Making Transit Move

For nearly 100 years ZF Friedrichshafen AG (ZF) ? known as Zahnradfabrik when it started in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in 1915 ? has been in the business of making things move. From zeppelins and airships to cars and buses, ZF has grown to become the leading worldwide driveline and chassis supplier.

I had the opportunity at Expo to sit down with Wolfgang Schilha, the head of marketing and customer services for ZF?s commercial vehicle and special driveline technology division, to discuss his career in transit, ZF and the changing face of technology.

Getting Up to Speed
It?s not uncommon for a career in public transportation to span nearly four decades, but to have nearly all of that time spent with one company is definitely an accomplishment. Wolfgang Schilha is such an anachronism.

Schilha started as an apprentice for ZF and has worked there ever since. Starting in the sales department, he soon realized that he needed more knowledge of the English language, so in 1975 he moved to Nottingham, England, to, as he says it, live in a house about five yards wide with one door.

Schilha returned to ZF and worked his way up through the export sales department, spending much of the 1980s in the United States working with companies like Ford.

After helping establish that relationship, Schilha was sent on the road. ?Corporate basically discovered there?s a lot of white areas on the globe and that was Asia, so in the ?80s I was basically like a vacuum cleaner salesman going from door to door in China and Korea, Japan, etc.?

Schilha spent the following 25 years in the Asian market, which led to him becoming the head of the corporate sales and service organization worldwide for ZF before getting back into the truck and bus management business unit, which he?s been running for the last 12 years.

?So today I?ve got two hats that are left,? Schilha laughs. ?One is the business unit for bus drive technology and the second hat is marketing and after sales for the complete truck and bus division.?

Worldwide Growth
With ZF pushing into so many markets worldwide, I wondered how it accomplished such growth in so many varied locations. I wasn?t surprised when Schilha said it basically comes down to hiring the right people.

?Well first of all you have to have people who are prepared to travel for weeks and weeks and weeks. If you have people who are stuck home and the wife saying, ?Oh you?re not going,? that?s a cold start already,? Schilha says.

?So you have to have people who are flexible enough to spend a lot of time overseas. They have to have the social competence to adapt to different cultures, listen between the lines.?

Once you have that foothold established in the new market, Schilha says recruiting local talent is key, but it has its own positives and negatives.

?[Then you] put local people into responsibilities and even sometimes suffer it through because they will be making mistakes, etc. And you have to basically suffer it through and let them grow.

?I say three mistakes per day can be a top performance if it?s not the same all the time,? Schilha adds.

Research & Development
ZF has six worldwide locations and 5 percent of its annual revenue dedicated to research and development. With technology changing so quickly and becoming such a focus of the public transportation industry, I asked Schilha how that had helped them.

?Well, we do consider ourselves as a technology corporation. We?re not producing washing power or anything. It?s a highly technical product line,? Schilha says.

Schilha says that this development is apart from ZF?s historic development of hardware. Currently a lot of money, resources and intelligence is being spent on software development, and according to Schilha, that is something ephemeral but integral.

?That you cannot smell. You cannot weigh. You cannot measure. It?s just there,? Schilha says.

?And one of the subjects which we are touching here in the market now is a software feature, which has a tremendous impact and you cannot see it. So if you look at traditionally where the money went you saw something. You saw engines, you saw transmissions and you saw axles. Today when you develop software you cannot smell it, you cannot weigh it, it?s very difficult for people to understand it exactly.?

Schilha admits that this has made the task for ZF more complex than it once was, especially from a knowledge level. Instead of just needing a knowledge base for transmissions, tires, axles and so on, you need an understanding of the total concept.

?Today with the communication of your component with the entire vehicle in mind you have to understand braking, you have to understand a lot of other things which a transmission manufacturer traditionally had nothing to worry about,? Schilha says.

Paradigm Shift
Has there been a paradigm shift from mechanical to technical engineering? Schilha says in a word, ?Absolutely.?

?In the past your transmission updates were basically done to correct weaknesses. Or make it cheaper. Or more reliable. Now the change we have here is basically to try and improve the cost of ownership.?

Schilha says the paradigm change is for the entire aftermarket industry. ?Traditionally the industry made money in repairing damaged components. In the future we want to make money by preventing components to fail.

?Like on the aircraft industry, you cannot wait until the aircraft falls down and then we start repairing. And that?s the paradigm change we are preparing for as well.?

Performance Lessons
Transit authorities can tell anyone that they?ve watched the steady creep of fuel prices more than most as it?s created a Catch-22 between increased ridership and operating costs.

With the increased fuel prices and focus on green issues such as clean air, the fight to marry efficiency with sustainability has begun in earnest. For ZF that meant looking at how buses were being shifted and how that could be improved. Rather than working on a set shifting program, ZF is engineering software that measures topography and bus weight and decides when is best to shift, thereby improving fuel efficiency.

?So let?s say if you have routes where there were either ramps onto the motorway, or hill in between, etc. Where in the past you had to compromise on the performance-oriented shift program, we can now put six different programs into that unit and the computer on the fly decides which drawer to open and pull the programs out,? Schilha explains.

?Which means it only uses the performance-orientated program when [the operator] actually needs it. When he doesn?t need it, it closes the door and gets another program.?

ZF has tested its new software in high-traffic areas like Chicago and has seen fuel efficiency numbers better than some hybrid-drive vehicles. Schilha points to this as a clean air advancement using a technological solution to facilitate mechanical improvement.

Lighter Feet
So now that ZF has become a technology company rather than a transmission company, has that allowed it to embrace new developments quicker? Schilha thinks so.

?I would say so. And then it also depends on the readiness of the operator, of course,? Schilha says.

As a case in point, Schilha points to a remote diagnostic tool allowing ZF to look into their transmissions and retrieve live data.

Software updates can be made via email keeping the company from having to send out a tech for minor repair jobs or upgrades ? a valuable time and cost saving for both ZF and the transit agency.

?That?s what we call the replacement for the flying doctor,? laughs Schilha.