Knowledge sharing among alumni

Carsten Elsasser and Dr. Roman Bouffier of Kautex Textron GmbH & Co. KG in conversation

The Pentatonic battery system by Kautex: an outcome of significant market changes.
Photo: Kautex Textron

Kautex Textron GmbH & Co. KG is a global market leader in fuel tank systems. The close cooperation with RWTH and the expertise of RWTH alumni with which the company has engaged in the last decade have contributed significantly to this development. Under the leadership of alumnus Carsten Elsasser and with the support of alumnus Dr. Roman Bouffier, the Innovation and Strategy department has evolved into the Technology Center, the heart of Kautex Textron.

Carsten Elsasser studied mechanical engineering at RWTH between 1988 and 1994, with a specialization in process engineering. He began his professional career as a business consultant in the TÜV Rhineland Group, which included spending two years in Japan. In June 1999, he took the role of global project manager at Kautex Textron and has subsequently held positions as program manager, director of product development, and director of operations for the production facility in Bonn, in the course of which he has contributed substantially to the growth and success of the company. With the aim of enabling Kautex to develop further towards future challenges, Elsasser took the post of director of the Innovation and Strategy department in 2014. Since then, he has worked in this role with the objective of implementing the Kautex Vision 2025, which is to develop groundbreaking solutions for the new mobility era with products for hybrid, electric, and autonomous vehicles.

Carsten Elsasser, Director Innovation & Strategy
Photo: Jochen Hild

Dr. Roman Bouffier studied mechanical engineering at RWTH from 2001 to 2007, obtained a doctorate there in 2012 and then from 2012 to 2015, was chief engineer and deputy head of the Institute for Plastics Processing (IKV) at RWTH. After a year of cooperation between IKV Aachen and Kautex Textron, Roman Bouffier decided in 2015 to take a position as a senior research manager in the Innovations department at Kautex Textron. He has been director of research there since fall 2016 and since then has made decisive contributions to the success of the Innovation and Strategy department.

Dr. Roman Bouffier, Director Research
Photo: privat

For our magazine, the two alumni look back together over the paths that led them both to Kautex Textron and also talk about the current challenges being faced by their company.

Roman Bouffier: You graduated from RWTH in 1994, but where did the idea come from to study mechanical engineering, and why at RWTH in particular?

Carsten Elsasser: RWTH has an excellent reputation, is well-known at the national level and has a great network, thanks to its network of institutes and its many faculties. So the decision about where to study wasn’t hard for me. Why mechanical engineering? Well, there was nothing I could imagine more attractive than being able to work in a technological environment. What brought me to mechanical engineering in particular was my interest in technological solutions and innovation.

Roman Bouffier: It was similar for me. I’d always had a particular penchant for chemistry and was very interested in plastics as a material, and so that’s why I opted for plastics technology as my specialization. And because plastics technology is so open to so many industries and because plastics are found in every area of life, there’s a wide scope of possibilities both technically and in terms of a career.

Carsten Elsasser: After you graduated, why did you go to work at an institute and not straight into business?

Roman Bouffier: While I was still studying, I had the desire to work in a team of early-career researchers and to be able to work more intensively and for longer on a particular topic. At IKV, I was given a lot of scope for determining my actions and quickly also responsibility for my own budget, my own work group and the freedom to influence the direction of research.

So now it’s your turn, tell me why you went straight into business?

Carsten Elsasser: After a few years in Aachen, my main desire was to be able to apply my knowledge in an exciting new environment and to deepen it there. Initially, I was able to work in a business consultancy for process optimization and management systems. This enabled me to work across sectors and companies and to pick up a lot of experience in a short time. My consulting work also allowed me to go to Japan for a number of years, set up an appropriate consultancy business there, and gather exciting international experiences.

And I don’t need to ask how you came to Kautex Textron, but perhaps we should go into this a little more for the sake of our readership.

‘Plastics can be immensely sustainable if they are used cleverly and if we take care of the end of the product lifecycle properly.’

Dr. Roman Bouffier

Roman Bouffier: Absolutely! There has been close contact between Kautex Textron and IKV for a long time in terms of shared research activity and projects. The working atmosphere was always very pleasant – and stimulating. Finally, the strategic orientation of Kautex led me to switch to the free market. The innovation topics, the numerous technological developments, and also the change in the automotive industry to which the product and technological innovations are linked attracted me strongly to finding work in this field.

