Germany does not fear the Chinese wind energy industry

China has become the most important export market for German machine and plant engineering companies – products worth 19 billion euros ($25 billion) changed hands last year, up from 5 billion euros ten years ago. German machines are instrumental in supporting Chinese ambitions of becoming the workshop of the world.

But China is catching up fast, and already there are mechanical engineering companies offering complex machines which could soon be a serious threat to those produced in Germany. With around 500 companies showcasing their products in Hanover, it’s a good opportunity for German mechanical engineering firms to gauge international competition, says Hannes Hesse, the chief executive officer of the German industry association VDMA.

“The Chinese are exhibiting their best products in Hanover. So we’ll be seeing top of the range technology here. We’ll have to compare it with what we’ve got to offer." However, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese top products presented in Hanover are indeed ready for mass production. “We’ll have to see about that, but it will definitely be an interesting process,” said Hesse.

Respect yes, but no fear

Joachim Fuhrländer works for a company that produces wind turbines. He is also keeping a close eye on the Chinese competition. “We already have respect for China, but we’re not afraid,” he says. A few years ago his company sold a license to one of China’s largest manufacturers of wind turbines. “This greatly boosted the company’s success. It’s always been our strategy to forge partnerships, sell licenses and share technology. Sharing never really made us poor,” adds Fuhrländer.

The medium-sized company from Rhineland-Palatinate already has operations in India and further production lines are under construction in Brazil, Vietnam and Ukraine. Fuhrländer says many countries interested in wind power are also keen to have the production on their home turf. “Brazil, for instance, wants 60 percent produced locally. But this is hard for the Chinese to swallow because they want to produce in China and export globally. We, however, have no problems going into these countries and offering the value chain locally. After all, the people in those countries are also looking for work.”

At first sight the product presented by Fuhrländer at the Hanover trade fair appears rather unspectacular and looks pretty much like a normal wind turbine. “What’s special about this product is that we have combined the gears and generator into one module, which results in a 60 percent weight reduction,” explains Fuhrländer.

Less weight means easier transport and assembly, as well as cheaper foundations. This renders the wind turbine more attractive to countries in which roads and logistics aren’t as developed as in Europe. Despite its reduced weight, the output of the turbine compares to that found in considerably heavier facilities.

Water power without dams

Smaller and easier is also the company philosophy of Smart Hydro Power, which is also exhibiting at the Hanover fair. The Bavarian engineering firm, which only has a handful of employees, could be called a start-up in the energy sector. Smart Hydro Power produces a micro water power plant which does not require a dam. It’s basically a turbine that looks a bit like a miniature submarine weighing about 300 kilograms (661 pounds). Placed in a river with sufficient current, it can produce enough power to supply entire villages, says Christina Di Santo. “We installed the first turbine in Peru where it is powering the lights of a small village consisting of 28 houses.” The company says the water turbine is an eco-friendly and cheap alternative to the diesel generators that are very common in developing countries.

Festo, a company based near the German city of Stuttgart, is on the other hand focusing on problems typical of industrialized countries. “Demographic change is a great challenge, the average age of employees is on the rise,” says company spokesman Heinrich Frontzek, adding “we need a high-tech solution if people working until 67 are also expected to perform physically.” Festo, which has over 15,000 employees, is among the top companies in the field of control and automation technology.

Power amplifiers for tired hands

“Older employees need power amplifiers for tasks in the construction sector, for instance. We have developed a glove which can double human power,” says Frontzek. The glove or so-called Exo-hand looks like a robot’s hand. It can also be used to carry out remote-controlled tasks, with the bearer executing the movements which in turn are emulated by a robotic arm up to hundreds of kilometers away. This facilitates dangerous tasks which require the nimbleness of human hands, for instance in contaminated areas like Fukushima, says Frontzek.

Andreas Becker. Editor: Gabriel Borrud.