70 YEARS OF INNOVATION – SICK’s success story


Inventing is a mysterious calling – a combination
of ingenuity, hard work, and a different way of thinking. Dr. Erwin Sick was a passionate inventor. It was his idea to combine optics with electronics
in order to harness the power of human vision in the monitoring of machines and emissions. At Siemens, for example, they had produced
electrical devices, and at Zeiss in Jena they assembled optical cameras and binoculars. But combining the two technologies into one
device, to create a sensor, was a new idea. It was an innovation that my husband essentially
came up with. The origins of his company go back to a small
barracks. Steinheil, a large optics firm in Munich,
where my husband had worked as a development engineer, built emergency shelters in Vaterstetten
outside of Munich. We lived in a barracks measuring 20 square
meters. And next to it was another one of the same
size, connected by a small corridor built by my husband. This is where he had his books, library, drawing
board and even a small lathe that he had bought so he could do his tinkering. From 1949, in a bid to attract business leads,
he attended various trade fairs. One year later, he received an important assignment:
To find a better way of protecting workers’ fingers in cutting machines. Since the 1930s, the solution to this problem
had been the photoelectric sensor, but Dr. Erwin Sick was working on a better solution. In 1950, he saw a beacon rotating at the former
Munich Riem Airport. In the hazy air, he observed the light beam
in motion. From this observation, he developed the autocollimation
principle and revolutionized safety technology. My husband then had the idea of using not
only protective photoelectric sensors, where you can still reach into the gaps with your
hands, but also to install a light curtain, which has a fast-rotating light beam, in front
of it. This device would completely prevent you from
reaching into the machine. So if somebody tried to reach through this
so-called light curtain, the machine would shut down. And it took the show by storm at the Hannover
Messe trade fair: the protective light curtain and what you could do with it. And soon enough, orders were coming in, from
large firms. This invention meant the breakthrough for
the young company. Over the following years and decades, SICK
developed more and more efficient protective devices which are now used in virtually all
industries to ensure the safety of workers and machinery. Dr. Erwin Sick believed in the effectiveness
of opto-electronic technology. So in 1951 he also invented a device that
could detect print marks on packaging materials. This made it possible to automate the food
manufacturing and packaging process. The company built on this foundation to become
one of the world’s leading manufacturers of sensors for the automation of production and
logistics processes. Dr. Erwin Sick was also a pioneer when it
came to protecting the environment. As early as 1958, he developed a device which
could measure smoke emissions in smoke stacks. This marked the birth of environmental measurement
technology at SICK. In the Ruhr area in the 20s and 30s, for example,
I had relatives in Dortmund telling me that they couldn’t hang out their laundry because
it would go black from all the smoke. But the days hanging out the laundry are no
longer a problem, because they managed to get exhaust emissions under control. Today, products and systems from SICK harness
the most efficient technologies to carry out measurements. And when it comes to monitoring emissions
and providing reliable environmental protection, the world’s first choice for measurements
is SICK. The commercial success of these products has
led to rapid growth for the company. Since 1956, the new home of SICK has been
in the German town of Waldkirch. And to this day the headquarters of SICK AG
remain in the south-west of Germany. 1972 saw the start of the company’s internationalization,
with the founding of its first subsidiary in France. Over the years that followed, the company
expanded to the US and Asia. Today SICK AG employs over 7,400 people and
has a global presence. And, in addition to Europe and the US, development
of sensor solutions has also begun in Asia. With over 40,000 products, SICK offers its
customers the largest product and technology portfolio in the industry. What began with the functionality of a single
product has developed into complex system solutions, with a range of services from a
single source. This full-range package has turned SICK into
the recognized expert and market leader for industrial sensors in over 40 key industries. The recipe for success from the small barracks
to a global market leader has a few basic rules. The main one being that we will never forget
the past and are conscious of our heritage. Development and innovation were the reason
for SICK coming into being, and this has not changed today. At the same time, we have always adopted technological
developments, as well as adding new ones, from optics to a wide variety of sensor technologies. As a result, today we have seven divisions
for different technologies and a solid segment-based organization with factory automation, logistics
automation, and process automation. At SICK, industry experts work together with
technology experts to develop tailored solutions for their customers. The result: Satisfied customers and over one
hundred thousand applications put into practice. In order to supply solutions to an international
market even more quickly, the company’s logistics processes underwent further development, too. Work that took a lot of effort to carry out
manually back then is now fully automated. Over 40,000 customers in Europe, as well as
the SICK subsidiaries across the globe, are supplied from the new distribution center. In 2013 the company achieved a major milestone
when it reached sales of over 1 billion euros. But this is not the first time SICK has been
in the headlines: From today, the first ten of 27 signal bridges
will look after traffic on the A4 between Cologne and Aachen, which is a black spot
for accidents. The traffic control system, which is going
into operation today, will warn drivers of fog banks in good time. A number of fog sensors will continuously
measure visual ranges, sending relevant data to a central computer administered by the
local government authority in Cologne. In 1988 Dr. Erwin Sick died of a heart attack
at the age of 79. His wife Gisela Sick promptly made it clear
that she would continue her husband’s lifetime achievement. Without any interruption, she has supervised
the company up to the present day as honorary chair of the supervisory board. As a mother of three children, the wife of
a restless inventor, and now a business person herself, she has led an eventful life. I honestly have to tell you, I was never bored
in my life. And even today I am not. Moreover, with the changes related to Industry 4.0, the company is going through exciting time. The prerequisite for an intelligent factory,
in which processes are optimized automatically, is data. The idea is to use data to develop new solutions
for customers. And from a technical standpoint, the sensor
is by definition the supplier of data. This means we are a direct prerequisite to
even make Industry 4.0 possible in technical fields. As a founding member of Industrial Data Space, and having already developed IO-Link in 2006, SICK and its almost 900 engineers are preparing
intelligent sensor technology for the interconnected world of the future. Over the past 70 years, the business that
Dr. Erwin Sick started as an engineering office has developed numerous innovative solutions. Just as it has always done, SICK will continue
striving in the future to make the impossible a reality with countless ideas and a great
deal of courage.

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