Locomotive builder sees success in new areas

Reading time: approx. 7 minutes
Text: Oliver Schönfeld
Photos: Holger Jacoby

From rail to road: Schöma Maschinenfabrik, headquartered in Diepholz, is one of the world’s leading suppliers of special locomotives, such as those used in tunnel construction, for example. Two years ago, the company also started to manufacture agricultural semi-trailers for liquid manure transport. They didn’t have to wait long for success to come knocking.

Schöma vehicle manufacturers have always felt at home on the rails. Their locomotives are reliable heavyweights that transport material excavated during tunnel construction projects – or as tractor units for island railways on the East Frisian Islands that bring summer visitors to the beach. But now the family-owned company from Diepholz in Lower Saxony is venturing into previously unknown territory: onto asphalt roads and difficult farmland. With a particularly robust tank semi-trailer, which stands out thanks to its high quality and a number of new technical solutions, the company has successfully entered the market for agricultural machinery, and done so in the shortest possible time – initial considerations, calculations and design work did not begin until 2017. Pre-series production followed in 2018, which immediately impressed users. 2019 was the first full year of production of Schöma agricultural semi-trailers for liquid manure transport – and after only a few months, they were already sold out.

Second line of business improves capacity utilisation

‘We clearly exceeded our annual targets right from the start,’ reports Managing Director Carsten Brendler. Why did the company decide to enter a new market segment without a fixed customer base and basically without any orders? The answer is short and sweet: ‘Simply because we can!’ Of course, the decision was preceded by more extensive considerations. ‘Our primary objective was to open up a second line of business in addition to locomotive construction and to ensure that our production facilities could operate at a more constant capacity all year round,’ explains Brendler. It is obvious that farm machinery is quickly becoming the focus of attention in the agricultural state of Lower Saxony. ‘Another advantage was that we basically didn’t need to invest anything except time and effort. We simply had to do it. And we then didn’t have to wait too long for the orders to come in.’

»We didn’t have to think hard. We simply had to do it.«

Schöma Managing Director Carsten Brendler on entering the agricultural technology market

It was certainly beneficial that Schöma design engineers have been familiar with the highest quality standards and very individual customer requirements for decades. Founded in 1930, the company has built up a leading position in the construction of special locomotives and gained an excellent global reputation over the decades. So far, over 7,100 locomotives in all size and weight classes have left the Diepholz plant. Weighing from three to 80 tons and with outputs from 38 to 360 kilowatts, the rail vehicles always meet the exact specifications that the respective customer requires of the products.

Leader in global infrastructure projects

The first Schöma locomotives were used especially for regional peat extraction. From the 1970s onwards, the company shifted its focus underground, concentrating on tunnel construction projects. ‘Our ultimate breakthrough came with the construction of the Eurotunnel between England and France,’ reports Brendler. Since then, hardly any major infrastructure projects have been carried out that the family-owned company has not supplied – from underground railway construction in London, New York and Singapore to the project of the century: the Gotthard Tunnel. For this project alone, around 100 tunnel locomotives ensured reliable underground construction site traffic.

Since it was founded in 1930, SCHÖMA has been in family hands, with Managing Director Christoph Schöttler now in the third generation.

Time and time again, Schöma came up with new innovations. These include, for example, the first hydrostatic drive with two coupled locomotives that can set up to 16 axles in motion – a real innovation in tunnel construction in the mid-1990s. The company introduced the first battery-powered locomotives at the turn of the millennium. The latest stroke of genius from Diepholz is the hybrid drive for locomotives, which can switch between electric power and a diesel engine as required. In 2019, Schöma hybrid locomotives were used for the first time in tunnel projects in the USA and Great Britain. In addition, Schöma has been manufacturing large shunting and work locomotives for industrial companies as well as locomotives for tourist purposes for decades – including for the island railways on the East Frisian Islands of Langeoog, Wangerooge and Borkum. And now also liquid manure semi-trailers for agriculture.

Managing Director Carsten Brendler (left) and André Haskamp have propelled the Agricultural Engineering business area forward together with the employees in Production.

