Hilti’s stated raison d’être is to provide construction solutions that are better, and will last longer, than competing products. Those products – identifiable by their familiar red boxes – include measuring systems, drilling and demolition, cordless, direct fastening and firestop systems.
They are not usually the cheapest on the market, so customers have to believe they’re getting added value when they part with their cash.
One of the ways Hilti manages to achieve this is by a high level of investment in research and development. “Our innovation power allowed us once again to bring a great number of fascinating new products and system solutions to the market,” said Hilti chief executive officer Bo Risberg in the company’s latest report.
Much of this “innovation power” is based at two major production facilities – in Kaufering, south Germany, and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, where the facilities feel more like a university campus than a factory making products for construction sites.
In 2009 Hilti generated sales of 3.9bn Swiss Francs (£2.1bn) and invested £121M in research and development. This large and sustained investment in R&D, particularly against the backdrop of a worldwide recession, helps the company keep on trumping its rivals with innovative products.
Hilti employs almost 20,000 people across 120 countries, with about 14,000 in the direct sales force. It’s this direct sales force, as well as the innovative products, that sets Hilti apart from its competitors. The firm’s staff work with construction professionals to develop solutions that will be more productive, and may not be not be possible by other means.
“You can’t provide specific solutions for the customer with off-the-shelf products.”
As Hilti communications consultant Frank Despineux says: “You can’t provide specific solutions for the customer with off-the-shelf products.”
A typical example is in Leeds, where contractor Bam needed to install 4,700 frame cramps at its Whitehall Riverside site. Hilti’s solution - an XQT wall connector installed by shot firing – cost 66% less than the equivalent method with self-tapping screws, thanks to a massive reduction in installation time.
Hilti’s size and structure means it has experts on many fields of construction, such as the latest EU legislation on everything from Eurocodes to hand-arm vibration.
“Health and safety drives so much of what we do,” explains Despineux. “Our AVR [Active Vibration Reduction] on power tools has led the field for 10 years. It allows the site worker to use our product for much longer, meaning that they are much productive, saving time and money on the site,” says Despineux.
AVR is a damping mechanism that reduces vibration created on its power tools. The vibration is up to two-thirds lower than conventional tools and protects the worker against long periods of vibration exposure.
“There are two benefits to a company purchasing this for its worker. Firstly, they will be much more productive, and secondly it shows that the company cares by giving them the best possible tools for this job,” says Despineux.
Other innovations designed to help keep workers safe are Active Torque Control – which prevents a tool body rotating to just ¼ of a turn if it gets stuck, and a Dust Removal System (see box).
In the last 20 years there have been a number of significant collapses at car parks both in the UK – notably in Wolverhampton in 1997 – and abroad due to “punching shear”, which occurs when a reinforced concrete slab has collapsed around one or more columns. It occurs, in most cases, because there is not enough transverse reinforcement where the column meets the slab.
Hilti’s solution to strengthening the slab is to use tension anchors. Inclined holes are drilled into the concrete slab at a 45° angle towards the concrete column. The hole should be long enough to reach the upper reinforcement where it is in tension. Anchor shears are inserted around the column to the amount required.
Hilti scientific consultant Jakob Kunz, who helped develop the anchor shears, explains: “There are other products [that can help prevent punching shear], but this is the only one that can be used on slabs where there is only access on one side.”
The anchors can also be retrofitted, which is particularly useful, as there has been concern that the roof decks of many car parks and underpasses carrying heavy loads could need strengthening.
Furthermore, concrete slabs designed to BS8110 – the code traditionally used for this design – are 30% weaker compared to the new Eurocode 2. That, combined with overloading on structures, suggests that this could be a vital strengthening tool in the retrofit market.
Anchor shears, like Hilti’s other products, went through vigorous testing at the Liechtenstein facility. Testing involved analysing the failure pattern of concrete slabs with and without the anchor shears.
“The anchors gave a 60% increase in strength and also increased the slab’s deformation capacity,” says Kunz. “Alternatives, such as installing a steel collar around the top of column, are just as brittle, so can’t deform.”
Deformation helps considerably because it helps distribute loads to neighbouring columns in the event of overloading.
“Forty years ago we knew much less about punching shear. Anchor shears are a very useful retrofitting tool,” says Kuntz.
Hilti, like many other companies large and small, is becoming increasingly concerned about its carbon footprint. The firm has been calculating its CO² emissions for five years now, and has lofty ambitions to reduce it.
“In the past few years our customers have been asking more and more questions about what we are doing about our CO² emissions,” says project and process manager Arno Mathis. “We and our customers care about CO² emissions.”
The company’s CO² strategy focuses on “reduction initiatives” – finding energy efficient improvements for its plants, and regional fuel caps for its 14,000 fleet cars. It is also replacing fossil fuel energy sources with renewables for plant and vehicles.
In 2006, when Hilti first calculated its CO² emissions, it equated to 5.37t per employee; by 2009 that had reduced to 4.56t. This was due, in part, to the global downturn, but 40% of the reduction resulted from a change in the electricity mix used in the plants (now over 80% from renewable sources). By 2012 Hilti hopes to put a CO² value on its products, and wants to be carbon neutral by 2020.
One of Hilti’s best-known product areas it its power tool range. However, for the worker on site, usingpower tools comes with hazards – two of the biggest being hand arm vibration and dust.
Hilti has been working on many innovations over the years to limit and prevent both, coming up with solutions that both protect workers, and enables them to become much more productive.
“Health and safety and productivity go hand in hand,” says Hilti construction tools manager Devrim Akyuez.
Hilti’s latest product to help prevent dust is its Dust Removal System (NCE 25 March 2010), in which dust is removed at the source.
Firstly, the tool is developed with dust removal in mind so, for example, sanding sheets have special coatings that reduce clogging, and holes that are positioned to more effectively remove dust.
Power tools often have specially shaped hoods that capture dust as it is created and sends it through a chamber to a vacuum cleaner. “Our tools are designed with the user in mind,” added Akyuez. “Removal of dust makes it a much safer and more productive environment.”