Sulzer Technical Review Issue 3 / 2019

Serving our customers: 100 years of knowledge transfer

November 27, 2019

How does a company like Sulzer succeed in asserting itself on the market for over 185 years, continuously creating innovative products? What influence does the transfer of knowledge have, and how does the curiosity of employees influence knowledge transfer? What will the knowledge transfer of the future look like?

Cover of the first Sulzer Technical Review from 1919.
Nadia Qaud Sulzer Winterthur
Author: Nadia Qaud, Winterthur, Switzerland

In 1919 — 85 years after the company was founded — Sulzer’s first customer magazine was published in French. Since then, the Sulzer Technical Review has provided technical information on Sulzer’s current product range without interruption.

The magazine’s 100th anniversary gives us a glimpse into the history of Sulzer as well as the future of knowledge transfer.

Johann Jakob Sulzer and Salomon Sulzer - the company founders of Sulzer.
Fig. 1 The two founders of the Sulzer company.

Networks for knowledge transfer in pre-industrial times

Professional networks are not an invention of our contemporary age. In earlier centuries in Europe, craftsmen acquired knowledge within the family business, then moved on foot from shop to shop to learn additional skills. Before the Sulzer brothers (Fig. 1) established their new foundry in Winterthur in 1834, they collected technical and craft expertise in Switzerland, France and the Kingdom of Bavaria through apprenticeships. Johann Jakob Sulzer’s journey led him from Bern and Lyon to Paris between 1827 and 1830. Salomon Sulzer apprenticed in Munich, Ulm and Guebwiller in Alsace.

The picture gallery shows the site development in Winterthur city from 1834 on.

The first heating boiler of Switzerland built in 1841 by Sulzer.
Fig. 4 Sulzer built Switzerland’s first heating boiler in 1841.

Pioneering achievements thanks to a fascination with technology

As early as 1839, the Sulzer brothers used a steam engine instead of horsepower to drive the foundry’s bellows. The Sulzer company was intensively involved with steam because of its founders’ enthusiasm for new technology. This was not only used as a working medium for power transmission in the foundry; energy transmission by steam also led to the development of new, innovative products. Sulzer was a Swiss pioneer in boiler construction and heating technology. The company built the first large, steam-powered central heating system in 1841 (Figs. 4 and 5).

Heating pipes in Winterthur boys' school.
Fig. 5 Heating pipes in Winterthur boys’ school.
Engineer Charles Brown (1827-1905) worked for Sulzer from 1851 to 1871.
Fig. 6 Charles Brown (1827–1905) worked for Sulzer from 1851 to 1871.

Success thanks to recruiting the best talent

The Sulzer brothers recognized early on how important the skills and knowledge of their employees were for new developments and improvements within the company. In the early nineteenth century, England was a pioneer in the fields of steam engines, tool construction and mechanical engineering. During a trip to England, Johann Jakob Sulzer met the young engineer Charles Brown (Fig. 6) and recruited him, along with his knowledge, for steam engine construction in Switzerland.

The award-winning Sulzer valve steam engine from 1867.
Fig. 7 The award-winning Sulzer valve steam engine from 1867, developed by Charles Brown.

At Sulzer, Brown enjoyed a great deal of freedom and was able to creatively translate his in-depth knowledge and wealth of ideas into numerous new designs, improvements in operations and new products. Sulzer built its first steam engine with 2.2 kW (3 hp) in 1854. Brown’s persistence and perfectionism led to the centrifugal valve control and thus to an increase in performance and safe operation of the steam engine. The Sulzer valve steam engine (Fig. 7) already had 121 kW (165 hp) in 1865 and was awarded first prize at the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris. Sulzer thus gained worldwide renown and even granted manufacturing licenses to partner companies to manufacture the steam engines around the globe.

Engineer Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) worked for Sulzer in 1879.
Fig. 8 Rudolf Diesel (1858–1913) completed an internship at Sulzer in 1879.

In 1878, a young, talented student completed an internship at Sulzer and got a taste of industrial work. His name is world-famous today: Rudolf Diesel (Fig. 8). After applying for his patent for the diesel combustion engine in 1893, he offered it to Sulzer for use. Sulzer thus established an extremely successful mainstay and produced diesel engines from 1898 until 1997. Fig. 9 shows the assembly hall for diesel engines in 1909.

Discovering new talent and using the energy as a driving force is a skill that is still held in high regard in the Sulzer Corporation today. Close connections and cooperation with leading universities worldwide not only open up access for Sulzer to the latest knowledge, but also to the talent pool of bright minds in the fields of science and technology.

Diesel engines in the assembly hall at Sulzer in 1909.
Fig. 9 Diesel engines in the assembly hall at Sulzer in 1909.

