Mistakes included

Innovation process

The corporate culture at Freudenberg is open to experiments, even if they ultimately fail. After all, nothing in the innovation process is a failure if the knowledge gained, the lessons learned, can be put to good use. Today, on Failures Day, we highlight the positive aspects this has for products and processes at Freudenberg.

From gardening to baking, the web is full of guides on how to avoid common mistakes. So people who end up pruning their roses properly or taking a delicious cake out of the oven are benefiting from the fact that others have already failed at the same things – and that they have talked openly about it. Freudenberg employees only deal with roses and cake baking in their private lives, but even in the professional environment of this technology group, not all mistakes are the same. Because in many cases, a supposed failure – or, better phrased, the unexpected and unplannable – is exactly the right thing if you approach it positively and learn from it.

It all begins with prototypes

In one of the oldest buildings at Freudenberg’s main site in Weinheim, colleagues from the fields of physics, mechanical engineering, mechatronics and other disciplines are concentrating on a table covered with electrical components. Not directly visible from the outside, the renovated 100-year-old building is a place where people work on the future. The e-Products Lab of the Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions Business Group is where new electric cleaning devices such as the Vileda-JetClean are developed. These battery- or mains-operated devices are generally made up of well over 100 components, which makes the development work correspondingly complex and demanding.

The same applies to testing and approval before a product can be launched on the market: “Working on prototypes and analyzing unexpected modes of behavior helps us enormously”, says R&D Director Christian Stenglein. For example, dozens of versions of a squeegee’s rubber lip may be tried out to see which one produces the best cleaning result. “However, we don’t see the individual steps as a mistake, but as a gain in knowledge. That’s why we dedicate ourselves to this task intensively and in a structured way so that we can move forward.” This is not an isolated case in the Freudenberg Group.

A question of attitude

Depending on the type of project, using a variety of approaches will help to ultimately find the right method. Alongside traditional project management, these include Design Thinking, the Kanban and the Scrum method. Dr. Stephanie Lambertz is a Scrum Master at Freudenberg Technology Innovation (FTI). Scrum uses insights from the worlds of team sports and IT to drive the speed of innovation in companies. “A culture of error exists in every company, because mistakes happen”, Lambertz observed. “What we actually mean by the term is a positive attitude towards it, and that is decisive.” One guiding principle that Lambertz finds particularly valuable in her teamwork is: “It doesn’t matter what we discover. We believe deeply that everyone has worked to the best of his or her ability based on current knowledge, skills and abilities, available resources and the current situation.”

With the Scrum method, project teams manage complex tasks, often in the IT field, by taking a step-by-step approach. The product is not planned in detail at the beginning of a project, but is developed based on the product vision in regular iterations (sprints) and increments (fully usable product parts), and in close collaboration with the customer. After each sprint, feedback rounds are held with the team and the customer. “In this process, we don’t ask what mistakes we made, but rather what we can do better in the next sprint. It all depends on the perspective.”

In this process, we don’t ask what mistakes we made, but rather what we can do better in the next sprint. It all depends on the perspective.

Dr. Stephanie Lambertz, Scrum Master at Freudenberg Technology Innovation

Error analysis 2.0

It is not only in the development process that it is important to understand errors as a positive contribution and to incorporate them in a structured manner so that new knowledge can be used for future products. Errors can also occur in components that have already been developed. But as annoying as a component failure may be at first, it also offers an opportunity for innovation. The core team of the Failure Analysis department consists of seven colleagues with extensive expertise in their respective material fields, such as metals, elastomers, thermoplastics and composites. They carry out failure analyses in a systematic process to determine the damage mechanisms and, together with the product owner, the cause of failure. Dialogue is therefore particularly important. To share knowledge, a group-wide failure analysis conference is held at regular intervals with experts from the Freudenberg Business Groups.

One project that is intended to improve and simplify dialogue and the exchange of information in the future is a failure analysis management system. "In simplified terms, you can think of it as a digital archive of damage cases that provides both the results and the 'lessons learned' from damage cases," says project manager Dr. Benjamin Kloeckner. The team is pursuing two goals with this. One is to reduce the effort involved in new claims, and the other is to prevent damage in new developments.  

Making mistakes digitally

Let’s jump to another aspect of digitization in dealing with errors, because this is where simulations play a major role as well. “If we know in advance how a product will behave in the field under various environmental influences and operating conditions, we can design the entire product life cycle more efficiently and sustainably,” explained Dr. Patrick Martini, head of FTI’s Digital Modeling department. Simulations can drastically reduce the number of often time-consuming and expensive experiments using prototypes. This also allows components to be specifically optimized for the respective application, even before they are actually manufactured. At this point, the idea of the “digital twin” comes into play. For this purpose, the department maps specific products or processes, such as filter systems or seals, in detail in the virtual world.  This enables a large number of influencing parameters to be digitally tested on the virtual object in advance, saving resources.