Sensor technology: a kaufbeuren company brings machines to life

Dr. Michael P. Schmitt and Sonja Wiedemann in the showroom

Farmers cultivate their fields at the building complex. In the idyllically situated lake behind the sun is reflected. The Allgau mountains touch the sky on the horizon. Am Barenwald – that’s the address for the high-tech company at the southern end of Kaufbeuren. "The one with the sensors" is a frequently heard euphemism for one of the city’s largest employers. Which is perhaps also due to the name STW, which stands for Sensor-Technik Wiedemann. All true, but only a small part of the truth. "We focus on long-term economically and socially relevant issues," says Sonja Wiedemann, who heads the Wiedemann Group. When talking to her, terms such as the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, which stand for a revolutionary stage in the age of digitalization. Both mean that machines, for example, can be networked and communicate with each other.

Powerful, robust and versatile sensors that can measure just about anything are still being developed and produced at Barenwald, to be sure. In 34 years, however, the two-person business of founders Wolfgang and Katharina Wiedemann has become an internationally active company with 600 employees. Solutions for networking wheeled machines, autonomous driving and working, and e-mobility – all made in the Allgau region – have long been on the agenda as well .

Group products enable safe refueling of fuel cell vehicles

"We bring complex construction, agricultural and municipal machinery to life, monitor exhaust aftertreatment systems in public transport and enable the safe refueling of fuel cell vehicles," STW Managing Director Michael P. Schmitt examples that stand for the core businesses of digitalization, automation and electrification of mobile machines. These are workhorses made of steel – from garbage trucks to agricultural tractors.

"It’s not just the product that’s important to us, but above all the application," says Schmitt. "We want to understand what the customer wants."This premise opens up an almost infinitely large field of application in which reliability, efficiency and costs play essential roles for the customer. STW develops power distributors at charging stations for electric vehicles. Cranes and turntable ladders for firefighters don’t fall over because they work with controls and sensors from Wiedemann. Its ideas allow tractors in huge fields and municipal vehicles in the middle of the city to drive largely independently and quietly. On the mountain, diesel-electric snow groomers with technology from Kaufbeuren ensure skiing pleasure. Recently, an e-truck that STW developed with two other Allgau companies caused a sensation. The components from Barenwald coordinate the functions in the networked heart of the 44-ton truck. With electric motor, control system, battery management and software, the transport vehicle purrs into an electromobile future.

Sensors record the environment of the vehicles

"Industry 4.0 doesn’t just take place on the factory floor," says Schmitt. The automation and networking of mobile machines is also advancing on construction sites, in agriculture and in the municipal sector. Excavators, harvesters and road sweepers are not only expensive, they also have to work efficiently, cleanly and quietly, he says. In addition to networking, communication between the machines and computers is also a prerequisite for this.

Autonomous driving and working means that the machine uses sensors to record its environment, but also receives information from other machines or servers. Electrification requires information exchange between machine and data centers to synchronize remaining capacities and possible charging stations. To demonstrate the "smart" solutions to these requirements, Schmitt paints a winter maintenance vehicle on a blackboard. It could also be a garbage truck, a tractor or a complete municipal vehicle fleet. Above it, he draws a cloud with a sweeping stroke, the data cloud, which is charged with information from the mobile machines. The load or oil level of a truck can be monitored as well as the consumption of gritting material of a winter service vehicle. Typical fleet management tasks are possible, as is remote control from any workplace in the world. Schmitt also talks about "predictive maintenance" for the lowest possible downtime. Missing engine oil and wear should be detected at an early stage. In short: collect, centrally store and analyze data to anticipate problems before the machine breaks down.

Sonja Wiedemann: "Sensor technology remains a family business"

The company is aware of its Allgau roots despite this orientation. Sometimes, STW even really bangs on the drum to combine high technology with down-to-earthness. At trade shows, a glass tractor will drive up, with a drill at the rear and a shoe shine machine installed at the front. As electrical consumers, the attachments show advantages of electrification. Distance sensors automatically start the shoe shine machine, and a camera captures the images. At the same time, the data is stored so that it can be used for company processes and value-added chains. How to shine shoes 4.0.

It fits into the picture that at the beginning of this year the succession on the management level was regulated. Sonja Wiedemann, daughter of founder Wolfgang Wiedemann and managing director in the group of companies since 2013, took a majority stake in a holding company that provides an umbrella for the group’s two companies, STW and KMW. "Sensor technology remains a family business," she says. "In this way, we want to continue to ensure a strong connection between employees and management."

The holding company is responsible for the strategic orientation of the group of companies and future developments, such as the further international character of the company. "But we also want to grow as an employer brand at the site," says Sonja Wiedemann. And that means, above all, offering attractive, secure jobs and apprenticeships as a family business.

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