What began in May 1946 as a small repair shop for rubber articles in war-ravaged Kassel has developed over the decades into a true global player in the mobility industry: With approximately 3,500 employees at more than 30 locations, the HÜBNER Group is now a world leader in the field of gangway systems as well as elastomer seals for buses and trains.
In addition, the HÜBNER Group also supplies chassis systems, cockpit displays, folding canopies for passenger boarding bridges, coated textiles for biogas systems and GRP hoods for construction vehicles. And for several years, high-performance lasers have also been part of the company's product portfolio. The anniversary is being celebrated under the motto: "HÜBNER connects. People. Products. Places."
At the beginning, we produced small molded parts or seals and also repaired rubber boots. My grandfather was the technically minded one and my father the businessman and networker. To the customers he never simply said, "I can do that, we'll take care of it!" But that way we were always able to surprise the customers and convince them when we presented a clever solution for a problem that had seemed to be entirely insoluble.
In 1952, the company Henschel built the first articulated buses. My grandfather had the idea of taking the material used for folding boats instead of normal material to cover the bus articulation. And then cutting this material, sewing it, sealing the seams properly, and stabilizing them with aluminum so that a strong and weather-resistant bellows for the bus could be made. We had a big success with that! The next big step was with the TEE, the Trans-Europe-Express. For this train we built sound-insulated gangways and this made it possible for us to become the main gangway supplier of the Deutsche Bahn. The rail orders were a very important basis for the further development of our company.
As a five-year-old, I was already often in the company and was very interested in the work my father and grandfather were doing. Then I did my studies in Aachen and got a degree in industrial engineering with a focus on plastics and elastomer technology. After finishing at university, I wanted to do something practical and went to do a work-study program in Los Angeles in the USA at Goodyear. In 1972 at the request of my father, I started in Kassel and worked my way through all departments – from folding bellows to plastics.
I had already been back for five years, but my father thought I still needed to learn more. I found out then that in Brazil in the coming years, lots of folding bellows would be needed. So I gave my father the choice: "Either you let me lead the company now or I go to Brazil." The answer came quickly: "Go to Brazil!"
I went to Brazil, and looking back that was really the best thing I could have done. The beginnings were modest, but I learned to speak Portuguese fluently and taught the first Brazilian colleagues how to produce folding bellows. We were very successful.
At Christmas 1984, my father said that he wasn't feeling so well. And in March 1985, he suffered a stroke. Despite getting a fast flight connection back to Germany, I unfortunately could only hold his hand for a short time. I took over the company and the start went very quickly thanks to the good cooperation of the employees.
Also at that time the responsibilities were strongly distributed to the employees. They are the pillars of the business. Thank God we have lots of employees who put their hearts and souls into the company.
The company Bombardier was so convinced of our gangways and they had the opinion that we should either produce the gangways ourselves in America or license the production there to another company. Of course, we wanted to manufacture ourselves for customers at the location, and so it became necessary to establish a branch in America. The high-speed gangways were then a complete success and the USA became our next international mainstay.
To China, which again had to do with customers' wishes. At that time lots and lots of subways were being built there and we needed to take part in that. At the beginning only a joint venture was possible. That ran very well for 10 years and then there was a separation. But we stayed in China and have developed our own company there now. Today we have our highest sales outside of Germany in China.
We've stayed close together as a team. This personal connection is based strongly on tradition. We speak very openly with the employees. Only in this way can be shape the future optimally as a major company.
In addition to this, innovation is the basis on which HÜBNER has developed as a company and at the same time it's the foundation for really enjoying the work. Research is what keeps us a step ahead of the competition. We are very technologically oriented. We want to continually improve our products.
The story of the HÜBNER Group starts in the year 1946. In the challenging post-war period, Kurt Hübner founds a company for rubber articles and repairs. The workshop quickly established itself as a specialist for rubber production and as the regional expert for special developments in the field.
The start in the 1950s is strong: In the early Bundesrepublik, the economy is booming, and in Kassel the name "Gummi-HÜBNER" (rubber-HÜBNER) is already well-established. And then HÜBNER receives an order that continues to have effects until today – for the renewal and enhancement of the gangways between the individual cars of the Deutsche Bahn trains.
