Martin Hilti never forgot his father asking him at age 14 what he wanted to do with his life. The answer: “Build motors — electric motors.” This was in 1930 in Lichtenstein, a small country wedged between Austria and Switzerland. That answer did not change even after earning a degree in applied mathematics. So, Martin began studying mechanical and automotive engineering in Wismar, a northern city in Germany.
After completing his studies, Martin returned to his hometown and founded Hilti Maschinenbau OHG in 1941 with his brother, Eugen, a trained mechanic. The company began producing engine and spark plug parts as subcontractors for well-known names, such as Maybach. By 1945, Hilti had grown to just under 100 employees.
“It’s quite impressive,” shares Lucas Floriani, Senior Director of Engineering at Hilti. “More than 80 years later, the company is internationally recognized and established. It’s located in some 120 countries, with approximately 4,000 team members in North America alone, and about 33,000 employees worldwide. It has also remained under the leadership of the Hilti family over the decades.”
Today, Hilti is committed to developing and manufacturing products, system solutions, software, and services that add value to the global construction and industrial sectors. However, it wasn’t always easy. The Hilti brothers nearly declared bankruptcy as a result of World War II, but they persevered. They eventually considered manufacturing work outside of building motors — including fastening to concrete. Their first contract in this industry was to develop matching studs and nails for a stud gun, which were unreliable and unsafe at the time.
This led Martin to recognize that Hilti could fill a gap, serving the fastening and construction industry with a much-needed direct fastening tool for concrete and steel. In 1953, the company launched the Perfix, Hilti’s first powder-actuated stud gun.
“This direct fastening tool is the product that really catapulted Hilti to become the company it is today,” says Floriani. “Hilti now offers nine different product lines, including software and services. But the Perfix fastening tool was the beginning.”
It was also the beginning of a business model that has served Hilti and its customers well. It was not just about filling a need in the industry, but about making fastening and construction safer and more efficient overall.
“What’s interesting is this idea is similar to how Hilti models itself today,” he says. “The company is not just in the business of manufacturing products. It’s about solving many of the industry’s concerns and helping it to become more productive.”
The powder-actuated Perfix provided a quicker way to fasten nails to concrete, which was otherwise an extremely laborious process. It was also much safer because the energy released by the propellant cartridge was no longer transferred directly to the fastener, virtually eliminating injury.
Hilti continues to advance fastening in much the same way today. For example, the company’s innovative Kwik-X is a dual-action anchor system that combines the performance of adhesive anchors with the installation speed and simplicity of screw anchors. The system reduces the number of steps in the installation process, eliminating the need for accessories like brushes, air pumps, and dispensers — again, leading to a more productive industry.
The company also recently developed the FX 3-A Cordless stud fusion system, which significantly cuts welding time (by up to 75%). Compared to welding and other methods like bolting and clamping, cordless stud fusion allows more speed and flexibility in engineering, procurement, and construction. The fastening method is also safer than traditional welding methods as it helps shield users from heat and gas.
“We prioritize closely partnering with our customers, so we learn about their needs and what would bring the most value to their projects,” says Floriani. “Our focus — much like it was for the company founders — is on making the design professionals, the architects, the engineers, and construction crews all over the world, safer and more productive.”
Hilti maintains it receives about 280,000 customer contacts each day and, perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of its product ideas come directly from customers. The company also invests six percent of its annual sales in research and development.
“It’s important to us to invest in the R&D that’s going to most impact those in the field who are engineering and installing tomorrow’s infrastructure,” he says. “Because the fact is there’s an aging workforce and a shortage of skilled labor. Experienced journeymen are being replaced by apprentices. So, to make a difference, we have to be a company that’s about more than just the screws and drills. We’re really dedicated to supporting today’s workforce with reliable solutions that can be safely used without years of training.”
One reason Hilti has been so successful with productivity solutions is its close relationship with its customers. “We have a direct sales force, so our account managers and field engineers get to interact directly with customers. This gives us great insight into the needs and pain points,” says Floriani. Another is because of its ability to innovate and adapt to change.
“The fastening and construction industry lags in terms of its digitalization as compared to other sectors. If you consider manufacturing, automotive, finance, healthcare, or others in those overall rankings, construction is definitely slower to adopt new technologies,” he says. “But the fact is that adaptation to change is critical to success. And today that means working in a digital space.”
In this way, Hilti is also sharing advances with its customers, so they feel supported in this ever-evolving digital world.
“Twenty or so years ago, it was easy to show up on a construction site with the materials, tools, and fasteners needed to get the job done, and it was done. But now, pre-fabrication is how many buildings are constructed in a controlled manufacturing environment — and then, the building is shipped to the job site, already erected,” explains Floriani. “It’s a changing world and we want to ensure we are ready to support customers as they adopt new construction processes.”
For Hilti, that means creating software and digital systems that can help model, engineer, track, and manage projects from start to finish. This includes making it easier for construction engineers to design workflows, thanks to simple software integration. It also includes tool and asset-tracking solutions, which simplify the management of stocks and supplies.
“Our end goal is to become a part of the entire process, whether an owner or organization is going to build a building or a data center. We want to support the design team with software and engineering services; the bidding process with value-added data insights; and the construction crew with safe, effective, and sustainable products,” he shares. “And lastly, we want to collaborate with the maintenance teams on upgrades and repairs. And this very much starts with a digitally driven process.”
Just as the Hilti brothers adapted over time to best meet market needs, so the company continues to do the same, learning from and evaluating what best serves the fastening and construction industry.
“We are always adapting the way we go to market and the way we communicate with our customers, especially when it comes to operating in a digital space, so it’s clear, effective, supportive — and, of course, productive,” adds Floriani.