The Rhine-Main-Neckar region is an important location for the automotive industry. 100,000 people directly or indirectly work in the automotive sector in the greater region. Many automobile companies manage their activities in Germany from the region: Opel, Seat and Škoda are among the European manufacturers, and the Asian brands include Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Suzuki. In Mannheim, Daimler’s bus division operates a large plant and the city is also home to John Deere’s largest European tractor plant. A large number of renowned suppliers are also represented in the region: Continental in Frankfurt is one of the region’s largest employers, while Umicore can claim this distinction in Hanau, and technology produced by Freudenberg in Weinheim can be found in nearly all Western European automobiles. In addition, a wide range of small to medium-sized suppliers are at home in the region, which provide innovations, in part as market leaders, in their respective market niches: Curocon and Synventive in Bensheim, KLN Ultraschall in Heppenheim or Autoneum (formerly Rieter) in Roßdorf.
The Automotive-Cluster RheinMainNeckar (www.automotive-cluster.org) is active along the entire automotive value chain and currently has 600 members. As a business cluster, it bundles the region’s know-how and promotes competitive cooperation. The cluster sees itself as a platform for establishing contacts between companies from the region, as well as at a cross-national level, and supports the dialogue between business, research, government and administration. The focus is on engineering. The engineering service providers Bertrandt and EDAG have been supporting the cluster since its beginning. Several automakers have established their European technology and development centres in the Rhein-Main-Neckar region, foremost Opel, but also Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Mitsubishi. However, the research and development capacities of the TIER1suppliers, such as Continental or Umicore, are very diverse. The Automotive-Cluster RheinMainNeckar supports the cooperation between suppliers so that companies can maximise their potential – if not alone, then together. This can help win market shares, which have particularly remained out of reach for small and medium-sized businesses with their own, limited resources. In addition, the cluster benefits from the excellent science-based infrastructure. The RheinMain and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, as well as the Technische Universität Darmstadt, possess a high degree of competence in vehicle construction. Furthermore, the region’s Fraunhofer Institutes, particularly the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability LBF, deal with automobile-related issues.
Networking science and business. The cluster sees itself as an intermediary between business and science. This is successful because the network receives scientific advice from Prof. Dr. Birgit Scheppat of the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences. This allows bringing together the interests of companies and researchers quickly and easily. The cluster in particular supports smaller companies by assisting, together with contacts at scientific institutions, in finding suitable research partners. It also works together with experts from the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) Darmstadt in advising on legal or financing issues.
Networking between suppliers. However, the initiators of the Automotive-Cluster RheinMainNeckar, IHK Darmstadt and the Business Development Board of the Groß-Gerau district, had anticipated an easier and above all quicker realisation of the networking of supply companies. Today, in 2013 – ten years after launching the cluster – the initiators are well aware that many of the companies in the cluster work together closely. Many aspects are subject to confidentiality agreements between the clients. Mutual familiarity and trust form the basis for the close cooperation. Automotive companies in the cluster take advantage of the cooperation database and the cooperation exchanges, which the cluster organises for its members. The exchanges boast a very high success rate: these contacts have provided the foundation for long-term business relationships for nearly 60 per cent of the participants. Five per cent of the participants even sign agreements during these meetings. International relationships are established thanks to the networking with other European clusters. The automotive cluster from Konya in Turkey is a frequent guest, as are the supplier networks from Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Birmingham and Derbyshire in Great Britain, from Haute-Normandie in France or the members of the automotive cluster in Slovenia.
Quantum leap in cooperation: project circles. So-called project circles were established in the cluster in 2010. Here, experts from various companies dedicate themselves across company borders to very special issues related to the automobile supply industry. Electrical drives are a topic along with automation, project management or the need for skilled workers. By concentrating on one issue, and the fact that this involves closed groups, the cluster creates even better conditions for bringing together cross-company competencies and interdisciplinary knowledge. The members of the Automotive-Cluster RheinMainNeckar are convinced that this collaborative, trusting cooperation beyond the daily competition has a future. Alongside all the detail projects, several members got together and compiled a draft for an electromobility concept for rural areas. An electric vehicle represents the nucleus. However, an initial master plan covering development to production and maintenance has been formulated in which regenerative energy generation also plays a major role. Current discussions with potential users focus on implementation opportunities.
Future opportunities provided by the cluster. The proven practice of a trusting cooperation within the cluster represents an excellent basis for mastering future challenges. The “mutual knowledge” makes it possible to tackle technological issues and develop solutions within the network. The topic concerning the need for skilled workers can also be handled better in a cluster than in a single company. An attractive network offers its skilled workers a wide range of opportunities. This is in addition to the attractive location factors of the Rhein-Main-Neckar region, such as engineering science competence at the highest level, highly qualified skilled workers, an excellent transport infrastructure (roads, railways, air and water) as well as the extraordinary quality of life.
The Automotive-Cluster RheinMainNeckar will in future continue to stand for quality workmanship made in Germany, which has its roots in a strong network, and a region known for its long tradition as a business location, cosmopolitanism and quality of life.
The author was born in Straubing in 1965 and as an officer studied Economics and Organizational Science in Hamburg. Since 1995, he has worked for the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) Darmstadt and heads the business areas Business Start-Up and Support as well as International Affairs. He was one of the co-initiators of the Automotive-Cluster RheinMainNeckar in 2003.