“We wanted to make the best electronic lock in the world.”
Pushing Boundaries in Industrial Design
Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Form and function should be one. That’s an endless battle for engineers and product managers at SimonsVoss. “We wanted to make the best electronic lock in the world. Not only technically, but also one that looks great. Looks and brains, we want it all. Concession is not a popular word in our innovation labs.”
We are meeting with Oliver Brandmeier and Ludger Voss to hear what industrial design means for SimonsVoss. Oliver, Head of Product Management and Ludger, co-founder, managing director and CTO of SimonsVoss, both love to explore their favorite topic.
Oliver: “When I joined SimonsVoss in 2004, we were still in a kind of void. We had to create our own market. Locks used to be mechanical, there was only little demand for access control beyond some few main entrance doors and we were far ahead with our wireless locks. In 2007, I left the company to work for other locking manufacturers. Their systems looked more down to earth to me. But back at SimonsVoss in 2018, I couldn’t believe my eyes. SimonsVoss had developed their approach way further, with new, disruptive access control technology including their first in-house developed microchip. All the stuff, the electronic parts, batteries, antennas, controller, data storage – plus all the components needed for Sub-GHz wireless networking – all integrated into this small metal knob on the inside part of the cylinder. That had been brand new for the whole world. What surprised me most: compared to 11 years before, the shape had gotten even smaller.”
Oliver and Ludger probably have two of the most discussed jobs in the company. Oliver: “We have a strong culture of sharing and discussing ideas with anyone, no matter in what position or department you work. That generates hundreds of opinions and ideas about our products and how fast new products should be delivered to the market. Not surprising that our R&D and product management are scrutinized. And that’s fantastic, it is an important part of our success as a company.”
We’re not exactly in the applause business. Our biggest compliment is hearing no complaints.
Ludger Voss is the spiritual father of wireless locking as the market knows it today and still leading his R&D team. “Technology is one thing, design is another. In the end, every single innovation needs to fit into this shape, this knob. Our lives would have been so much simpler if we had accepted alternative forms. Perhaps bigger, square or other materials. But we don’t. This design is important to us. We love it and we believe in it.”
I grew up in the sixties and seventies. My parents had lots of detail and design in our home, such as the famous Dieter Rams’ Snowwhite Coffin radio. As a kid I was surrounded by these products.
Dieter Rams’ Snowwhite Coffin for Braun inspired the minimalistic SimonsVoss design
Isn’t that limiting you as a company?
Ludger: “We don’t stick our heads in the sand of course. But stretching us to the limit generates the best innovations. Combining design with functionality is a big issue in this kind of industry, where design follows functionality most of the times and so resulting quite often in kind of bulky products. We always had the approach to twist that around. We start with sophisticated design first, and then work very hard to get all functionalities into that. Being able to design our own application specific microchips is a key factor in succeeding here. The shape of this knob has been pushing technological boundaries for more than 25 years already. It’s a privilege to work that way.”
Who is responsible for this look and feel?
Oliver: “Nowadays, it’s a process between product strategy, R&D, the industrial designer and product management. But Ludger initiated the first design of SimonsVoss’ first product – a fully wireless digital mortice lock plus escutcheon back in 1996. Elements of this first design can still be found in our latest AX locking products.
Today, we cooperate with great contemporary designers, the design of the ICE trains for example originates with them. Together with them, we continuously improve and update our original design.”
“We wanted to make the best electronic lock in the world. Not only technically, but also one that looks great. Looks and brains, we want it all.”
Is there any room left for your designers to change the design of your electronic cylinders and door handles?
Ludger: “Our access control products must be timeless. Not only work for decades, but also look good that long time. So, it cannot be too fancy and become outdated within a few years.” Oliver: “We sell our locking systems worldwide, in many different markets and cultures. The design should also fit into any environment and culture. Classic, timeless and minimalistic are key words for us. We have customers who are still using our electronic locking system since 1998, still working and looking good. That’s exactly what we expect from our locks: stay in the door for twenty, thirty or more years. Our designers understand how to update the “look and feel” with subtle details, without hurting longevity.”
One of the first SimonsVoss generations from the 90’s, still named Simons & Voss at that time
SimonsVoss Digital Cylinder 3060, until 2021
Who or what inspired you in the design of your locking systems?
Ludger: “I grew up in the sixties and seventies. My parents had lots of detail and design in our home, such as the famous Dieter Rams’ Snowwhite Coffin radio. As a kid I was surrounded by these products and it influenced my minimalistic style for sure.
What else is involved in your design process?
Oliver: “We present different designs within the company, we do outside interviews and involve customers. We have millions of people worldwide using our products. Some may want it bigger, others want it smaller, and lots of people just don’t care. and don’t notice them. They just want to use them. All these points make it a true challenge to collect useful feedback on our design. But we still succeed.”
In 2021 SimonsVoss launched the new AX platform including the complete modular, digital cylinder
You say you don’t like concessions on the design, but anyhow the new AX range looks a bit different.
