"In five years, we can serve the European battery market on our own!"

Interview with Thomas Lebbing, Managing Director of Jagenberg Converting Solutions GmbH

Thomas Lebbing, Managing Director of Jagenberg Converting Solutions GmbH
Thomas Lebbing, Managing Director of Jagenberg Converting Solutions GmbH

Some voices are skeptical about the future of European battery manufacturers, which are essential for the domestic production of electric vehicles – but not Thomas Lebbing, Managing Director of Jagenberg Converting Solutions GmbH, which manufactures indispensable components for this market. In an interview with Wirtschaftsforum, he revealed which settings need to be adjusted for a prospering battery sector in Germany.

Economic Forum: Mr. Lebbing, Jagenberg Converting Solutions set out three years ago to contribute to the development and expansion of the European battery industry for electromobility with its grown expertise in processing continuous substrates. Where exactly does your expertise come into play?

Thomas Lebbing: Basically, the typical battery, as used in all electric vehicles, requires three films – an anode, a cathode, and a separator film –, which are produced in wet coating processes. For this, special coating plants are needed, in the development and production of which our core competence lies, which we can now also apply in this segment. Through our sister company, Lebbing automation & drives GmbH, which has been manufacturing drive and control systems for this very type of coating plants for 25 years, we not only offer the complete mechanical engineering with Jagenberg Converting Solutions but also a very high level of automation technology, locally from Europe. With a length of 100 m, a height of 10 m, and a width of 12 m, the spatial dimensions of these machines alone are gigantic – and in the coming years, hundreds of them will be needed to meet the demand in the battery market for electric vehicles in Europe.

Jagenberg Converting Solutions Headquarters in Bocholt
Location of Jagenberg Converting Solutions in Bocholt

Economic Forum: Considering the ambition to independently support the local battery market within Europe, is this a realistic prospect, or rather a castle in the air?

Thomas Lebbing: No, it is not at all a castle in the air! I am convinced that in about five years, we can autonomously supply our own market, provided the correct decisions are made now – starting with the political decision-makers. Because if energy costs remain as high as they are, it will indeed be difficult for European manufacturers to produce their batteries cost-efficiently in our domestic market. Meanwhile, the offshore wind farms in the North and Baltic Seas are already generating enough sustainable energy to supply enough factories with cheap electricity. Sweden is leading by example – there, the cost per kilowatt-hour is now only 3 cents, while in Germany, it remains five to six times that amount.

Economic Forum: Another scaling hurdle is undoubtedly the general shortage of skilled workers.

Thomas Lebbing: This is a huge problem for Germany as a major exporting nation. Since many machines and equipment are sold abroad, we also need to find enough employees willing to carry out the necessary service and assembly work abroad and offer appropriate consultancy services on site. However, we have noticed that unfortunately, fewer and fewer workers want to engage in this – and especially younger skilled workers seem to prefer staying in their local area rather than venturing out into the wider world. My own career path was quite different: Before becoming the managing director of a total of four companies in the Jagenberg Group, I spent many years working abroad, experiencing various mentalities and attitudes – experiences that significantly influence my actions today. If the younger generation does not share the same interest, it will also have consequences for Germany's export-driven economic power.

Jagenberg Converting Solutions Maintenance work on a coating line
For maintenance work on a coating line
Jagenberg Converting Solutions Anode Foil
An anode foil is coated

Economic Forum: Is this development solely due to the attitude of young employees?

Thomas Lebbing: The bureaucratic processes for work-related stays abroad must also be urgently simplified. As it is, it is sometimes easier to send employees to Canada or the USA than to another member state of the European Union. We also had to largely discontinue our attempt to bring highly qualified engineers from third countries to Germany and employ them here after one year due to the enormous bureaucratic hurdles. A rethinking is urgently needed here, otherwise establishing local subsidiaries outside of Germany and Europe remains the only way to effectively utilize global knowledge resources – which in turn would be at the expense of the competitiveness of our national economy.

Economic Forum: Which innovations will Jagenberg Converting Solutions focus particularly intensively on in the coming years?

Thomas Lebbing: At the moment, our focus is on appropriate scaling measures to permanently serve the sheer volume of demanded equipment, so that the necessary batteries and electric vehicles can roll off the production line in sufficient quantities in Europe. At the same time, we are feverishly working on further improving our energy efficiency, which will result in a corresponding cost reduction of our components – this will then be noticeable throughout the entire value chain. In addition, new innovative processes are currently being developed across the industry, which can make the manufacturing processes more cost-effective and resource-efficient – here too, we are broadly integrating our R&D expertise, so that the European quality advantage over Asian manufacturers can remain a lasting competitive edge.