A century of engines and energy

Posted on March 10, 2009

The three letters M T U stand for diesel engines, propulsion systems and energy plants of the highest quality worldwide. In 2009, the company that started out as Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH is celebrating its centenary.

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  • Foundations of success laid by design genius Karl Maybach
  • Milestones in propulsion technology for numerous applications from airships to superyachts
  • New challenges for engines of the future

Friedrichshafen, 10 March 2009. The three letters M T U stand for diesel engines, propulsion systems and energy plants of the highest quality worldwide. In 2009, the company that started out as Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH is celebrating its centenary. Right from the very beginning, cofounder Karl Maybach focused on the same qualities that still distinguish mtu systems to this day – outstanding performance and exceptional reliability. Today, yacht owners, fast-ferry operators, mining corporations, hospitals, security services, nuclear power plants, electricity providers, airports and many others who want more than just an off-the-shelf engine look to customized products from mtu and its new sister brand, mtu Onsite Energy. They are the two core brands of the present-day Tognum Group. The expertise for the key technologies of turbo charging, fuel injection, electronics and exhaust treatment is constantly developed and expanded in house and represents one of the essential foundations for success as a supplier of high-performance diesel engines.

The beginning

If Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had known in 1908 what momentous consequences the destruction of his LZ 4 airship would have, then perhaps he would not have been quite so devastated. Because when the hydrogen-filled zeppelin had to make an emergency landing in Echterdingen near Stuttgart on 5 August 1908 due to engine problems and was later ripped from its moorings by a storm-force wind and dumped in an orchard where it was consumed by flames, the apparent disaster was actually the beginning of a 100 year success story in engine production. Wilhelm Maybach, who knew Count Zeppelin from his time as chief designer at the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, saw that airships needed more reliable and more powerful engines that were more suited to continuous duty. So when a massive wave of public donations secured the future of zeppelin production, he recommended an engine designed by his son Karl to Count Zeppelin. The Count recognized the opportunity and joined up with Maybach senior and junior to establish the airship engine company Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH in the town of Bissingen on 23 March 1909, from where it subsequently moved to Friedrichshafen near the Zeppelin factory in 1912.

Engines for aircraft

Karl Maybach’s engine was designed for endurance, built to be very rigid, was lighter and, because of a new type of carburetor without a float, was better suited than any other of its time to operating at the inclined angles that are encountered in an airship. A straight-six spark-ignition unit, it produced 145 hp (107 kW) and had an exceptionally good power-to-weight ratio for the time of 0.42 hp per kilogram. The first zeppelin to be exclusively powered by Maybach engines was the LZ 10, named the “Schwaben”. By the end of the 1920s, all Zeppelin airships used Maybach engines.

Maybach power units also delivered top performance at high altitude for military airplanes, which over the course of the First World War were increasingly preferred to the easily targeted airships. Planes made by Gotha, Dornier, Rumpler and others were powered by the 250 hp (184 kW) supercharged Maybach Mb IVa aircraft engine which could maintain its output at higher altitudes than others. Mass production of that model increased the company’s workforce to 3,600 employees.

The Maybach automobiles

After the First World War, by which time the company had changed its name to Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH, Germany was banned from manufacturing aeronautical equipment of any kind. So Maybach responded by developing engines for the automobile industry. By doing so he was following in the footsteps of his famous father, Wilhelm Maybach, the “king of the designers”, who played a definitive role in the development of the first Mercedes automobiles. The first Maybach automobile engine was the 70 hp (51.5 kW) Type W 2. As Maybach could only secure one buyer for that engine – the soon-to-go-bankrupt Dutch firm Spyker – he took the decision to make his own automobiles too. With superior technology and superlative comfort, they were among the very best that German engine manufacturers had to offer. Maybach supplied the chassis complete with engine, gearbox and steering. The coachwork was constructed by specialist firms to the buyers’ requirements. Ultimately, however, the high cost of development and the small production numbers – only around 1,800 cars were ever built – meant that Maybach automobile production was not a profitable enterprise, despite the fact that the cars themselves contributed greatly to Maybach’s world renown.

The days of the flying trains

At the same time, Maybach was working on the development of the first large high-speed diesel engine, which he unveiled at the International Railway Exhibition in Seddin in 1924. Designated the G 4a, the 150 hp (110 kW) unit was fitted in a railcar which Maybach had developed jointly with the rolling-stock producer Eisenbahn-Verkehrsmittel AG Wismar. Before then, large diesel engines had only run at 600 rpm. Maybach more than doubled that speed at a stroke with his 1,300 rpm power unit. When the German railways decided to use diesel engines on main lines in the 1930s, the advanced-design engine became a big seller. And the record-breaking run of the “Fliegender Hamburger” in 1933 is unlikely to be forgotten. The train “flew” from Berlin to Hamburg in only 2 hours 18 minutes – an absolute sensation. Its motive power was supplied by two Maybach Type GO 5 engines, each producing 410 hp (302 kW). But Maybach didn’t just design the engine, his engineers also paid attention to the engine peripherals such as mountings, air and fuel supply, exhaust system, cooling system and transmission. Even the aerodynamic shape of the power car – quite normal today but revolutionary at the time – was Maybach’s idea. His use of the Zeppelin airship company’s wind tunnel to design the streamlined shape became a pattern copied by many other manufacturers. The system engineering approach that Maybach adopted even in those early days is a thread that has run through the company’s history ever since.

