The Think Tank

The SMART STEEL innovation campaign is SAF-HOLLAND’s answer to the dawn of digitization in the transportation world. Launched in 2017, the cross-departmental digital team located in Aschaffenburg, Germany, and Muskegon, Michigan, is the catalyst for new ideas being implemented throughout the company worldwide.

Step by step into the world of digitization. This is what SAF-HOLLAND’s SMART STEEL innovation campaign is all about. Industrial engineer Thomas Piroth has been a strong force in the campaign’s development and now manages the commercial vehicle supplier’s digital team. The team’s task is to think ahead about each stage of digitization, initiate projects and partnerships and prepare the whole company for the new world of transportation. Formed as a startup within the Group, the team works closely with colleagues from the development, sales and IT departments. They take little ­notice, however, of the scare tactics from some of the prophets of the digital age. “Even over the next few years, a high proportion of our added value will still come from mechanical components and the associated know-how,” says Piroth. “Nevertheless, we want to start preparing for the changes ahead, which are certain to open up some interesting opportunities for SAF-HOLLAND.”

  • Recognizing and evaluating new trends:
    Thomas Piroth (middle) with colleagues
    from the Aschaffenburg digital team

Mechanical expertise is the starting point for SAF-HOLLAND’s digital strategy. During the first stage, all of the components and systems responsible for SAF-HOLLAND’s success in the global market will simply get smarter. Equipped with sensors and electronic intelligence, the axles and fifth wheel couplings will be designed to meet the requirements of an increasingly automated and digitized chain of transportation. “We always ask ourselves the same ­questions,” explains Piroth. “What contribution can we make to our customers? What can we do to meet our customers’ future expectations? And what is the customer willing to pay for?” The answers to these questions are complex because there is no such thing as a typical ­customer. Whereas the global market for tractors is heavily concentrated and shaped by just a dozen or so manufacturers, the trailer market – which in terms of sales is more relevant for SAF-HOLLAND – is highly fragmented. Although it too has only a few large manufacturers, they only serve a small percentage of the market. Thousands of highly specialized companies have developed transportation solutions for everything from transporting milk to the dairy to bringing the blades of wind turbines to the North Sea. The market for transportation services is even more opaque. Nobody knows how many forwarding companies there are worldwide. According to the German Federal Association of Transportation Companies, there are about 40,000 forwarders in Germany alone. This is also an interesting market segment given that around a quarter of SAF-HOLLAND’s sales are generated with aftermarket products. “All of our customers are ­affected by digitization in one way or another,” says Piroth.