And then came the coronavirus
With an export ratio of 73 percent, the manufacture of machinery for sewing and clothing technology is one of the strongest export branches in the German mechanical-engineering and plant-construction sector. In 2019 almost 6,700 employees produced machinery and accessories with a value of around € 644 million. The forecasts for 2020 looked good. Then came the coronavirus.
Sales revenues in the TFL industries (sewing, clothing, shoe and leather technology, plus laundry and textile-cleaning technology) fell by almost a quarter alone between January and July 2020 compared with the previous year. And incoming orders (- 9.9 percent) and exports (- 16.3 percent) were down massively. By April 2020, if not earlier, it was clear to all: for an industry with an export ratio of 73 percent it was going to be a very difficult year. Particularly since domestic demand for motor cars, clothing and shoes was declining as well. All of them products on which the size of the order books at firms in Germany producing machinery for sewing and clothing technology depends, since they deliver the machinery for the suppliers to these primary industries. But that pessimism is not the mentality of German mechanical engineers can be well illustrated by two companies, Veit and Vetron.
Combating the consequences of the coronavirus crisis by a spirit of invention
Like many other firms, Veit – in Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria – was hard hit by the coronavirus. This manufacturer of ironing tables, fixation and lamination machinery, whose customers include Hugo Boss and Zara, was forced to struggle from May onwards with a massive slump in sales. “For a part of our 200 workers we had to apply to short-time working”, says joint managing director Christopher Veit. Short-time working means that the German government temporarily pays portions of salary and social-security contributions, to remove the burden from companies and avoid insolvencies in crises which are no fault of their own, such as the current pandemic.
It is a shock which also liberated an urge for invention in the firm. When, for instance, Christopher Veit saw how his workers opened doors with their elbows, in order to avoid touching door handles with their hands (causing smear infection), he had an idea: could something not be developed to open doors in a contactless way? Yes, of course, said the developers, and started work at once. Shortly afterwards the company was marketing a hands-free door opener, of which it also gave away large quantities to people in risk groups and to a charity in the region. “We want to make a contribution”, says Veit, who – as manager of a business which has been in the family for three generations – sees it as his task, when opening up new sales markets, to retain his workers’ jobs, too. So meanwhile they have also developed an air purifier. In the battle against the coronavirus in offices, restaurants and doctors’ waiting rooms, it is intended to reduce aerosol pollution in the air and neutralise viruses by ultraviolet rays.
Experienced in crisis and expert at transformation
Many manufacturers of sewing and clothing technology are showing in the coronavirus crisis where one of the great strengths lies: in crisis experience – and the associated ability to respond to crisis-led transformations with a wealth of textile technological ideas. This has been shown, for instance, by Vetron, a sewing-machine manufacturer from Kaiserslautern. When in the spring the coronavirus began to take the wind out of the sails in German business, within a few weeks the company converted a part of its production to ultrasound and hot-air welding machinery for manufacturing protective clothing and face masks. “We couldn’t sell the machinery fast enough”, remembers Vetron boss Holger Labes. True, the rush only lasted till June; then the market was saturated. But they were able to counterbalance the loss of sales caused by the coronavirus to a certain extent. “But we realise: we are not out of the woods yet”, warns Labes.
That is something of which Elgar Straub is aware, too. As general manager of VDMA Textile Care, Fabric and Leather Technologies, he knows the frequently painful figures posted by the more than 50 member companies of the VDMA, many of them world market leaders. But Straub does not waste his energy on pessimism, either. “Exactly now is the opportunity to promote future-oriented subjects such as sustainability, digitalisation, automation or hygiene”, he states combatively. Straub knows about his industry’s capacity for innovation, for which it is even more important than ever at the present time to work on innovations, “so that, once Covid-19 is out of the way, we can be right out front again.”