Manufacturer with an unwavering commitment to quality

The highly specialised expertise of the company’s 145 employees made it easy to enter the agricultural machinery market. ‘The welder, who otherwise works on the locomotives with appropriate railway certifications, also welds our tank semi-trailers. In this way, we can guarantee consistently high quality that our agricultural customers can rely on,’ explains André Haskamp, who is responsible for the new business segment at Schöma. Thanks to the high level of vertical integration in locomotive construction, the entire technical equipment for the additional field of activity was already available. The technical workshop is fully equipped and performs all of the work from sheet metal processing and forming to welding and also has its own paint spray booth.

When touring the factory, visitors never get the impression that they are in a mass-production facility. On the contrary, the production hall looks more like an artisan’s workshop. Employees’ high expectations of themselves and their work are immediately noticeable during discussions – as is their pride in the final result. ‘Sheet thickness under four millimetres? This is what we call foil,’ explains Haskamp with a smile. Quality comes first, right down to the last detail. Around 400 hours of work and a great deal of manual labour are required before a new tank semi-trailer can roll out of the yard-

By focusing on liquid manure trailers, Schöma has chosen a particularly challenging field of activity. The semi-trailers often transport their freight – which experts call ‘natural fertilizer’ – over long distances and provide distribution services. Strict technical specifications must be met and the vehicles need to prove their worth in difficult terrain and with high usable loads in all weather conditions. Maximum reliability is required here, as Haskamp continues to say: ‘Due to the lock-up periods for arable land and grassland, the time windows for spreading natural fertiliser have become increasingly narrow. Everyone is under a lot of pressure during these periods, which means the machinery simply has to work.’

Before the slurry is applied to the fields, it is decanted. In order to meet special requirements, Schöma designers have put a lot of effort into developing a particularly stable design. Complex FEM (finite element method) calculations to determine load capacity and stability preceded the development activities. The result is a modular agricultural semi-trailer that can be adapted to each customer’s requirements. The tank semi-trailers are available with a capacity of up to 31,000 litres, although 26,000 litres has become established as the standard size. In total, the three-axle semi-trailer can weigh up to 34 tons, including payload.

Low centre of gravity means outstanding road stability

High-quality steel sheets and careful processing ensure the agricultural semi-trailer is manufactured to the desired quality level. Welding is carried out according to DIN EN 15085, and even the coating of the tank body – inside and out – is completed by Schöma specialists themselves. All metal sheets are sandblasted before welding, then once again before the three-layer lacquer coating is applied using an airless process. It comes in deep black as standard, but is also available in other colours or with individual lettering on request.

One of the special features of the Schöma agricultural semi-trailer is the particularly low centre of gravity, which enhances road stability and thus increases safety, even with heavy loads. ‘The centre of gravity of our tank semi-trailer is about 30 to 40 centimetres lower than with conventional designs. Our vehicle is in high demand, especially in mountainous areas such as the Allgäu region, for example, thanks to its excellent manoeuvring capabilities,’ explains André Haskamp. The BPW running gear with its AGRO FlexFrame plays a major role in safe road handling. It made it possible to design the tank body with a low centre of gravity.

Guaranteed success: ‘Customers from the agricultural sector simply assume that we use BPW axles,’ explains André Haskamp. The AGRO FlexFrame has made it possible to design a semi-trailer with a particularly low centre of gravity.

Close cooperation with BPW

Schöma had no previous contact with BPW Bergische Achsen before entering the agricultural machinery market. ‘But potential agricultural customers quickly made it clear to us that they insist on using BPW axles,’ explains Managing Director Brendler. No sooner said than done: The company selected the AGRO FlexFrame tandem complete chassis with auxiliary frame and a fully assembled EBS brake system from Wabco for the new semi-trailers. ‘BPW’s overall system and ongoing technical support play a key role in our success in this segment,’ highlights Carsten Brendler.

The Schöma order books are even better filled thanks to the new market segment. In order to be able to react quickly to demand, the tank semi-trailers are also continuously pre-produced. 20 to 30 agricultural semi-trailers leave the factory every year; current production capacities do not allow for more. However, if demand continues to grow, expansions are not out of the question. And in light of the new customers the company is gaining in the agricultural sector, it makes sense for the company to consider offering other products in the field of agricultural technology. After all, the technical tinkerers in Diepholz have not yet run out of good ideas over the past 90 years.

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