Looking back over your career with Kautex, what were your personal milestones?

Carsten Elsasser: I had the opportunity of playing a decisive role in the successful market launches of various technologies and products. In 2009, for example, the first two customer programs with our NGFS® twin-sheet technology were launched. For several years, my team has also been working on completely new products for autonomous driving and e-mobility. Successful technological developments were and are extremely important in enabling us to meet technological requirements, to offer new functionalities within a product and to provide our customers with future-oriented solutions.

And what have you been able to put into motion, to experience, to design during your time as research director?

Roman Bouffier: The relevance of our department has grown sharply in a very short time. With its additional new products in its portfolio, Kautex has gone from an almost 100-percent focus on fuel tanks to being a driver of innovations in the industry. I have helped to create new topic areas and teams and been involved in bringing the necessary competences on board – for example by setting up the Composite Training series, a global training program for our employees in which over 200 of our colleagues have taken part so far. Apart from this, I played a significant role in setting up the new Tech Center at Kautex and equipping it with the latest systems technology to enable the development of our new product innovations.

Carsten Elsasser: The shifts in the automotive industry have given us the opportunity to break into new growth areas, address new markets, and also to grow sustainably, in the sense of sustainable mobility.

Roman Bouffier: Yes, it makes it clear who is sufficiently flexible and agile to succeed in the market. Kautex is a highly dynamic company that is capable of developing appropriate strategies and products. The change was initiated, to a significant extent, by the Vision 2025 that you created in 2018. How were you involved in planning Vision 2025?

Carsten Elsasser: Because of the big changes in the market, the senior leadership team at Kautex saw the need to analyze the direction in which the automotive industry was moving and what role we wanted to play in terms of new mobility. We determined the topic areas in which we wanted to invest on the basis of market developments and our own core competences in the automotive sector. An example of this is our Pentatonic battery system.

Roman Bouffier: And what has impressed me in particular about this change is that we don’t just stop with our own ideas for development. Right now we are putting the first mass production plant for battery systems in China into operation. It’s remarkable to see how this strategy is now becoming the new reality. You mentioned sustainability just now. What is the role of sustainability for the future of Kautex Textron, in your view?

‘The chance to gain experience abroad early on in my career, to work and communicate with other cultures, was the most enriching thing of all for me.’

Carsten Elsasser

Carsten Elsasser: I think that every company should take its responsibility seriously and act in a sustainable way and offer sustainable products on the market. We are also constantly looking for ways to reduce our CO2 footprint – and have defined our ‘sustainability roadmap’ for this purpose, for example, which sets out the milestones for us to reach CO2 neutrality.

How do you regard this topic as a former IKV man? Plastic hardly has a sustainable image, after all.

Roman Bouffier: True enough, but plastics can be immensely sustainable if they are used cleverly and if we take care of the end of the product lifecycle properly. Plastics are not only recyclable and have a considerably lower CO2 footprint than the metals that are otherwise normally used. They can also enable energy savings during their service life thanks to their potential as lightweight materials, particularly in transport – in cars, trains, aircraft, and so on. A carefully used plastic can thus reduce the CO2 footprint of a vehicle.

Looking back to your days as a student, what make a particular impression on you for your professional career?

Carsten Elsasser: The chance to gain experience abroad early on in my career, to work and communicate with other cultures, was the most enriching thing of all for me, but on top of this, the large network of institutions and alumni was very helpful to me after I graduated.

Roman Bouffier: Yes, I feel that the theoretical training provided by RWTH is perfectly complemented by the environment of the Institute. The links to industry, the many opportunities for coming into contact with different technologies and companies have also opened many doors for internships and periods abroad – and that goes on in my everyday professional life up to now.

What advice would you give to students today?

Carsten Elsasser: Seize the opportunity for internships and subsequent jobs in industrial companies alongside your studies so as to build up experience. And make use of any possibilities that arise for international exchanges.

Roman Bouffier: I agree with you completely. Other than this, I can only recommend to all prospective students to choose a subject that interests you and gives you joy, and not just to go on the basis of the current job market and salaries. If you enjoy the subjects, then both studying and the daily grind of going to work are made a lot easier.