HÜBNER sets to work on the gangways and: the first modern folding bellows is born – and with it the Mobility business segment. The company is still producing the gangways for the Deutsche Bahn until today – a unique relationship. Shortly after that: The former Kassel-based company Henschel builds the first articulated buses - and HÜBNER again develops a new folding bellows – this time for buses. It is another crucial development step in the history of the company.
1968: The company expands its portfolio: The start of polyurethane production (PUR) marks the birth of today's Materials business segment.
HÜBNER brings extensive technical know-how together with a wide network of business relationships. Major customers like the Deutsche Bahn can now also order passive safety components made of PUR directly from HÜBNER – in addition to folding bellows. HÜBNER is thus the specialist for gangways in buses and trains already in the 1970s, and with its PUR department offers customized and individual plastic solutions to its customers.
In the 2010s, HÜBNER takes another big step: The company enters the new technology fields of terahertz, photonics, lasers and high-frequency technologies.
A step that pays off: The Photonics business segment grows strongly. It allows HÜBNER to access an entirely new customer segment, serving research institutions and universities. In addition, HÜBNER acquires the Swedish laser manufacturer Cobolt in 2015 and dramatically expands its presence in the photonics field.
An important strategic decision is made in 2017. As the Photonics business continues to grow and to become more independent, a restructuring of the company is undertaken. HÜBNER is now divided into three business segments: Mobility, Materials, Photonics.
Gangway systems play the major role in the Mobility business segment. Materials supplies the required basic products for gangways and develops the fields of PUR and GRP further. Photonics is oriented more and more to applications in the areas of research and high technology.
In the following interview, HÜBNER's three general managers Helge Förster (Mobility), Ingolf Cedra (Materials & Photonics), and Gerald Steinhoff (Corporate Functions) talk about how the company is meeting current challenges, the solutions it is working on, and what will make HÜBNER successful in the future.
Förster: Let's get started this way: For us, it is clear that the mobility solutions of tomorrow must be developed today, taking into account the parameters of the future. Here is a clear goal that we as suppliers to the industry share: To have more mobility with less traffic and congestion.
Public transport in particular, as a key pillar of the transport revolution, is currently undergoing an exciting transformation process: On the one hand, greater transport capacities are needed, and on the other, passengers should be able to get from A to B in comfort and not in cramped conditions. The corona pandemic, in particular, has made the issue of the amount of space that is provided to passengers even more urgent.
Steinhoff: The buses and trains of the future will have to be larger to successfully meet the mobility demands of the future.
Förster: Exactly. Larger and at the same time smarter. For example, the buses of the future will consist of three or more articulated segments so as to be able to transport even more passengers. These so-called high-capacity vehicles will have multiple axles and will therefore require special electronic steering systems. When there are six different steered axles and just one of these doesn't want to go in the right direction, this can get dangerous very quickly. So an intelligent and reliable steering system is essential.
That's why we've been working together with research institutes such as the Fraunhofer IWI, to develop a vehicle control system with which such buses, which are over 30 meters long, can be driven safely through city traffic. The special feature of this HÜBNER innovation is the simulation of virtual rails: Our steering system analyzes the desired direction of travel and uses it to calculate the steering behavior of all the following axles as if they were following an actual rail.
Cedra: Embedded Sensor Technologies is the buzzword of the future – this involves sensor systems embedded in sophisticated material combinations from material formulations we have developed ourselves in-house. We see this as a great added value for our customers.
In addition, we are also moving forward with 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. At our Kassel location alone, we are already working with twelve state-of-the-art 3D printers. On the one hand, this enables us to produce components from plastic or synthetic resin easily and, above all, quickly.
On the other hand, additive manufacturing holds enormous innovation potential – which our research team is making use of. A 3D printer makes it possible to produce many parts for test products or pilot projects easily, quickly and with high precision. Rapid prototyping is the key concept here.
Steinhoff: At a basic level, we are looking very closely at the question – which topics can we already prepare for technologically today in order to then serve markets in the future.
