© Servail

Servail Is Developing Railway Maintenance Robots

Closure of main routes due to maintenance work – it’s a problem most Munich residents are all too familiar with. But if Servail has their way, these kinds of closures will soon be a thing of the past. The startup is developing robots for maintaining railway vehicles and tracks that can be used without disrupting operation. In our interview, co-founder Max Steger talks about the startup’s vision.

Munich Startup: What does your startup do? What problem are you solving?

Max Steger, Servail: Servail is developing robots for maintaining railway vehicles and tracks. What makes our robots special is that their build is extremely compact and they use the space available underneath trains and between the rails. This makes them independent from ongoing rail operation. In simple terms, the robots can move along the tracks and perform measurements and maintenance work while the trains continue to run above them.

This allows us to solve one of the biggest challenges in the railway industry: maximizing route availability. Freight and passenger traffic is going to increase significantly in the future. The route network, however, is not growing at the same rate and we’re already at our capacity limit. In the future, there will hardly be any time available for maintenance processes. The closure of a route – for example for inspection – will be even more of a luxury. With our robots, the number of necessary route closures will be significantly reduced.

Servail inspects entire route networks

Munich Startup: But that’s nothing out of the box!

Max Steger: An approach with a mobile robot underneath trains that functions independently from railway operations isn’t on the market yet. There are several startups that are working on sensor technology in a railway environment, but our value proposition is indeed unique. When compared to stationary sensor systems, we don’t just inspect specific points, but rather entire route networks. Moreover, our robot platform offers the option of integrating tools and performing maintenance work directly.

With our first product, we’re developing a solution that is very much custom tailored to the needs of the railway sector and solves a problem that is specific to the industry. Our starting point was a real customer problem and not the adaptation of a new technology to an industry.

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The Servail founders Christian Ganghofer (CTO) and Dr. Max Steger (CEO). © Servail

Munich Startup: What is your founding story?

Max Steger: Christian [Ganghofer] and I [Max Steger] have known each other since our school days and have been friends ever since. We went our separate ways after school and attended university in different cities. Christian is a mechanical engineer and worked in various companies on the development of special purpose machines. With my doctorate in civil engineering and experience working for a supplier of railway technology, I bring along industry expertise. Last summer, we started concentrating on the major challenges in the railway industry and how we could solve them best with technology. The fact that robotics will also find its way into this field is inevitable. We want to propel this development as pioneers. So we gathered up our courage and founded the company. Everything happened quickly after that.

“The railway industry is very much focused on safety and reliability”

Munich Startup: What have been your biggest challenges so far?

Max Steger: With the railway market, we’re active in a market environment that is traditionally conservative. The railway industry is very much focused on safety and reliability, which results in strong regulation. Regulation is important when it comes to safety and reliability, but it can sometimes make innovation more difficult. The roads to market availability are longer than in many other industries. We are overcoming this challenge by addressing a customer problem that is very acute, and we are already closely collaborating with customers in the development process. This makes the road to market availability much simpler.

Munich Startup: Where would you like to be in one year, and where in five years?

Max Steger: In one year, we would like to already offer our customers added value with the partial automation of maintenance processes. In five years, our robots will be a key part of our customers’ maintenance strategies.

Munich Startup: How have you experienced Munich as a startup location so far?

Max Steger: Munich is certainly an ideal location for tech startups in many respects. The city has an extremely well-developed ecosystem with a strong network with industry and science. Many highly educated graduates join the job market from Munich universities and help startups along, specifically in the early stages. At the same time, it should be said that the competition in the job market is quite fierce due to the large tech companies. Industry starting salaries tend to be higher, which is something an early-stage startup can’t usually compete with. And the salary issue is obviously of particular importance in a city like Munich since the cost of living is so high.

Munich Startup: Hidden champion or shooting star?

Max Steger: For us personally, the visibility of Servail is not a key criterion of success. At the same, we have to admit that it can be helpful on many fronts.