Renate Pilz remembers well the day her husband showed her for the first time a safety relay.
She told him not to even start explaining it to her as automation was a complete mystery. Since then, she has committed herself to learning everything there is to know and speaks fluently about automation and safety.
Mrs Pilz, who heads 70-year-old German engineering company Pilz GmbH, is a fast learner – she’s had no choice.
Her late husband Peter Pilz, the son of company founder Herman Pilz, was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1975.
It was left to Mrs Pilz, the mother of his two small children, to pick up the company reins.
At that time, she had not studied and she had no technical or economic knowledge, let alone a clear concept of automation technology.
“Nonetheless, against the advice of my confidants, I decided not to sell the company, out of a sense of duty,” she recalls.
Initially, she limited her involvement to chairing the company's advisory board and used her child-rearing years as a period of intense learning, before taking full control of the company in 1994.
“I have had no technical training – but I made it my mission to educate myself in this industry and surround myself with a supportive and instructive team.”
Global leader in workplace safety
With Mrs Pilz at the helm the company has grown to become a global leader in automation safety.
With it's head office in Ostfildern (Germany) near Stuttgart, the family business is represented with over 2,200 staff in 40 subsidiaries and branches on all continents.
The company's products include sensor technology, electronic monitoring relays, safety relays, configurable and programmable control systems, automation solutions with motion control, systems for industrial communication as well as visualisation solutions and operator terminals.
Pilz solutions can be used in all areas of mechanical engineering, including the packaging and automotive industry, plus the railway technology, press and wind energy sector.
Mrs Pilz, the driving force behind the company’s great success, is now ready to pass the baton to her children, Susanne and Thomas.
Earlier this year she announced she would be stepping down as company head at the end of this year.
Now 77 years young, Mrs Pilz still has more energy, drive and enthusiasm than most people half her years. She visited Australia last week to farewell staff and thank them for their contribution.
“I have no regrets,” she told Robotics Today.
“When I stepped into my husband’s shoes in 1975 I had two small children. My friends were all housewives and mothers so they were quite surprised at what I was doing. That was a different era and it was very unusual for a woman to head a company, let alone a technical engineering business in Germany’s southwest region of Swabia.
“Now I have been in the business so long, over 40 years, I don’t know any other life. It is wonderful to be independent – you are the author of your success.”
Her greatest career achievement?
“Steering the company through the Global Financial crisis in 2008 without the loss of one single job,” she says. “I am very proud of this fact and it was very contrary to what the banks and external consultants wanted us to do.
“In hindsight, this allowed us to rebound very quickly once the global economy picked up and we very quickly returned to our normal levels of operation.”
Key to success
The key to company’s global success, she says, is being an innovative leader in the niche market of Safe Automation.
“We don't try and be everything to everyone and we have a very narrow focus of producing safety automation products and services and taking these to the world.”
The company’s main point of difference?
“Simply put, it is "safety". That’s all we do.”
Pilz Australia, under the leadership of Managing Director Scott Moffat, has been growing from strength to strength.
“The Asia Pacific region has demonstrated huge growth for our products and services in their markets over the last five years and this region is currently a global focus for us in head office,” says Mrs Pilz. “That being said we still see significant amounts of future growth in the region and we are certainly not resting on our laurels.”
Pilz Australia is headquartered in Melbourne with offices in Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland, providing sales and logistics, along with turnkey engineering projects to the local market.
The local company has a tightknit team of 20 staff in Australia and six in New Zealand.
Mr Moffat, who joined Pilz Australia seven years ago, says Mrs Pilz has been a great inspiration for employees worldwide.
“She is bright, she is hard-working, she is driven and she has a passion to leave a lasting business legacy on behalf of her late husband – and single-handedly she has achieved that.
Pilz Australia is an integral part of the company’s operations in the Asia Pacific region, where it has high growth expectations.
In the past five years, business in the region has doubled to nearly A$100m and now accounts for 20 per cent of company revenue.
Australia was part of the company’s first foray outside Europe in 1998 when subsidiaries launched in Australia, Brazil and Japan. It was seen as a forerunner into the Asia Pacific market.
Australia has a safety culture that matches Europe – particularly Germany – which leads the world in safety products and services.
“Given the relatively small size of the local market compared to Pilz’s 40 sister-companies worldwide, we are a good test market to champion new products throughout the region,” Mr Moffat says. In particular, it is our strong safety culture and lead in industries such as mining, oil and gas, medical, research and defence.
“We learn how to do it on the ground here and leverage that into countries with similar markets and applications globally.
“As our great skill is know-how and a workforce developed to collaborate with our sister- companies, we are the perfect training factory.”
Pilz is the quintessential German “Mittelstand” company, which like so many German words doesn’t translate. It’s an ethos, often cited as the miracle of the German economy.
The character of “Mittelstand” is a perfect fit for the Australian economy, which like Germany shares a dependence on the success of small-medium-enterprises to power the economy. The German “Mittelstand” philosophy is a hereditary DNA which carries into the products and services it produces.
Typically, these companies are heavily focussed in niche markets producing highly superior products that are either number one or two in their markets and taking them to the world.
Mrs Pilz has visited Down Under on one other occasion – in 1998 when the company opened its doors in Australia to coincide with its 50-year anniversary.
Her philosophy is firmly that each region is autonomously run as a “Schwestergessellschaft” – the German word that describes a sister-company that is independent and autonomous.
Pilz came to worldwide acclaim as the pioneer of the Emergency Stop (that red button you see on machinery everywhere). Today this button is integral to everyday safety – from baggage handling and packaging equipment through to the process lines in manufacturing and automotive factories. There is a lot of technology behind what looks like a very simple button as it has to reliably operate every time – as every time is an emergency.
The button relies on the smart technology pioneered by Pilz and contained largely within its safety relays and configurable safety controllers. This small yellow box is used to control everything related to safety on machinery from simple guard-switches on a wood-working machine to emergency shutdown sequences on nuclear reactors, known colloquially as the Pilz relay.
Industry 4.0 the future
Pilz reinvests nearly 20 per cent of revenues a year on research and development – most industries are around three to five per cent – to capture the future.
The company maintains a large focus on Industry 4.0, the new cyber-physical world of manufacturing systems and creating the digital factory of the future.
This is often called a ‘smart factory’ where machines communicate and think for themselves. This sees devices communicate in real-time, connected to big data, thinking for themselves. Work is a ‘batch size of one’ as the customer designs a bespoke piece of equipment.
The company’s exemplary research and development program sets it on a growth trajectory for the future – under the guidance of a new generation of Pilz family members.
For the past 10 years Mrs Pilz has been grooming her children to take the baton and run with it.
And she is confident the company will be in safe hands.
Similar style of thinking
“I will no longer be playing an active role,” says Mrs Pilz.
“I need to give the space to my children to run the business how they see fit. But the fact we have worked closely together for the last 10 years, I know they have a similar style of thinking to me so maybe I do have some influence after all.”
For the that reason, Mr Moffat does not envisage any major changes to company operations in 2018. As far as he is concerned, it’s business as usual.
“We will continue to see a more regional focus, while maintaining a global collaboration.”
Meanwhile, Mrs Pilz is looking forward to some quiet time gardening and spending more time with her family next year.
Before leaving Australia for New Zealand she offered the following advice to women considering a career in manufacturing:
“It is the same advice I would give my daughter – do everything to the best of your ability and commit with the heart.”