FOCUSING ON PEOPLE

Based in Toggenburg (CH), Optrel produces protective helmets for welders all over the world. CEO Marco Koch discusses just how high-tech this niche product is, where he gets ideas for new products, and how Optrel is doing something positive with a new special edition product.

Mr Koch, you acquired Optrel nearly eight years ago together with your brother. Why did you buy this company in particular?

The French parent company was looking to part ways with Optrel, which was then faced with having to close its doors. Our main goal was to protect the 45 jobs in Toggenburg. We also wanted to show that Switzerland has a future as a centre of production. After all, we have an emotional connection to the company, too: my father was one of the company’s founders back in 1986, which gave us an opportunity to take back the business and bring a whole new splendour to the brand.

Describe your helmets.

Our helmets not only protect welders but also improve the level of comfort and make work easier for them – resulting in greater efficiency. This is thanks to the automatic glare protection: the LCD technology darkens the glass automatically the moment the welding arc is ignited so that the welder can still see around them before and after welding. There are many companies that now offer this technology, but there’s something the rest can’t offer: the intensity of the welding arc differs depending on the welding process. Thanks to intelligent sensors, our helmets automatically adjust the level of tinting required – in a continuously variable range. We’ve also increased the field of view by a factor of six, without making the helmet heavier or uncomfortable to wear.

You’ve been making helmets with air filters for several years now. How did you come up with the idea to integrate this feature?

Air filtration has been one of our strategic focuses for several years. This is because welding fumes are extremely harmful – so a welding helmet without particle filtering offers no protection at all against these fumes.

You export your helmets to around 50 countries, with 95% of sales generated abroad. What is occupational safety like in those other countries? Are there major differences?

There are huge differences. Occupational safety is a matter of course in the Western world – particularly in large companies. Unfortunately, smaller companies often neglect it. Regulations are absolutely essential. In the Middle East and in Asia, occupational safety is hardly a concept. In those places, efficiency is the main sales argument for our products.

For example?

Just recently, one of our product managers in the United Arab Emirates was able to convince a customer of the benefits of our helmet with air filter. In the 45°C workshop, the welders wearing helmets and protective suits had to take breaks every few minutes to cool off in another room. Because our helmet features an air purification system with cooling, the workers were able to work for half an hour without any trouble.

What’s next for Optrel?

We have a lot of great ideas and can hardly wait to turn them into something real. But we also have to stay focused: 25% of our 60 employees work in development – a very high ratio. When we acquired the company, the technology had been around for 25 years. The prevailing attitude was that there was hardly any room left for innovation. But the opposite is true, in fact. There’s no shortage of projects in the pipeline.

Can you tell us anything specific?

All I can say is that we want to connect our helmets to the Internet of Things so that they can communicate with the welding unit or other applications.

Your recipe for success?

Our activities are guided by market demands, we are always looking for new technologies, and we are working with external technology and development partners like QUO to prevent tunnel vision in the company.

What is the project with QUO all about?

We’re working with QUO to develop a new generation of respiratory protective equipment. QUO also developed the design for a special edition of one of our helmets, which was recently launched during a charity campaign. The proceeds from sales will be donated to the organisation «Licht für die Welt», which gives people in developing countries access to cataract surgery. An operation costs 30 euros. Our goal in this is to restore clear vision for 3,000 people. It also is an opportunity for us to serve as role models and demonstrate how it often doesn’t take much to make a real difference.

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