Hyperloop: the future of transportation, with Carl Brockmeyer

Carl Brockmeyer leads an ambitious digital transformation initiative to enable new digital business models and sales channels for the industrial global player Leybold. He has led Leybold to establish strong startup- and industrial partnerships such as the development of the Hyperloop, a project imagined by Elon Musk.

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Anne-Sophie Garrigou

Hello Carl Brockmeyer. You are are the Head of Business Development at Leybold. What is your story? How did you end up there?

I joined the Oerlikon Group in 2007 as a global management trainee. Since then I had the opportunity to work with several business units of the group, such as Oerlikon Space, a manufacturer of high-precision mechanisms for satellites and space-crafts as well as the payload fairings for all Ariane rockets. (Oerlikon Space was sold to RUAG Space in 2009). Later I joined Oerlikon Textile, the largest manufacturer of Textile machines and have gone through several responsibilities therein, mostly in areas of Finance and Operations, before I got a call to come and join the Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum business unit as their CFO in China and Taiwan. Two years into that role it was clear for me that I had to leave the Finance sector and focus more on strategy and sales of the business and jumped at the opportunity to lead the global business development of Leybold. As such I am responsible for all organic and inorganic growth strategies for the business. The organic part includes strategies to enter new markets, new regions, new applications for our products and services as well as new business models and sales channels. The inorganic strategy arm represents the traditional corporate development part of the business with responsibilities for all M&A activities, joint ventures and strategic partnerships. In 2016 this entailed the sale of Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum to the Swedish Atlas Copco Group, where since September 2016 the business is now continued under the new brand Leybold.

How would you explain the products that Leybold is developing to people who don’t know anything about vacuum systems?

A vacuum or at least partial vacuum is required for nearly every modern production process and R&D activity. Our core competencies center on the development of application- and customer specific systems for the creation of vacuums and extraction of process gases. Fields of application are coating technologies, thin-films and data storage, analytical instruments and traditional industrial processes. For example — there would be no efficient space research on earth, if scientists couldn’t test their satellite and rocket systems in a vacuum chamber in a laboratory environment, powered by our vacuum pumps.

This is a far extreme on the pressure scale and an application that requires a near perfect vacuum. More towards the other extreme on the pressure scale, packaged food in supermarkets require vacuum technology as vacuum packaged food has an increased shelf-life. Between these two extremes of applications, our products are used for many different food and beverage production and packaging processes, the degassing of steel to enhance its material capabilities or the energy efficient melting of titanium under vacuum. The coating of architectural glass but also the coating of every single sunglass and optical lense and even the coating of mirrors and headlights of your car require vacuum technology. The production of solar panels, mobile phone displays and OLED television sets is all done under vacuum to ensure particle free environments during the coating process. CERN in Switzerland uses Leybold’s vacuum technology on its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and several other experiments to research the fundamental structure of the universe.

You developed products for renewable energy uses. Can you talk about it?

Leybold’s vacuum pumps and systems are required for multiple steps of Li-Ion battery production, such as the filling of electrolytes, degassing of battery cells, the stacking and packaging of battery cells or the leak-detection of assembled batteries. The development of new of solar panel technologies as well as their production also requires our vacuum pumps and we have developed a specific product line for efficient solar cell production which is used at many of the prominent solar cell manufacturers in the industry. The production and assembly process of wind-mills also requires vacuum technology, especially for composite made wings and pylons.

Are you currently working on new products or projects?

Of course, all the time. Innovations are part of our business model. We don’t develop typical end-user products. Instead, our products are used for production processes and R&D processes of our customers, which continuously develop a new pipeline of products and more efficient technologies. This constantly requires improved and more efficient vacuum pumps to enable the production processes of our customers. Hence, we in turn have to reinvent ourselves through new products and redefine the status quo of our products’ possibilities.

Can you talk to us about Elon Musk’s pipe dream, the Hyperloop. What is it exactly? How does it work?

Hyperloop is devised as a fifth mode of transportation besides the well-known modes cars, airplanes, trains and boats. It has the potential to replace short and medium distances of today’s air and train travel with significant gains on overall efficiency, energy consumption and total cost of ownership. Imagine a large tube, which is immune to weather conditions and operates with a low pressure environment inside, a partial vacuum. Inside the tube, people and goods are transported in capsules (or pods), which hover magnetically and are driven by electro-magnetic propulsion. The low pressure environment inside the tube enables high speeds and an energy efficient propulsion, as air inside the tube, or the same system outside the tube, would be slowed down by air drag.

