OEM & Supplier spoke with Armin Gehl, Managing Director of autoregion e.V.

Founded in February 2015, the cross-border association autoregion e.V. is an autonomously active, complementary body to the existing automotive networks of the greater region of Luxembourg, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate and the French region of Grand Est. autoregion e.V. is supported by companies, associations,  research institutions and political institutions.

A region that was shaped by coal and steel for decades and afterwards suffered greatly from the consequences of industrial restructuring has emerged as a centre of the European automotive industry. What is the secret of this success story?

The foundation stone was laid in the era under Prime Minister Röder, who brought a Ford assembly plant to Saarlouis in the 70s. Thus, the first 5600 workers, who had already been laid off from the mining sector and the iron and steel industry, could be transferred as skilled workers. During the era of Prime Minister Lafontaine, in the early 1990s, the first supplier park was established in Saarland, right next to Ford, which in turn provided a new perspective for some 2,500 people. Additionally, and since then, the last establishment of a large enterprise, an aluminium foundry for engine blocks with 2000 coworkers, can also be credited to Prime Minister Lafontaine.

These were large scale developments at the time and they naturally contributed to enabling smaller, already existing suppliers to develop themselves further, whilst the larger ones (Bosch, ZF, Michelin, etc.) also profited from the freed-up skilled workforce from the metallurgical and mining industries.

The cluster combines the Saar, Rhineland-Palatinate, Luxembourg and the French region Grand Est which are, culturally and structurally, very different regions. What is the specific contribution of these regions to a jointly networked industry?

The companies active in this region operate so-called ‚extended workbenches‘, which are pure production facilities with great reliance on the parent companies, and are consequently controlled remotely. It is important to deliver quality and reliability here. Companies also aim for increasingly stronger cross-border collaboration.

Despite the EU, national borders still create barriers to cooperation. What could your cluster provide to improve collaboration with the creation of cross-border network structures?

We cooperate very strongly with the networks in France and Luxembourg in order to make itpossible for the companies in these regions to open, establish active bilateral contacts and thus also work together. We are committed to cross-border cooperation.

If you compare the Situation when you founded the automobile cluster with the current situation – what has changed?

Active cooperation has changed markedly due to the Establishment of the first autoregion e.V. cross-border cluster. Companies use the networks as a contact  platform amongst each other and across borders. Also, the French companies located in the area close to the border are actively looking for contacts with German companies through the network. This idea is also so supported by the government in France.

What is the significance of the automotive industry for the greater region today?

The automotive industry is the largest employer in the greater region. With around 200,000 employees in approximately 600 companies, a turnover in the region of 100 billion euros is achieved.

The automotive industry is in the midst of a process of profound changes. E-mobility,d igitisation, networking and autonomous driving are the dominant themes. Is the automotive industry in the greater region equipped for these changes or are we facing a new structural crisis?

The entire European and global automotive industry is faced with a profound change. This will also have an impact on the companies of the greater region. Industry 4.0 is currently being implemented in production facilities in order to be prepared for this future process. The companies are equipped for the production of „new“ things in the field of e-mobility or autonomous driving. The market determines the future, and here too, politicians are called upon not to introduce ‚cheap, snappy slogans to the world which would harm the industryand provoke a structural crisis.

What can the autoregion cluster provide in this change process?

We want to build a very strong network between the companies in order to take a strong position together, as larger entities in the market. In the past months, the political climate has not moved in the direction of free trade. We are hearing strong protectionist noises, especially from the USA. How is that seen in a greater region that has learned to use the benefits of cross-border cooperation? We are waiting to see how the world market develops. Brexit is a greater source of anxiety, as more than 30% of goods from the greater region flow into the UK market.

What are the key challenges lying ahead for you in the near future? Where will the autoregion e.V. develop?

The „autoregion e.V.“ will establish itself even more as a cooperation interface and competence platform in the greater region. The aim of the association is to continue on the same path with the partners in the Grand Est region, Luxembourg and Germany (Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate), to support and connect the companies which also support the association, because SMEs can only survive in strong networks. The association‘s goal, together with its partners, is to have around 200 companies as active members by 2020.

Many thanks for the interview.

Interview conducted by Dr. Rudolf Müller

(Source: OEM&Lieferant, Edition 02/2017)