STUTTGART - German independent engineering firms are taking advantage of their customers' rush to extend model line-ups, add niche cars and bring products to market faster than ever.
The German specialists are getting bigger and more diversified to handle a growing number of contracts and tougher requirements from carmakers.
The larger and more prominent companies now do much more than vehicle development and prototype construction. After investing heavily they can offer solutions in such diverse fields as high speed milling, stereolithography and laser sintering. These specialties are too complex and costly for carmakers to do inhouse.
However, the expansion has not come cheaply or easily for the companies, most of which began as family-owned businesses. The growing need for investment means that some are now being floated on the stock exchange.
One example is Bertrandt, based in Tamm, Germany. The company was founded in 1974 by engineer Harry Bertrandt and works for Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Bertrandt went public late last year as part of a globalization plan that includes new facilities in France and the UK. It is also seeking more business with carmakers in the US.
Germany's large engineering specialists, including Bertrandt, Porsche Engineering, IAV and Karmann, offer a full range of services. They are able to handle complete vehicle development from the first design sketches through to the signed-off vehicle.
Small firms work together
Smaller companies act as consultancies focusing on specialties like body-in-white, engine and driveline, and manufacturing.
Large groups of smaller design and engineering companies often band together to create an integrated unit that works with car manufacturers. In this way, problems can be worked on simultaneously to speed development.
Engineering staff at Italian and UK specialist firms are often 'leased' to carmakers and suppliers. Labor laws have traditionally discouraged that practice in Germany. However, a growing number of German companies now send key personnel to work full time for a car manufacturer or component supplier.
Companies are also establishing satellite engineering centers close to carmakers. Bertrandt, for example, now has a group of subsidiaries - known as Bertrandt Ingenierburo - scattered across Germany. Offices in Heilbronn (Audi), Ingolstadt (Audi), Cologne (Ford), Munich (BMW), Ruesselsheim (Opel), Stuttgart and Sindelfingen (Mercedes-Benz), and Wolfsburg (Volkswagen) are integrated with offices in Paris and the UK's Midlands.
Most work by engineering specialists is performed under strict security and rarely disclosed to the car-buying public. But manufacturers know that the best design and engineering companies are responsible for many innovations.
Among the more advanced solutions being sought by independents at the moment are hybrid powertrains and satellite-based traffic and communication systems.
'The whole face of the German design and engineering industry is slowly changing,' says spokesman Burkhard Heise of IAV, one of Germany's leading consultancies. Berlin-based IAV is part owned by Volkswagen. Its customers include BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce and Volvo.
'From a purely mechanical base we are now heavily involved in applying hi-tech drivelines and electronics to vehicles,' said Heise
Heise says German design and engineering companies differ from rivals in Italy and the UK by concentrating less on exotic concepts that may never see production.
'In the last few years German companies have involved themselves a lot more in solutions to production-based problems, things like fuzzy logic and telemetrics. It is definitely the way forward.'
While not divulging any secrets about IAV's clients, Heise predicts an explosion in the field of hybrid drive and multiple fuel vehicles. 'We are involved in all sorts of programs with a long list of customers. One in particular centers around an aluminum space frame car which runs a diesel/electric powertrain. It could be granted production approval sooner than most observers would credit,' he says.
Another field that he says is undergoing rapid development is on-board communications, information and navigation systems.
One example of German engineering prowess is the folding hardtop used on the Mercedes-Benz SLK. While often credited to Mercedes, the complex three-piece arrangement was designed and engineered by Karmann. The Osnabrueck-based engineering and production specialist was also heavily involved in development of the upcoming CLK cabriolet due for launch early next year.
Interest generated by the SLK's roof recently prompted the German firm to set up a new satellite office in Detroit where it hopes to attract more business from US-based OEMs.