (see CV).
“Automotive is a highly integrated industry,” he said, “supply chains have been designed on the assumption that we would be operating in Europe in the single market – you have a lot of goods that cross borders. In general the more integrated an industry is, the more of a challenge it will be.”
He added that it’s not just the automotive sector that will be affected in this way and singled out the services and aerospace sectors as other highly integrated industries underpinned by seamless cross-border collaboration.
As well as tariff barriers Hoffmann is also worried about an end to free movement of people and what this might mean for the UK business’ ability to recruit the skilled workers it needs. “The free movement of people has worked well over the years because it has allowed us to fill positions – particularly in engineering – which we couldn’t fill otherwise,” he said.
But in-spite of his concerns for the future, Hoffmann is far from downbeat about the opportunities for the UK. And he identified a number of ways in which he believes Britain’s industrial economy could capitalise on its historic strengths and the high-regard in which its engineers are held around the world.
One area the UK might like to explore in more detail, he said, is the thriving venture capital scene that has driven the growth of technology start-ups in the US. “The US has managed to bring engineering back on the agenda.” he said. “There was a time when they talked about hollowing out in the US but they have turned that around: they have elite universities, they’ve managed to attract talent from all of the world and they have a venture capital scene around it all. Some of these ingredients can also be seen in the UK – you have a vibrant science base, you have English as a universal language and you are already attracting a lot of talent from all over the world.”
Unsurprisingly, Hoffmann’s enthusiasm for the fast and furious transformative effects of a lively VC culture is tempered by an understanding that long-term thinking – a hallmark of Germany’s industrial success – is also key to driving the development of new technology. “Despite the strengths of a pure capitalist system,” he said, “if you have the capital market too close to you it leads to a short term orientation and that keeps you from venturing technical developments that you would otherwise do.”
It’s an approach, he claimed, that is at the heart of Bosch’s own technology strategy. “We have an in house start up division – that operates around the same principles: a long term approach with short term rewards.”
The benefits of this approach are perhaps particularly notable in the firm’s automotive work. Many of the technologies at the heart of the rapid change currently occurring in the sector – in particular autonomy – were viewed by much of the industry as pipe-dreams not so long ago. But by taking a long-term approach to these concepts Bosch has been able to play a major role n the development of systems that are now transforming production vehicles. One example of this, said Hoffman, is the work the company has done on connected parking systems which use vehicle telematics to identify parking spaces and autonomous driving systems to self-park the car.
You only know much later whether something was a revolution or not
The company’s long-term investment in connectivity is also having a major impact on other key areas of the business – for instance its energy and building division – where the firm is investing heavily in smart home technology – and also in the industrial world, where connectivity is at the heart of what’s been termed Industry 4.0.
Interestingly, despite his enthusiasm for the technological changes that his organisation is helping to drive in this latter area Hoffmann stops short of describing today’s period of change as a fourth industrial revolution. “It’s too early to tell,” he said. “You only know much later whether something was a revolution or not, but it’s definitely another area where technology can be applied and can produce great results.”
1992: Management Trainee, Blaichach Plant, Immenstadt, Germany
1993: Section Manager Controlling, Nippon ABS Ltd., Yokosuka, Japan
1996: Department Manager Accounting & Finance, Bosch Telecom GmbH, Frankfurt, Germany
1999: Department Manager Corporate Planning, Bosch Corporation, Tokyo, Japan
2002: Senior Vice President Finance & Administration, Diesel & Gasoline Division, Bosch Corporation, Tokyo, Japan
2005: Plant Manager, Hildesheim plant, Hildesheim, Germany
2009: Managing Director, Robert Bosch (Pty.) Ltd., Midrand, South Africa
2015: President, Robert Bosch Ltd, United Kingdom