"...we are constantly monitoring alternative technologies that could benefit the railway industry."
Today we speak to a man who has the rail industry in his blood, Michael Thiel, Chief Executive Officer, of Frauscher Sensor Technology who is the fourth generation of his family to work in our industry. Founded in Austria, Frauscher today works with rail and metro operators all over the world. It’s been an exciting twelve months for the company with 2016 seeing it set a huge milestone within the railway industry by launching its DAS-based Frauscher Tracking Solutions FTS. In this interview, our editor Luke Upton speaks to Michael to review the past year, learn how to replace proven products, gain insight into the introduction of new technologies and of course to hear what his favourite rail journey is…
Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today, to start on a more personal note, how did you get into the rail industry?
Michael Thiel (MT): Actually I was born in a rail family. My father, grandfathers, my grand grandfather, some uncles and cousins were or are all working in the rail industry. But I’m the first and only one who was interested in signalling. I grew up in East Germany and wanted to work with electrical technology as long as I can remember. Therefore, my father suggested that I should also start working in the railway industry. So I tried to combine this and started as a signalling mechanic at the main rail station in Leipzig. I really enjoyed working with very old mechanical, electromechanical as well as more modern electronic technologies at the same time. Later I decided to study rail automation at the transport university in Dresden – which was the base for my career.
LU: Thanks and what’s been the biggest challenge in your role so far?
MT: Besides generally handling the significant growth of our company the biggest challenge I experienced in my role so far was to complete the management buyout last year. As an engineer who is focused on technology, leading this process was a big change in my daily life. In parallel I had to keep the business on track. But thanks to the support of the whole team – and I mean every single person at Frauscher– we managed this phase in a professional way and were able to even grow the business successfully further.
LU: SmartRail World closely follows the activities of your company; and 2016 was a year with a number of major achievements – what were the most important ones?
MT: Now that we have closed the past business year, we can state that from a sales and profit point of view it has been the most successful year in our company’s history. We were able to increase our order intake by almost 80 % from 43.4 million euros to 77.0 million euros. That would not have been possible without our worldwide presence, which is growing stronger every year, and it was this that led to another very important decision that was implemented last year: To further support the demand for new investments in technologies and markets, we decided to create a new shareholding structure. Therefore, the yet mentioned management buyout was conducted and the business group was acquired by the current management, in association with Greenbriar Equity Group LLC. This was an important step to secure the persistence and sustainable growth for the entire Frauscher organisation.
LU: Speaking of your global presence – how many Frauscher locations are there at the moment and how do they influence your business?
MT: On a global level, Frauscher ( @FrauscherSensor ) cooperates with a range of sales partners and is represented by ten locations all over the world. Two of which, Frauscher India and Frauscher Brazil, were able to more than triple their turnover in 2016. Also, the most recently established offices in Australia and USA were able to realise their first major projects. To ensure our capacities will be able to meet these increasing demands in services and products, a new Frauscher Innovation Centre (pictured below right) and an extended sensor production have been opened at our site in Austria. Further investments are being made in India, where a new building is going to provide the team on-site with more space. Additionally, this year we have hired more new talents than ever before all around the globe. This will enable a range of promising and impressive projects based on wheel detection systems and axle counters to be realised before the end of 2017. This trend will continue, which is why we aim to hire another 80 employees over all our locations and open an additional office in France this year.
LU: With your core business doing so well, what has been your drive to introduce a new technology to the markets?
MT: On the one hand, we are constantly monitoring alternative technologies that could benefit the railway industry. With regards to Distributed Acoustic Sensing, we recognised that the whole railway industry was becoming more and more interested in using solutions based on this technology. We investigated the reasons for this and soon we were convinced that this approach has a huge potential, which is why we are the first dedicated supplier within the railway industry to combine DAS with proven wheel detection systems and axle counters. This allows us to provide our customers with one single solution delivering a whole new spectrum of applications. The feedback we received during and after presenting FTS at InnoTrans in Berlin exceeded our expectations. Operators, system integrators and research institutes from all over the globe are highly interested in developing these new possibilities further. Currently, more than ten installations have already been conducted – with a rising tendency.
LU: Do you think that your new product line will replace proven products?
MT: We don’t think so. Next to ETCS, CBTC and maybe PTC in the USA, axle counting and wheel detection based on inductive sensor technology has been one of the fastest growing and most requested technologies in railway signalling and automation. In the last few years, Frauscher has grown together with this technology by more than 15 % every year – and we see this trend continuing in future. For sure this is accompanied by increasing competition with new companies are entering the market, providing axle counting technology. In parallel to this, existing players are also launching new or adapted products, but this also shows that the market for axle counting and wheel detection is still growing and we expect it to grow even faster in the next years. We will maintain our position as one of the market leaders in wheel detection and axle counting. We keep focussing on customer needs and on being a reliable and performant partner.
LU: And to conclude, as we always do, what’s your favourite rail journey?
MT: Today I miss using the train, as our business is quite global and I have to travel by plane most of the times. In the past I regularly used ICE trains between Berlin and Brunswick or Leipzig and Munich for years and I enjoyed using high-speed trains very much. I also enjoyed the railway trips from Madrid to Barcelona and from Paris to Lyon. But now I’m eager to use the high-speed trains in China. Hope this opportunity will come soon.
LU: Thanks for the time today and best of luck for the rest of 2017 and beyond.
Last week's 5 minutes with... Peter Traynor, Managing Director at Railbookers.
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