“The Vaccine Saved Us”
From: The Frankfurt General Newspaper
A small mechanical engineering company in Germany’s Palatinate region played a huge role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This shows just how far a technical tinkerer can go.
By Uwe Marx
Hans-Joachim Wickert is not considered someone who lays it on thick. The young-at-heart man from the Palatinate, who will turn seventy next year, is sober, grounded, and quite pragmatic. In this sense, he is the definition of the typical German mechanical engineer, known to be skillfully capable, but when measured against this capability or their successes, just a bit introverted. Be that as it may. Wickert is who he is, so when describing the remarkable superlative in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, the expression is fairly calm: “95 percent of global vaccine production uses closures made with our machines. “Whether Pfizer or Moderna, AstraZeneca or Sputnik: Of the three components of a single dose – vaccine, glass container, closure – the third is more closely associated with Wickert Maschinenbau GmbH in Landau, Germany than one would expect from the company idyllically situated between vineyards.
Press technology, of the kind that Wickert manufactures, does not necessarily attract too much attention outside the industry. Yet it often benefits millions of people – even if only the closures for vaccine doses. The machines, some of which stand meters high and weighing several tons, are typically used to press or harden larger products – transmission parts and brake discs, for example, or components for the aviation industry. Without hardening, Wickert says, a transmission can break down after 150 kilometers; with hardening, it could run millions of kilometers with no problems. Except the engine might not make it that long.
Closure plugs for pharmaceuticals are much smaller, but quite demanding. They are complicated materials, says Wickert. Where the COVID vaccine is concerned, customers from the pharmaceutical industry ultimately have to guarantee a number of things: that the closure can be pierced several times with a syringe; that no particles get caught on the syringe or even get into the vaccine; that the closure’s durability is guaranteed; that it seals just as reliably at very high temperatures as it does at very low temperatures.
Orders Received Before the Vaccine Existed
The company had researched solutions years ago, at the time for a medication against cervical cancer. When the pandemic broke out, the company was well prepared. That is also quickly reflected in the number of incoming orders. “Many industries and customers waited it out after the pandemic broke out,” Wickert says. “The vaccine manufacturers didn’t.” Initial orders had already been placed in May 2020, at which time no active ingredient was yet on the market, but hopes were high. Wickert had been forced to introduce short-time work before then, but it was only necessary for a few weeks. “The vaccines saved us from suffering losses, so in that sense they saved us during that time.”
Since then, the situation has become much more relaxed. Whereas sales in 2019 were 34 million euros, in 2020 they had increased to 40 million euros. Growth this year and next will be similar, the boss expects. At least. Because: “We are at full capacity until mid-2022.” He recently increased the workforce by a respectable 10 percent within just three or four months. That was only possible, he says, because other industries were harder hit and good people there had been freed up. In addition, the broader region, primarily Mannheim and Ludwigshafen, offers a sufficient pool. Today, Wickert has a workforce of 200; when he succeeded his father in the mid-seventies, there were just a dozen employees. He has always recruited excellent staff, which is the only reason why the company has been able to grow so substantially, says Wickert. The prototype for this HR policy is Stefan Herzinger, the second managing director. He is an industrial engineer, has been with the company for more than twenty years and is a co-partner with a blocking minority. He brought with him the expertise that the technology-oriented company lacked at the time.
If Wickert receives a large order these days, it can easily have a volume of around 5 million euros. One of the more curious orders of recent times was somewhat less than that: Wickert built machines for a customer in southern Germany that used car tires to press running and lying mats for dairy cows. The animals needed these to be comfortable and to produce a lot of milk.
In most cases, however, metal is used in the development of Wickert machines for customers. The parts are put into ovens, treated with hardening oil and then hardened under high, hydraulically produced pressure. While in the past single machines were typically built, today Wickert is committed to entire system solutions. The company then builds enormous plants integrating purchased robots or conveyors. This type of system can be found in a Volvo truck plant; on a diagram in one of the assembly halls, it serves as an example of what Wickert is capable of today.
No Competition from 3D Printing
There are, admittedly, a few machines on pallets that are a big secret. The customer and industry are not revealed, otherwise contractual penalties could be imposed. “We are high-priced and face little or no competition for some of our solutions,” Wickert says. “But we also have to prove ourselves over and over with every order.”
The complexity of the machines is not the only change. Close to twenty employees are now handling software issues at the Palatinate-based company, something else that never existed in the past. And in what appears to be a kind of control center, Wickert employees are now able to monitor installed and modem-equipped machines around the globe remotely by screen.
They view into the interior and assess the condition, allowing remote maintenance where repair technicians once had to set out on their own. One technical innovation, however, has yet to gain a foothold –and Wickert is just fine with that. “3D printing is not a competitive threat to us,” he says. “There has been no replacement in our customer industries.” In part, that’s likely due to the sophistication of the company’s modern press machines. Walking through the assembly halls, he talks about several thousand tons of pressing pressure on some machines as if it were the most common thing in the world. Especially large machines are not assembled in Landau, but at the customer’s location – with single parts weighing up to 70 tons, the company’s own production infrastructure is stretched to its limits.
In any case, Wickert has to keep an eye on his expectations for his company. It faces certain limits due to its size. “Today, we only generate as much sales as we can actually handle,” he says. “That wasn’t always the case; we’ve also at times overextended ourselves with too many orders.” The company benefits from the fact that it has always had a broad base and has been more or less at home in very different industries.
It generates some 60 percent of its sales in Central Europe, with 20 percent each in the USA and Russia. However, there is one region that the company is now thoroughly avoiding: “We are steering clear of the Chinese market as long as we can make use of our capacities in other markets,” says Wickert. “It’s just too difficult there, and you have to be careful.” In particular, he is referring to the rampant theft of ideas. He has never shipped a machine to China twice, because you can be sure that they will be copied by copycats there, and without permission. He simply does not want to have to deal with lawsuits against patent infringement in China.
Wickert Maschinenbau GmbH, based in Landau, Germany, was founded in 1901 with a handful of employees and focused on presses for wine and fruit – an obvious choice of business in the middle of a wine-growing region. Today, under the leadership of co-owner and managing director Hans-Joachim Wickert, the company has 200 employees as a system provider for pressing technology and generated EUR 40 million in sales in 2020. Wickert supplies customers from a variety of industries, generating 60 percent of its sales in Central Europe and 20 percent both the USA and Russia respectively.
Wickert Maschinenbau GmbH, based in Landau, Germany, was founded in 1901 with a handful of employees and focused on presses for wine and fruit – an obvious choice of business in the middle of a wine-growing region. Today, under the leadership of co-owner and managing director Hans-Joachim Wickert, the company has 200 employees as a system provider for pressing technology and generated EUR 40 million in sales in 2020. Wickert supplies customers from a variety of industries, generates 60 percent of its sales in Central Europe and 20 percent in the USA and Russia respectively.
Hans-Joachim Wickert, born in 1952, underwent a classic education for his region and his industry: He earned a degree in mechanical engineering in nearby Kaiserslautern before taking over his father’s business shortly thereafter. That was in 1976. At that time, things were not quite as rosy for the company. Wickert describes the situation at that time as follows: no money, no orders, no employees. That has changed fundamentally. Wickert lives in his parents’ house right next to the company premises, has two daughters and intends to pass along leadership of Wickert GmbH to his eldest, born in 1989, in the next five to ten years.