Visit from “Sensor Valley”

Guests from Zhengzhou in China’s Henan province in awe of the “endless roll” and the two roll-to-roll printing presses in Heidelberg and Wiesloch.

“We have access to the latest technologies and to the most renowned scientists,” said Dr. Michael Kröger, Managing Director of iL GmbH, during a visit from a high-ranking Chinese delegation recently received at the Heidelberg location of the medium-sized company. The 16 representatives from Henan province, the megalopolis Zhengzhou and the local Hanwei Electronics Group were amazed when Kröger and Dr. Janusz Schinke, Head of Printed Electronics, presented the “endless sensor roll” by the name of Large-Area Connecting Device, which earned Innovation Lab GmbH an award at Lopec 2023 in Munich in March.

Interested in the "Endless Sensor Roll" with which the iL won the prize at LOPEC: Sun Shougang takes a close look. : Maik Jarek/Behind Media Group
Interested in the "Endless Sensor Roll" with which the iL won the prize at LOPEC: Sun Shougang takes a close look. : Maik Jarek/Behind Media Group

Michael Kröger: “Enormous potential for iL and HPE”

For the guests, Kröger roughly outlined the journey of iL from a research and development platform and the opening of its laboratory, to pilot production and through to industrial production together with Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG. During a demonstration, the visitors from the eastern part of central China were able to put their hands on a PET sensor film that measures temperature and pressure. Afterwards, they were shown the Gallus RCS 330 roll-to-roll printing press in the adjacent clean-room laboratory measuring nearly 700 square meters. “Our technology can be used in countless industries and has enormous potential for iL and Heidelberg Printed Electronics,” said Kröger with confidence.

The Chinese group was very interested in the German printed electronics technology – asking for example about the materials used and the speed and level of automation in printing – and was impressed by the low consumption of resources for the large production capacity. In particular, the guests from China were quite surprised by the ability to use the roll-to-roll process to print copper conductor paths cheaply and in endless lengths – today, etching processes and a number of toxic chemicals are used to manufacture printed circuit boards.

Janusz Schinke: “We can customize printing”

Dr Janusz Schinke (back left) guides the guests from China through the clean room laboratories. Photo: Maik Jarek/Behind Media Group
Dr Janusz Schinke (back left) guides the guests from China through the clean room laboratories. Photo: Maik Jarek/Behind Media Group

“We can customize printing and do it at scale,” explained Janusz Schinke during a tour, “and we sell several million sensors each year.” The visit from China was arranged by China experts Felix Kurz and Sieer Angar from Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Chinesische Freundschaft Metropolregion Rhein-Neckar (GDCF), an association that builds bridges between Germany and China. Since 2005, Kurz has regularly traveled to the most populous country in East Asia. He is familiar with and appreciates the economic potential of many large cities and regions there along with the cultural highlights like the Shaolin Monastery not far from Zhengzhou and is able to understand the mentality of the inhabitants. “China is my second home,” said Kurz with a tone of conviction in his greeting.

The exchange of ideas and potential collaboration were the focus of the delegation members, some of which had visited Berlin and Düsseldorf as well as other European countries such as France and Luxembourg during their trip. As part of their two-day trip to the metropolitan region, they visited InnovationLab GmbH in Heidelberg’s Bahnstadt district as well as the sweeping production sites of Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG in Wiesloch. The guests were more than pleased by the two roll-to-roll printing presses – the slightly larger Gallus RCS 430 in Wiesloch as well as the smaller 330 model in Heidelberg, both of which can print faster, more flexibly and in a manner that uses fewer resources and is more sustainable than their market competition.

No wonder: the central Chinese province of Henan (101 million inhabitants), along with its capital city of Zhengzhou (12.6 million inhabitants), is considered one of China’s fastest-growing regions. The most important building blocks of the local industry are electronics – with an estimated annual revenue of 600 billion euros – electric vehicle production and the manufacture of household appliances. Medicine is another relevant field, as Zhengzhou is home to the world’s largest hospital with 18,000 beds – an unimaginable scope.

Around 80 exchange-listed companies in Zhengzhou

By now, Zhengzhou is home to around 80 partially exchange-listed companies that produce sensors. The annual World Sensors Summit has taken place in the so-coined Sensor Valley – which borrows its name from the legendary Silicon Valley in California – since 2018, with renowned companies primarily from China, but also a few representatives from the Unites States and Europe.

After three years of the coronavirus pandemic and strict government-mandated isolation, economic development in China and international contacts are once again gaining serious momentum in various sectors of society.

It is no coincidence that so many sensor manufacturers have made Zhengzhou their headquarters – quite the opposite: the metropolis is a transportation hub, trade and financial center, exhibition site and a starting point for network and community building. The high-speed train can reach 500 million people within two hours.

Located south of the Yellow River, Zhengzhou presents itself as an electronics hot spot with large automotive plants (Nissan, Ytong, BYD) and other major corporations. Chinese battery and vehicle manufacturer BYD alone doubles its production at this location each year. This year, one of every three newly registered cars in China is an electric vehicle. Up from 1.82 million vehicles in 2022, a total of more than three million electric vehicles are expected to leave assembly lines in 2023. In addition to around 200 million smartphones for Apple and others, electronics companies there produce countless and a broad range of electronic household appliances and testing equipment.

Printed electronics offer these industries a promising technology for the future. Sensors are the “gold of digitalization,” not just according to the Chinese but also to global experts in these booming industries.

Invitation to the World Sensors Summit

One specific result of the bilateral talks: iL and Heidelberg Printed Electronics (HPE) received explicit invitations to the World Sensors Summit 2023 in Zhengzhou, scheduled for October. “We were very pleased about that,” summarized Kröger, “we will be represented at this leading Asian trade fair, complete with booth and presentation.”

During the delegation’s visit, it became clear that there is a significant desire for technology everywhere in China, for products to be brought to market more quickly, and that consumers there are generally more open to innovations of all kinds compared to their counterparts in central Europe. “Hao,” short and succinct, is what the Chinese say when they agree. This word was heard plenty of times in Heidelberg and Wiesloch.


Joachim Klaehn

Head of Communications