Graduate portrait: automation team leader
After earning his master’s degree at the ZHAW School of Engineering, Matthias Bleibler took a job in the Chinese city of Dongguan, where he worked for two years. As he reports on his return to Switzerland, his time in the Middle Kingdom was as challenging as it was enriching. “I now see the world as a somewhat smaller place," he explains.
Dongguan is a major industrial city to the north of Hong Kong. With its 8.3 million inhabitants it is almost as populous as the whole of Switzerland. It was here that Matthias Bleibler ended up shortly after earning his master’s degree at the ZHAW School of Engineering. “I had known for a long time that I wanted to go abroad,” the 29-year-old explains today. “It was the ZHAW that opened the gates to Asia for me.” As part of his master’s degree course, he and his fellow students spent a few weeks in China. Sensing the opportunities there, he established a number of local contacts. “The China block module was extremely well organised. In a very short space of time, we got to know many different regions, cities and companies.” The experience proved transformative for Matthias Bleibler. Enthused by the fundamentally different nature of all things Chinese, after his graduation he systematically applied for jobs in China, ultimately accepting a position with Marti EPC in Dongguang.
“My task was to automate the manufacturing and quality-control processes for these systems. That included creating a new automation department in Dongguan.”
The company manufactures belt conveyor systems used in tunnel construction. “My task was to automate the manufacturing and quality-control processes for these systems. That included creating a new automation department in Dongguan.” Cultural differences were a major factor in this project. “For example, I first had to learn how Chinese business partners and employees communicate and precisely how particular things they said should be interpreted,” he explains, adding that it was even more important to understand these nuances than the Chinese language itself. “While I have learned Chinese and can communicate in the language, it was much more important to be willing to recognise that there are people who think completely differently from the way I do.” In all, Matthias Bleibler worked in China for two years, an experience he describes as enriching. As he explains, “During that time, I was able to give free rein to my pioneering spirit. My time in China extended my horizons, both professionally and personally. I now see the world as a somewhat smaller place.” He recommends that anyone presented with the opportunity of an extended stay abroad should take it – particularly if it is a long way away, beyond Europe’s borders.
Matthias Bleibler has now been back in Switzerland for six months. He is, he explains, grateful for the things he sometimes missed while in China. “Healthy food, clean air and a consistent legal system cannot be taken for granted in China. That is why I now appreciate life in Switzerland all the more.” He now manages an automation team at Bühler in Uzwil, whose products include cereals-processing machines. He and his international 8-person team, with its combined expertise in control technology, software and hardware planning, are working on further increasing the degree of automation used in producing these machines. He was particularly attracted by the challenges this task presents. Returning to Switzerland was of secondary importance. As he explains, “I did also look for jobs in other countries. What ultimately attracted me to Bühler was that the field of work, the opportunity of taking on a new role and the company philosophy all suited me perfectly.”
Matthias Bleiber began his engineering career at an early age. “I remember being fascinated with technology when I was still very young. My walk home from kindergarten, for example, took me past a dump. Much to my parents’ disapproval, I would collect old machines and pieces of scrap from the dump, bringing them home with me so that I could spend hours tinkering with them.” After completing his obligatory schooling, he began an apprenticeship in automation at a small family-owned business.
“There was no mass production there. We worked on custom orders, specialised machinery and prototypes. That resulted in my dealing with a particularly broad range of technologies.” Matthias Bleibler’s interest in automation had been awakened. After completing his apprenticeship he was keen to broaden his knowledge and complement it with a deeper theoretical understanding. He therefore decided to study for a bachelor degree in Systems Engineering at the ZHAW School of Engineering.
“There was no mass production there. We worked on custom orders, specialised machinery and prototypes. That resulted in my dealing with a particularly broad range of technologies.”
On completing his bachelor degree, and with his sights now firmly set on an international career, Matthias Bleibler then enrolled in the ZHAW’s Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) programme. In line with his two areas of specialisation, Industrial Automation and Robotics, he devoted his master’s degree thesis to developing an assembly robot which automatically welds weatherproof plastic coverings to flat roofs. “The master’s thesis was an important milestone for me,” says Matthias Bleibler. “On the one hand, it was an ideal opportunity of using all my technical skills, from the design of the concept, to the mechanical construction of the robot, to the control mechanism, to the software. On the other hand, I was able to offer parts of the master’s degree thesis as bachelor thesis assignments to younger students, which gave me the opportunity of managing my first small-scale project.”
The skills he acquired during his MSE studies proved useful to Matthias Bleibler during his time in China. As he puts its, “Everything is based on technical knowledge. What I found most beneficial, however, was the project management experience I gained during my studies. That gave me leadership experience. It also taught me how to work in a structured manner, how to run meetings efficiently, make presentations, quickly get to grips with new material and acquire knowledge. These skills were essential to me when I was working in China.” The MSE qualification itself has also opened many doors for him, says Matthias, adding that as soon as one is facing competition from abroad, a master’s degree becomes indispensable. “The additional studies involved obviously require some endurance. While your fellow students from the bachelor degree course are already employed and earning money, you have taken on another year and a half of extremely demanding study.” However, as Matthias Bleibler’s first steps in his career clearly demonstrate, that is a worthwhile investment.