During my last holiday visit to my home country, I got to know a Chinese entrepreneur who wanted me to tell him where the German engineering spirit comes from. I pointed out that Germany was a country of few natural resources that was forced to live by its innovations. Because many world market leaders were located in rural locations, engineers had nothing else to do but tinker around all day. This argument was not enough to convince him, and so I promised that I would look into the matter more closely.
A symbiosis between technology and science
Once I had arrived back in Germany, I immediately called the economic historian Werner Abelshauser. He had an answer to every one of my questions. "The engineer is a product of the German research university," said Abelshauser. "And the research university is a key component of the Prussian educational reforms which took place between 1807 and 1820." He went on to explain that German engineers then emerged in the second half of the 19th century, representing a symbiosis between industry and science. The company BASF, which was formed in 1865, was the prototype of this symbiosis. Engineers at BASF took over the innovative synthetic dyes, which had been invented in a test tube at the research university, and made them ready for the market. New industries involved in intangible value creation were created in this way in the chemical sector and in engineering and electronics. "The Germans succeeded in overtaking the United Kingdom, the first industrialised nation in the world, without catching up with it first," continued Abelshauser.
The Prussians then showed their cleverness. A few years after the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, in 1887 to be precise, they began advising companies to set up training centres in order to enable trainees to acquire operational and technical knowledge alongside their general school learning. This was the birth of the dual training system, which even went on to become enshrined in law in the 1930s.
"The culture of the skilled worker made it possible for engineers working at companies in these new industries to take charge," Abelshauser went on. "They upsized the test tube to the kind of dimensions required by the market." As far as historians are concerned, this idea of moving from the test tube to the market defines the engineering spirit.
A long tradition in the craft trades
However, the interaction between engineers and skilled workers would not have been so fruitful had it not been for Germany's long craft trade tradition. According to Abelshauser, this dates back to the Hanseatic period of the 11th century. "The guilds formed by tradesmen controlled a large economic area extending from Russia to Scandinavia to Westphalia. In the middle was Lübeck, which acted as a representative city. Urban-based craft trades were an extremely successful business model. Because Germany had so many centres, they became deeply embedded in the economic culture."
All of this sounded very logical. But I wanted to put the theory to the test. And, above all, I wished to finally meet a real, live engineer. Do engineers grow up with Fischer technical toys, and do they spend their youth dismantling any machines that they happen to come across? Do they only tinker about during working hours, or do they also puzzle over problems at night when they are unable to sleep?
In the country of the tinkerers and inventors
I did not have to think long about where I would go. I travelled to Hohenlohe in Baden-Württemberg, the region which boasts the highest density of world market leaders. The only pitfall was that this meant making a solo car journey of 350 kilometres, relatively long by German standards. The fact is that these gems of German trade and industry are in remote locations. Like Snow White, they live behind the seven mountains with the seven dwarves. There are no aeroplanes that land there and not even the Deutsche Bahn passes through. So I drove and drove. As soon as I had left the motorway, the traffic volume immediately decreased from a hundred to zero. I found myself at the heart of a landscape of verdant mountains and hills. It was like entering an idyllic world.
I arrived in Mulfingen, where I met up with Ralf Sturm. Sturm is Head of Human Resources at the fan manufacturer ebm-papst and the son of Gerhard Sturm, founder of the company. He was not immediately able to verify the research university hypothesis. "My father was a machine fitter. Everything he achieved was the result of really well-founded initial training, like many of the top managers at this company. In those days (during the 1960s), most people did not go into higher education. They were skilled metal workers or electricians." Ralf Sturm's personal experience means that he holds a different view. "These SME owners and world market leaders all started out in the craft trades, a centuries-old tradition. Its breadth and depth have produced many inventors." I was happy that he was at least able to use his firm's own history to back up the second part of the theory put forward by the historian.
But the craft trades have also put down roots in other European countries and in other parts of the world. Ralf Sturm explains why he thinks this system has borne the best fruit in Germany. "What is different about development in this country is the fact that we have retained the deep-seated, small-cell structure of the craft trade sector. This is still true today. Germany still has master craftsmen. This qualification is no longer as widespread in other countries."
The symbiosis between nature and technology
Baden-Württemberg, the land of the tinkerers and inventors, has a further symbiosis to offer. "This is a fabulous rural region," Ralf Sturm goes on. "Nature and the landscape are combined with one of Germany's strongest economic areas. This symbiosis between nature and technology, between nature and trade and industry, makes Hohenlohe what it is."
Thomas Heli, Head of the Development Department at ebm-papst, fully agrees that nature can inspire the spirit of the tinkerer. He tells me, for example, that he is able to clear his mind when he goes out jogging in the countryside. "I have had plenty of product ideas whilst running," says Thomas. "I then bring them back to the company and develop and implement them with the team and my colleagues." A real dream for any boss!
Thomas Heli is precisely the kind of German engineer I had been imagining, just even more likeable. Like most engineers, he enjoyed experimenting and playing with Fischer technical toys when he was a child. He then trained as a toolmaker. "During my training, I noticed that this was not everything I wished to do. I wanted to design things, like I used to do with the toy kits." So, after completing his training, Thomas went to Karlsruhe to study for a degree in engineering during which he specialised in construction.
In other words, Thomas Heli himself pursued a dual training route. "The dual training system offers permeability. Regardless of your level of prior learning, you have the opportunity to achieve what you want to achieve." The combination of company-based learning and scientific aspects teaches engineers to think in a complex way and allows them to go on to develop complex products. Thomas Heli believes that this mindset sums up the spirit of German engineering.
He is now a Chief Engineer who has developed numerous fans and ventilators for his company over the past 25 years as well as instigating many product enhancements. Something approaching tenderness enters Thomas’ voice when he speaks about his products. “We installed further sensors to detect dampness and temperature. This means that the fan is able to adjust its volume stream to requirements regardless of the surrounding conditions. A smart fan. When Thomas Heli is not tinkering away to create an even more intelligent fan, he enjoys listening to AC/DC. Archery is another hobby. Needless to say, he builds his own bows.
Bringing two worlds together
On the way back, I think about the difference between German and Chinese corporate culture. In China, some company bosses such as the Alibaba founder Jack Ma extol the virtues of the "996" work model (nine until nine, six days a week). The HR manager and company shareholder Ralf Sturm is already dreaming of a six-hour working day. Whereas it is common practice for German engineers to devote the whole of their working lives to a single company, the average amount of time young Chinese engineers (under 30) spend with one firm is just twelve months. The German engineer is prepared to wait until he finds the perfect solution. His Chinese counterpart often begins with an unfinished concept and then carries out constant adjustments. My interview partners are therefore sure that China will be able to catch up with Germany in technical terms. But they also know that the German engineering spirit cannot easily be copied.