“Business model innovation is quite difficult in a traditional industry, but we have some success stories.”

Robert Merki, Head of Engineering at Condair Group

Key to be an innovative company is the interest and motivation of all employees

Innoboard: There is no consistent definition for innovation. Every industry and every department perceive it differently. How do you define innovation at Condair? 

Robert Merki: Condair is active as a traditional building equipment manufacturer. Since buildings have long lifecycles of several decades, also our products are built to last. Compared to others, we are rather in a slow moving and traditional industry. On one side we see technological innovations, be it by evolving and improving our current product offerings or in finding new ways to humidify.

On the other side we also see innovation as new applications and offerings, for example using our system for cooling and energy optimization or delivering new service offerings.

Due to our sales structure through planners and installers, it is a daily challenge to be close to the owners and users. We need to motivate all our departments to take interesting ideas and transfer them to the dedicated people within R&D. We want to always think about new ways of solving the customer challenges and to reflect them within the different departments to feed the pipeline of opportunities. Key to be an innovative company is the interest and motivation of all employees.

How does digitization affect your industry and Condair specifically? How do you react?

Building automation systems are available for many years, but due to the long lifecycles they only have partly arrived in the mass market. Our products offer the relevant interfaces and are therefore “ready” to be connected to intelligent systems. With the next generation of products, we will also make our products ready to be connected to the Internet. We see benefits to give additional control services to our customers and offer proactive maintenance. So far it is difficult to judge if it is just the next hype about automation or if we are really able to build a sustainable business model around IoT.

Besides product and process innovation, what role does business model innovation play at Condair?

Business model innovation is quite difficult in a traditional industry, but we have some success stories. For cold water humidification systems, regular maintenance is key to ensure a hygienic safe operation. Usually our systems are fix installed in a building and service technicians need to go on site for maintenance. To differentiate our direct room systems, we were able to design the core components for maintenance onto a transportable box. In case of maintenance or failure, the customer receives the easy to handle, fully exchangeable box within 24h and is able to replace it himself or herself. We offer this as a rental service and make sure that we have the highest lifetime of our system. Less fixed cost for our customer and less waste across the life cycle!

Due to frequent exchange and technical upgrade/maintenance of returned boxes, customers have during whole cooperation the certainty of the newest technology, even if it is a contract over 10 years or even longer.

Innovation needs a structured organization but if it is too rigid, it can hinder innovation. What are your success factors for innovation projects in the early phase?

As mentioned in your question it is the balance between both: guidance and freedom. It is important – even with wide space between the fences – to integrate “some kind of milestones” with deliverables. We have a dedicated group of Engineers and Product Managers with spare capacity to scout and test innovative ideas. Further innovation is lived from the top with an open mindset. We also have the privilege to be a family owned company, which allows us to invest in long-term, and potentially higher risk projects. Some of them have even be initiated by our owner. Once the innovations become specific, we move them into the Product Development Process. The process gives a good toolset and guidance to our Project Leader, but it leaves enough flexibility to be adjusted to the specific challenge.

What is your personal goal regarding innovation for the next 12 months?

We have two very interesting projects in the pipeline which will open up new markets for us. I look forward to see them arriving in the market. I am sure that we will learn a lot in the coming months about this new market.

About the interviewee: 

Robert Merki has over 10 years of professional experience in field of Product Development and Business Strategy. He leads the Research and Development Department at Condair with over 20 engineers. After his Engineering degree at the EPFL, he worked in Business Consulting at Accenture. Before joining Condair, he managed for four years international strategy and business development projects at Hilti.

Condair Group is the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial and industrial humidification systems.  Our main brand, Condair, sets the standard globally for innovative, energy-efficient and hygienic solutions. Today, with 600 employees, we operate production sites in Europe, North America and China, are represented in 16 countries by our own sales and service organizations, and supported by distribution partners in a further 50 locations worldwide.

www.condair.com – We love humidity