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An interview with Aljoscha Föll

“By and large, it’s not just about setting and achieving new goals, but about exploring new avenues.”

Name: Aljoscha Föll
Job titel: Head of Innovation Management
Hobbies: Soccer
Age: 39
Part of Koehler: since 2012
Aljoscha Föll

Aljoscha Föll comes from this region. He knew from a young age that he wanted to do a dual-study degree with a technical focus. And what could be better than completing it at Koehler? He started his dual-study degree as a paper engineer with the company in 2004, and was one of the first to do so. After graduating, he worked as a process engineer at the Greiz site of Koehler Paper. Two good reasons lured him back to Baden-Württemberg: his ties to home and his business administration studies at Offenburg University of Applied Sciences. After three years of studying, he applied for a job with Koehler again and joined the company’s Innovation Management unit. The ‘Gate Team’, which was still small back then and included colleagues from different departments who worked on ideas relating to the entire company, evolved into an independent team that is very involved in planning processes today and supports product development using hybrid project management approaches. He spoke to us about his tasks, challenges in the innovation process, and how Koehler manages to develop innovative flexible packaging paper.

How did you come to join Koehler?

My focus initially was on doing a dual-study degree with a technical background rather than on paper itself. However, as a major employer in the region, Koehler was on my shortlist. Even back then, the company was able to offer the prospects I was looking for. And so I became part of only the third cohort to complete a dual-study degree in paper engineering. A few years later, when I was looking to start my career again after my second degree, Koehler offered me an opportunity to join the company and help shape innovation management. At the start, it was all about building the right structures for innovation management. Over the years, the innovation management unit evolved into a separate team, which is involved in planning processes more and more extensively, and supports product development with the help of hybrid project management approaches. The key factor behind restructuring and the intensive work in the field of product innovation was the company’s decision at the time to produce flexible packaging paper.

What exactly do you do as Head of Innovation Management?

Our task in Innovation Management involves process management and project coordination for new ideas, as well as thinking outside of the box and spotting new possibilities. I am also project manager for a number of projects, mainly those that not only concern development, but also involve completely new topics. My focus here is primarily on bringing together the right information and people. Our day-to-day work is very varied and there is always something new going on. We are constantly learning about new topics and becoming “experts” on them. Sometimes there are smaller matters and at other times there are broader issues, where we bring experts from other divisions on board, or even partners and suppliers, so we can get their perspective. Ultimately, you have to understand the market environment and keep your sights on your own company goals, and then we approach colleagues with specific project plans. We also hold independent innovation workshops on separate topics. This helps us to look at challenges from another angle and to find new solutions or generate new know-how.

What’s special about the innovation strategy pursued at KIT?

Innovations can be new products, processes, procedures, or technologies. It helps to focus on what’s important. There are a lot of interesting projects but sometimes they diverge so far from our core competencies that too much would have to be changed. We concentrate on what we know best and use that as a basis to develop technology platforms for the future. We also take a holistic approach to system innovation, where we consider the entire product life cycle, all stakeholders, and the environmental impact right from the start. For example: There is an effective recycling system in place for paper. If we add flexible packaging paper to the paper recycling loop, we have to make sure it can function there. Our system innovation process starts with the raw material and the development of the ideal combination of fibers and coating materials, which is followed by the first tests on our pilot coating machine, then production and further processing through to recycling. This is how we are able to develop tomorrow’s packaging paper. It’s about bringing partners, suppliers, converters, recycling companies and many more stakeholders on board and being a pioneer in the development process for the entire system.

How are innovations created for NexFlex®?

When it comes to developing innovative packaging paper, our colleagues from Sales and their customers, development managers from our labs, Production colleagues, and many other experts closely liaise with each other. We have a stage-gate process for this, which has a clear structure. This is essential in order to evaluate innovations. However, it is very agile within individual stages, as this is necessary for developing innovations. In the first feasibility phase, all key information is brought together and analyzed to determine whether the project is feasible or can be implemented and whether it will generate real added value. This is always done with the entire value creation cycle in mind. Then, the customer’s requirements are fleshed out in the project phase, and the first samples are made in the lab and later on our pilot systems. If we receive positive feedback, we involve our colleagues from the Production department, who carry out the first trial runs on the paper and coating machine. If these succeed and the packaging paper meets all regulatory requirements and is certified accordingly, we can bring the product to market. Dialog between all stakeholders is essential here, as a sort of development collaboration. As our NexFlex® colleagues know the market well, we can launch the innovations together too. 

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to implementing innovations?

Setting goals together is the most important thing, and an essential requirement for successful collaboration. Another challenge is changing from the pilot systems to production systems. Even if the conditions are perfect on the pilot system, it is still a test facility. A production system is on another scale altogether. It is important here to implement the process quickly and successfully, drawing on our expertise in different areas. By and large, it’s not just about setting and achieving new goals, but about exploring new avenues.

Production, Technology, and Sales work closely together at Koehler: How do you make sure that our customers get high-quality packaging paper in the end?

Here in Innovation Management, we manage the process in a way that ensures all areas can liaise intensively with each other, keeping our sights on the goals. We discuss the individual operating steps in project and development meetings, and in the Production, Sales, and Technology steering committee, we make decisions, among other things, that affect the next stages of the process. Using a project specification, we examine whether we have reached or can reach the jointly set milestones and goals or whether we need to explore other avenues.

Is there any way our competitors can keep up with us?

The blend of research partnerships, time, money, and resources that are invested in exploring new materials and developing new products is unique in my view. This gives us the opportunity and freedom to deal with things very differently and more intensively. We can then share this expertise with our customers. In Innovation Management, we make a significant contribution to this by defining projects and measures that underpin our pioneering role and expertise on the market and produce genuine system innovations.

Where will our journey take us? What kind of possibilities are still out there?

Recently, we have focused our attention on developing barrier properties for flexible packaging paper. In the future, we plan to research bio-based components, develop functional surfaces from sustainable raw materials, and create tomorrow’s innovative paper-based solutions. We have had a research partnership with the Technical University of Darmstadt to this end for some years: the Green Coating Collaboration.

Here in Innovation Management, we also continually ask ourselves: What next? We’re talking processes, products, procedures. What is important for the next generation? Whatever it is, we’ll be involved in working on it.

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