Graebener positions itself as a highly specialized and service-oriented partner for production machines and lines of bipolar plates.
Fabian Kapp is the managing director of the family-owned company Graebener Maschinentechnik in Netphen-Werthenbach. The company is engaged in the development of special equipment for forming, bending, milling and joining technology. For 20 years, the Graebener Bipolar Plate Technologies business unit has focused on manufacturing technologies in the field of hydrogen, specifically electrolysis and fuel cells. The focus lies on the development, optimization and realization of manufacturing technologies for the heart of both technologies: The metallic bipolar plate.
Interview: Hans Gäng, 11 August 2023
How is there the current push for hydrogen and fuel cells, even though the industry lacks an Elon Musk, as you once said?
Unfortunately, it is only with the current energy crisis that hydrogen, electrolysis and fuel cell systems have come back into focus – as technologies for the energy transition that can be used very widely in industrial processes far beyond passenger cars.
Which customers need your special know-how for the production of bipolar plates?
We have a very differentiated customer base – of course OEMs that manufacture stack systems, but also many smaller companies and also start-ups and their investors who now see the opportunities to bring the technology to market. With the foreseeable end of the combustion engine, supplier companies are also looking at what they want or need to manufacture in the future. Customers contact us because they are interested in our production technology. We also support system manufacturers in the development of fuel cell systems, as well as many institutes and, interestingly, many material manufacturers who want to test their materials with regard to formability.
Is the industry now facing the issue of scaling in production?
This is certainly a chicken-and-egg problem. Hydrogen is not yet available everywhere like electricity. Accordingly, applications, scalability and industrial ramp-up are more difficult. And we have to look at what is happening worldwide at the moment, especially in Asia. In Germany, we usually try to have everything 110 percent developed before we go into applications. That’s why we currently have a strong focus on research and development. In Japan, on the other hand, there are already various systems that are well used in homes to generate and heat hot water – simply because the government has taken a very different approach to hydrogen in recent decades. In China, there are now many suppliers of manufacturing technologies and also production lines of manufacturers. In Europe, we certainly don’t yet have the breadth or volume that is now the case in Asia. The question is, how do we in Germany manage to maintain our innovative lead in the market so that what happened with solar energy doesn’t happen to us again?
Is this an argument for targeted promotion and industrial policy?
SMEs in Germany are completely on their own to get new technologies onto the market, even from the financial side. We are not chip manufacturers who receive billions in subsidies. Graebener itself has invested extensively over the last few decades and participated in many funded projects to understand the fuel cell and the electrolysis system. That was really pure research and development. But now, when it comes to scaling and market position, this is no longer a funded research topic, but an investment topic that we, as a small medium-sized company, have to handle on our own. In view of the very large sums of money being spent throughout Germany on more and more research, I wonder whether the roll-out of existing hydrogen technologies in large volumes should not also be funded. Basically, it is now a matter of finally bringing the technology forward. And that is precisely what the funding should be used for.
So do we not yet have a “Germany tempo” here?
We definitely don’t have enough speed in Germany. Submitting an application for a funding project, waiting three, four, five months until it is evaluated or approved – for funding programs that usually run for at least 24 months, usually 36 months. So that takes three or four years. That, by the way, is exactly the time period in which China has put the complete technology for the production of bipolar plates on the market. As recently as 2020, no corresponding supplier existed there – now 8 production lines are located there. I think it’s time to inject venture capital into the issue as well, to mobilize financial support and build up the markets faster.
What prospects does internationalization offer here?
We come from the classical mechanical engineering sector, we have always been active all over the world with our large-scale plants. This is therefore no new territory for us. We have a sales company in the USA and a sales presence in China. We keep an eye on our markets and attend trade shows all over the world. We see how valuable the know-how we have built up in manufacturing technology over several decades is – especially because a large number of companies are now starting to offer manufacturing technologies in the Asian market. Here, we have to assert ourselves in the competition and set ourselves apart. We are not just someone who supplies machines. With our own machines, we have also built up a production laboratory here at our company, enabling us to proactively support our customers very far in advance: in the optimization of plate designs and in the production of samples and preliminary stages in small series. This gives us the opportunity to coordinate plate design, processes and manufacturing technology from the very beginning and to supply production machines and lines that are ready for series production. Especially in the global market, this is of course very interesting, as the majority of our customers is not originated in Germany.
Are takeovers and equity investments an option for you as a family business?
A legitimate question. Of course, there’s demand for our expertise, even for the employees who get calls from headhunters every week. As the managing director of a family business, it’s important for me to continue the company. For us, there is also something else at play here – the energy transition, climate change. We want to make a sustainable contribution and help shape change. That’s what we enjoy, what motivates us every day and what we want to bring forward.
Can you find the necessary specialists for this?
That is a very big challenge. Here in the countryside, we are competing with large corporations located in attractive cities. There is also the question of the possible wage level. Yes, it’s hard to find someone with know-how, experience and commitment. Only through universities can we try to acquire young people and inspire them to join us. Unfortunately, foreign specialists are rarely an option for us. In order to develop our complex manufacturing technologies, we need a uniform language level in the company. By the way, this is a very big challenge for almost all medium-sized companies in our network.
What does hy-fcell mean to you?
Our archive shows that we have exhibited regularly at hy-fcell since 2006. Many other events have been launched on the topic of hydrogen – today, I could actually go to any trade show every day. The hy-fcell has established itself because it has a clear focus on its topic. The expansion and the new event location do justice to the market and its growth potential. What I would definitely like to see is an even greater focus on electrolysis. And, of course, that hy-fcell also helps politicians to understand the needs and problems of medium-sized companies on the ground.