Cedra: Photonics works with combining optical technologies with digital and software technologies. It therefore makes sense to harness these core competencies for new applications in our main business areas. One direct outgrowth of this is our new "Smart Solutions" team. The gangways and door sealing systems of the future will be equipped with sensor technology that will actually make them capable of learning: Sensors will collect and analyze data in order to determine when maintenance should next occur or even if a malfunction might be imminent.
Förster: And using sensor systems it is also possible to guide passengers through vehicle boarding and exiting systems. This can increase transport capacity to a significant degree – without having to invest large amounts for new transport lines. Which brings a significant increase in mobility.
Steinhoff: The way that HÜBNER's different business segments are able to give each other new ideas and impetus shows very clearly that HÜBNER is a very multifaceted company – with a systematic approach and a vision: In key future technology fields, the company is already very far advanced. And it is precisely this expertise that benefits our classic mechanically oriented business areas. In this way, the company as a whole is growing sustainably and taking itself to the next level.
Förster: Particularly in the mobility sector, global competition presents us with a major challenge. Since most bus and rail projects are publicly financed, local decision-makers often attach great importance to local value creation. In this context, we not only need to meet the localization requirements of our customers, but also to produce in accordance with our own high standards.
Steinhoff: That's right. What we want to do finally is develop subsidiaries over the long term – and in this way open up lasting opportunities for the employees and the local economy at these locations. HÜBNER is thinking about sustainability on a worldwide basis. In this way, we create an international production network so as to be available worldwide as a close contact partner to our customers. Of course, the resources established with this approach need to be used sensibly.
Cedra: This is a process that has been going on for many years, and which will never be completely finished. As a company, we invest heavily in local and regional markets – such as the subsidiaries in India, the USA, China and Russia.
Steinhoff: We want to make HÜBNER's global resources, such as technology and above all knowledge, usable and available for all the companies of the HÜBNER Group worldwide.
The fact is that in our 30-plus subsidiaries and affiliates, there are always new examples of best practice that can be transferred to the company as a whole. And likewise, there are similar problems that come up again and again at HÜBNER locations around the world, but they don't have to be solved from scratch - if we share our knowledge. In order to make the best possible use of these resources, we need to understand our whole group of companies and look beyond our own backyard - the Kassel location. To put it simply: We need to think and act globally - across the whole HÜBNER Group.
In future our employees will be working in ways that are more networked and more mobile. We're currently setting up the conditions to make this possible with an IT structure for communicating and solving such challenges. And we are testing new forms of work: At the company's headquarters in Kassel, for example, there is now a Future Office that is analyzing and testing new ways of working. In the long term, the already international HÜBNER Group will continue to grow together more and more.
Cedra: In other areas, too, we are increasingly making use of the opportunities opened up to us by digital technologies. One such area is the design sector - where augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications can be put to use. Products such as our gangways can be visualized in virtual space and shown to customers. They can even be walked into and tested - anywhere on earth. This brings interaction with our customers to a whole new level.
Another new application dimension is digital platforms – which follows the trend of digitalization and networked IT systems. HÜBNER is currently developing its own new platform to be in contact with customers. Products and specific spare parts can then be selected on the platform and ordered online. And in future if technical problems should arise, customers will be able to communicate directly with our experts virtually – getting advice and support and, if necessary, ordering spare parts or even complete new HÜBNER products via the platform.
Reinhard Hübner established the first subsidiary of the company in 1979 in Brazil. When the company passed to him from his father Kurt Hübner, he set about developing the company further together with his general managers. As the company grew, new production capacities were needed. To meet the large demand for gangway systems, HÜBNER established another international location in Charleston, South Carolina in the USA.
And further production sites followed – in Hungary, Russia and in China, which in the meantime has become the largest rail market in the world. In subsequent years there were also new branches established in Sweden, France, Italy, India and many other places. Today the HÜBNER Group has 30 locations around the world.
The story of the HÜBNER Group begins in the year 1946. In the post-war period, 40-year-old Kurt Hübner founds a company for rubber articles and repairs. The company quickly established itself as a specialist for rubber production and as the regional expert for special developments in the field. Over the course of time, the company brings numerous new products to the market which quickly come to set benchmarks for various industries – from folding bellows to tunable lasers. Today the products of HÜBNER are in daily use all around the world.