How is it going to revolutionize transportation?

Most of today’s public transportation systems are cost-inefficient, many can only operate on government subsidies. Only few of the train tracks in Germany for example are profit making, for which most connections depend on subsidies from the government, despite the high ticket prices. This is largely due to the high cost to build these systems and high costs to operate and maintain them throughout their lifecycle. This is true for most developed countries.

Hyperloop proposes a technology and along with it a business model that aims to be significantly cheaper to build than today’s high-speed train systems and more importantly aims to be cheaper in its operation and maintenance.This would allow operators of the Hyperloop to actually earn a profit to reinvest. This is important if we want to further develop and innovate transportation systems, and for the same reason, this is probably why we haven’t seen real innovation e.g. on train transportation in the last 100 years. Yes, trains became faster, cleaner and more energy efficient, and of course the likes of Siemens, ABB and Bombardier are putting great efforts into their train developments, but in fact most of today’s trains are evolved versions of older train systems and we have not seen a real disruptive innovation of the train system since its inception. The Hyperloop proposes to do just that, disrupt and revolutionize transportation through a sustainable, energy- and cost-efficient technology.

Another aspect of the Hyperloop to revolutionize transportation is its speed. If you could work in a city that is 600km far away from your home town and cover that distance in less than an hour in a cost-efficient way with the Hyperloop, than the importance of location changes entirely. You could visit the opera or a restaurant hundreds of kilometers away and be back home for bedtime.

In which stage of the research and development are you today? Did you make the first tests?

As a pioneer in vacuum technology, we provide a key technology to the Hyperloop which is ready for full-scale operation. The technology itself is ready to be built and there are several projects ongoing already, such as in Slovakia and Abu-Dhabi. The challenge does not lie with the realization of the Hyperloop, but its further optimization. We need to make sure that the Hyperloop is not built only once, like the Transrapid, but that the system and its operational concept are optimized in such way that it can repeatedly built and that it remains a profit-making business model.

How much energy is required to travel in this futuristic vacuum tube? And where does the energy come from?

Renewable energy is key for the Hyperloop business model. The Hyperloop is devised as an ecosystem, incl. sources of renewable energy, too. As such, Hyperloop tubes could be plastered with solar panels. Wind and geothermal energy could be sourced along the tracks and within the tubes themselves, regenerative energy sourced from the electric propulsion and breaking system will play a key-role, too. While I cannot disclose specifics on the energy consumption publicly yet, I can say that one of the targets is to generate more energy with the Hyperloop ecosystem, than it will consume during its operation.

I’ve read that 400 people were working on the project. Not employees, but women and men who work with the NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX, and decided to spend their spare time on Hyperloop in exchange for stock options. This is amazing. Where does this idea come from and how does it work so far?

Only at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) alone, there are more than 600 contributors in the meantime. And there are other prominent companies and projects pursuing concepts of the Hyperloop, too. As more companies and even universities of different disciplines pursue the concept, the Hyperloop becomes a real movement, not just a technology dream. We have seen architectural and industrial design courses focusing an entire semester on developing Hyperloop concepts and many of the worldwide leading engineering universities are participating in a Hyperloop competition with SpaceX.

While there are many viable ways to approach developing and building a Hyperloop, HTT’s way is truly amazing and a very unique way to build and run a company, yes. The idea follows a mix of crowd-innovation and crowd-collaboration. HTT incorporated itself following a crowd initiative on a crowd-collaboration platform. Key functions in the organization work full-time by now, but the majority still works as external contributor, like we do at Leybold. It would be difficult to hire all required talent and resources alone for all the vacuum know-how required to develop and build theHyperloop. One could of course hire away the top 15–20 required talents from Leybold and for all other disciplines required, but it still would not provide the support and know-how from Leybold’s more than 1.600+ global workforce that the core team around the Hyperloop can rely on. This way HTT can allow for the “best able” and not only the “best available” to join and contribute.

This article is also available to view on our Medium page.