Energy supply as a driver of innovation

Sulzer established itself in the energy supply sector long ago with its valve steam engine and steam heaters. A look at the technological history of the last 200 years shows how rapidly energy technologies have changed. Numerous groundbreaking product developments and patents in this field originate from Sulzer. From the very beginning, Sulzer has distinguished itself by rapidly implementing the latest scientific findings and offering reliable, tested and safe processes.

From the water mill to solar energy

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, grain mills, sawmills and forges were mainly driven directly by water wheels, partly also by windmills, and later by steam engines (optimized by J. Watt in 1765). Generators (1866) powered by steam engines or hydroelectric power supplied electricity for the first electric motors in the factories. This was followed by thermal power stations, in which fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas generated steam, which in turn was used to drive steam turbines and generators. After the expansion of the power grids and electrification (around 1880), the electric motor finally established itself as a universal driver for stationary applications. With the invention of the combustion engine (1807 – F. I. de Rivaz) and the diesel engine (1893 – R. Diesel), power generation became economical even in smaller units, and automobiles conquered the roads of the world. The civil use of nuclear energy through nuclear fission (1938 – O. Hahn/F. Strassmann) led to the construction of nuclear power plants. Today, renewable energies have come to the forefront — energy from biomass, geothermal energy, ocean energy from the tides, wind energy and solar energy.

Change in energy supply — from thermal power and nuclear power to renewable wind and solar power.
Fig. 10 Change in energy supply — from thermal power and nuclear power to renewable wind and solar power.

Sulzer was involved in all of these advances: steam engines, turbines, generators and pumps for storage power plants, as well as heavy water distillation technology for nuclear power plants. Sulzer is considered a pioneer due to the speed with which the company has translated technical innovations into technically mature, reliable product developments. Electric motors were used in Sulzer pumps as early as 1894, four years after the introduction of high-voltage electrical networks. Only five years passed between the licensing and market launch of the first 14 kW (20 hp) diesel engine in 1898. Diesel ship engines were introduced in 1904, and the first diesel locomotive in 1912 already had 882 kW (1’200 hp). Sulzer’s high-performance pumps were essential for equipping the first hydroelectric reservoir power plants. As early as 1904, a 590 kW pump was used for this purpose.

Today, Sulzer is involved in the development of technology for renewable energies, be it separation technology for renewable energies with microbes or molten salt pumps used in concentrated solar power plants.

The following listing shows how the focus of Sulzer’s main activities changed during the course of the company’s history: foundry 1834–1993, pumps 1834–today, services 1834–today, heating and air-conditioning 1841–2001, thermal power systems 1841–1997, steam engines 1854–1952, vessel manufacturing 1867–1934, rock drilling and tunneling 1876–1905, refrigeration systems 1877–2001, piston compressors 1878–2002, diesel engines 1898–1989, water turbines 1911–1999, locomotives 1912–1998, production of thermal turbomachinery from 1939–2001, waste combustion plants 1941–1994, jet engines 1945–1999, textile machinery 1952–2002, chemical process engineering 1956–today, applicator systems 1958–today, medical technology 1962–2001, electronics 1963–1999, paper machinery 1966–2006, surface technology 1985–2013, fuel cells 1997–2005.

Covers of Sulzer Technical Review from 1919 to 2019.
Fig. 11 The Sulzer Technical Review over the years.

Sulzer Technical Review – 100 years of knowledge transfer

The first customer magazine was published in 1919 to make it easier for Sulzer’s customers to understand complex technical interrelationships. The magazine promoted Sulzer’s technical achievements, patents and development progress, as well as making it known to the public. Since then, Sulzer’s Technical Review has been a source of knowledge for people with a wide range of technical interests (Fig. 11).

New times – new paths

The transfer of knowledge has changed with the advent of the Internet. Transfer takes place on numerous channels with varying depths of information and uses media such as videos, animations and webinars to attract readers’ attention. Who still takes the time to read extensive issues of a customer magazine? With this in mind, and now that 100 years have passed, Sulzer is breaking new ground in knowledge transfer.

Knowledge transfer with “Sulzer Stories”

Sulzer remains loyal to the technical transfer of knowledge and the broadening of horizons, but in the future distribution will take place in smaller, more frequent portions. Individual articles will be published on the website in the “Sulzer Stories” section and through our various social media platforms. Those who subscribe to our STR newsletter will automatically receive these technical tidbits. Those who love to do things themselves can use the search functions on the site to find what they need. And if you want to immerse yourself in figures and technical details, you can continue to enjoy the Sulzer White Paper.

The “Sulzer Stories” are committed to the tradition of knowledge transfer. In the future, we will offer our readers stories and knowledge about new materials, production processes, data technology, product innovations, and process innovations that benefit our customers. Register now to start benefiting:

Sulzer Stories - the future of Sulzer's knowledge transfer.
Fig. 12 The future — “Sulzer Stories”.

Sulzer Technical Review

Nadia Qaud