Oliver: “We love slim, minimalistic design with slightly curved shapes and as much as possible in stainless steel. The steel is where we had to make a small concession, because our new access control technology uses higher frequencies.”
Ludger: “These are minor changes, but yes, it’s unavoidable. For example, customers want to use new types of electronic keys. Today, people use cards and mobile phones, and these require Bluetooth and much higher radio frequencies which do not penetrate steel. We designed a synthetic cap to solve that. Initially, it felt like a trade-off to me, but I must admit that it looks fantastic, too.”
Oliver: “On the other hand, we made dozens of other changes and upgrades such as integrated drill-through protection and new cyber security technology. We have stretched ourselves to the limit to fit all that into our existing design.”
General Manager Bernhard Sommer calls you the champions of miniaturization. He compares the SimonsVoss locks with a Swiss watch. Is that the whole secret, making things smaller?
“It’s true, in fact we’re among the best in the world in three technology areas that are very decisive for our access control market: miniaturization, security, and power management”, Ludger explains. “We even design our own microchips inhouse. Not many in our industry can do that. The smaller we make things, the more room we have for security and power management. We can do very small, tiny mechanics and electronics that not only increase our freedom of design, but also boost the reliability of our electronic locking solutions. Our products are extremely stable and consume virtually no power, where others have to compromise with kind of bulky designs and quite limited battery lifetime. We’re continuously pushing ourselves.”
Competing on innovation can be an expensive rat race. Where does it end?
Oliver: “We’re not chasing rabbits. We know what customers want, and we understand how the world changes. The way people work and live is our frame for the innovation and design of our locking systems. Apart from that, our goal is anyhow to reach the highest safety classes and become significantly better than what we’re obliged to. We don’t try to be innovative. We are innovative, because we want to have the best product. Innovation is a result, not a goal. Our customers buy the most reliable locking product when they buy SimonsVoss. Being innovative is prerequisite to being the best. We’re very deep into that. I’ve never seen a company in this industry, with this deep technological knowledge in such a broad spectrum. From the mechanics and mechatronics to wireless networking, embedded firmware and application software development. Everything is in-house.
The SimonsVoss factory in Osterfeld, Germany (picture HKS Architects)
Quality-thinking is in our DNA. It requires vision and guts to maintain that, because often we need to value people and product over short-term profit. I know it sounds like a lifeless cliché, but the reason we have such a good product is our people. And the reason we have such good people is our open culture. That’s a true competitive advantage, you can’t copy that. For example, our staff turnover is extremely low, people often work here for decades. That’s how you build and keep expertise. Our locking products reflect our company in many ways. Except that they are more beautiful and timeless than us, haha.”
Our channel partners embrace our new AX platform enthusiastically without exception, that’s a big compliment for us.
Quality and speed are enemies in product design.
Oliver: “The first development of our new AX platform took three years. During these first three years our sales people didn’t see any new products. Their patience got really challenged. But we were completely rebuilding the core of our platform. We changed the way we do electronics, we built new communication technology, and new physical and cyber security technology. It took all our time and resources.
After that, we needed two more years for field testing. We tested thousands of doors and situations. One of it is the tightness of the water resistance. We even reached IP-67, meaning you can put electronic cylinders under water. Feedback from our field test customers was crucial.
So, yes, we had to resist pressure from colleagues and the market, but it was a no-brainer for us. We only launch a product when it’s completely ready. If we didn’t act this way, we would not only risk our customers’ safety and our own reputation, we would risk damaging our entire industry. Trust is everything.”
Do your customers like the new AX platform?
Oliver: “Well, we’re not exactly in the applause business. Our biggest compliment is hearing no complaints. We have to accept that for the majority it’s just locking the door and forget about it. But of course, talking directly to customers, they appreciate the design and actually name qualities like the robustness or the low failure rate.
Our typical customer buys or rents a new building, and then discovers that he needs flexible electronic access control. So he or she buys SimonsVoss components and retrofits their building, problem solved.
Life could be so much easier if architects could include these locking technologies early-stage in the design or tender process of the building, just like the door handles. For the customer, it would prevent a lot of hassle afterward, with the architecture, planning, and costs.”
Is that why you have a partnership with FSB?
Ludger: “Yes, architects know FSB from their door handles, it’s a high-quality design product. FSB and SimonsVoss share a deep focus on perfection. Integrating our technology in their door handles is a perfect match. They position well for tenders and we can integrate our access control solutions easily because of our modular design and interfaces.
So, no glamour for industrial designers at SimonsVoss?
Oliver: “It’s a bit different compared to other industries. Our channel partners embrace our new AX platform enthusiastically without exception, that’s a big compliment for us. But customers won’t come back telling us that we had delivered the most beautiful product in the world. This needs to be accepted. We just know, our products are special, we invest a lot to satisfy our customers and when we see – as a result of all our efforts – millions of electronic locks working smoothly, we are happy.”
I’ve never seen a company in this industry, with this deep technological knowledge in such a broad spectrum.