New beginning

In the Second World War, Maybach’s powerful automobile engines were used in tracked and half-track vehicles for the army. The company produced thousands of them. So because Maybach-Motorenbau was important to the war effort, forced labor was employed as the war went on. Between 1939 and 1945, a total of 4,819 foreign laborers worked at the Maybach factory, of whom 589 were prisoners of war. Air bombing raids on the factory by the Allies severely restricted production from 1943 on. By the end of the war it had been largely destroyed by air attacks. In 1945 there initially seemed very little prospect of production being restarted.

But Karl Maybach saved his company by undertaking in 1946 to design a diesel and a gasoline engine for France if the factory in Friedrichshafen was not further dismantled. At the same time, he took up work on his own diesel unit again and created the MD 650 engine for the German railways and the design went into volume production in the early 1950s. At first, the MD engine was only available as a 12-cylinder version developing 1,200 hp (880 kW) at 1,500 rpm. In succeeding years it was followed by numerous variations in both V and inline configurations with between 4 and 20 cylinders. All versions had the same bore and stroke dimensions and many identical components. Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH had created its first modular engine concept, which could be produced quickly and economically. Another new feature of the MD was the unit-pump fuel injection system developed jointly with L’Orange GmbH which proved to be a sign of things to come.

The MD Series was, of course, designed primarily for railway applications and used in fast railcars and legendary locomotives such as the German V 100 and V 200. But its high power density also made it unequalled as a marine propulsion unit for fast naval and governmental vessels. The MD engines were highly successful abroad as well as in Germany, so laying the early foundations for the ultimate globalization of the company.

Despite those successes, Jean Raebel, Chairman of the Board at the time, recognized at the beginning of the 1950s that the company needed a partner to remain successful in the long term. The industrial magnate Friedrich Flick bought the shares owned by the Zeppelin foundation and airship company. And as Flick was also a shareholder in Daimler-Benz AG, he brought Maybach and the Daimler-Benz large engines operations together. So the company’s history in the 1960s was dominated by that merger. Daimler had by then moved its large engine production from Stuttgart to a site it had acquired in the Manzell district of Friedrichshafen.

The next step followed in 1969. Maybach, Daimler-Benz and MAN merged their large engine and aircraft turbine operations. That fusion created the Motoren- und Turbinen-Union and thus gave birth to the name mtu. The mtu plant in Friedrichshafen was allocated the diesel engines business while the Munich factory was given the aircraft turbines. The plan was to standardize the three companies’ diesel engine ranges and extend the top-end output to 10,000 hp. The models with which that was essentially achieved were the Series 331/396, 538 and 956/1163.

At the lower end of the output range from around 500 to 1,500 kilowatts, the Series 331 featured a combustion method suitable for further development. Later, the long-stroke version, called the Series 396, was chosen as the basic engine for replacement of the Series 331 and 493, a process that was completed in 1988 with the volume production launch of the Series 396 TB94 marine engines. For mid-range power outputs of between 1,500 and 3,000 kilowatts, the decision was taken in 1969 to further develop the Series 538, which was used chiefly in fast patrol boats. For the top end of the range, mtu developed the twin Series 956/1163. The 20-cylinder version of the long-stroke 1163 with two-stage turbocharging achieved the target output of 7,400 kilowatts (10,000 hp).

The power increases of the 1970s and 1980s were made possible by the improvement of features such as cylinder shutdown, cylinder recharging, controlled turbocharger cut-in and cut-out during fast run-up, and two-stage sequential turbocharging. The advancement of fuel injection and engine electronics were also important contributions. In 1985, MAN AG split from the mtu Group making Daimler-Benz AG the majority shareholder. In 1986 and 1992, mtu engines set speed records for crossing the Atlantic. They first propelled Richard Branson’s racing powerboat and later on the superyacht Destriero across the “pond”.
On 1 February 1985 a terrible event deeply shocked the company and its employees – terrorists of the Red Army Faction shot dead mtu Chairman, Ernst Zimmermann, at his home near Munich.


The companies from which mtu was descended had already seen some success in exporting large-scale diesel engines in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the core business remained in Germany. To continue growing, export sales had to be increased. In 1974, the first foreign subsidiary was founded – mtu Singapore, the predecessor of today’s MTU Asia. Other new overseas companies in Australia, Brazil, Argentina, North America, Turkey and Italy followed between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s.

In 1987 mtu took over total responsibility for sales of Mercedes-Benz industrial engines. That meant that mtu was also able to supply diesels with power outputs ranging from 35 to 735 kilowatts.

With the end of the cold war and the increasing internationalization of the company, the commercial markets gained substantially in importance. To serve them properly, not only was it necessary to revise the range of engines, production had to be reorganized too. An important step in that direction was the cooperative agreement struck in 1994 with the US manufacturer Detroit Diesel Corporation (DDC). Together, the two companies increased their involvement in commercial markets, especially in North America, and jointly developed two new engine designs, the Series 2000 and Series 4000. DDC engines also extended mtu’s overall product range.

The Series 2000 and 4000 introduced in 1996 remain two main cornerstones of the mtu engine range catering for a broad spectrum applications from power generation to ships, luxury yachts, heavy-duty vehicles and trains. The Series 4000 was the first high-performance diesel engine in the world to feature common-rail fuel injection as standard. The system enables injection timing, volume and pressure to be infinitely varied. Which makes it possible to achieve substantially better combustion control, especially with regard to optimizing consumption and exhaust emissions.

The year 2000 saw the unveiling of the largest high-speed diesel engine in the world, the Series 8000 weighing roughly 45 tonnes and capable of as much as 9,100 kilowatts (12,376 hp) of power output. It propels the largest high-speed ferries in the world to unequalled speeds.

In 2001, the company shortened its official trading name to MTU Friedrichshafen GmbH and created a new corporate design. From then on, the mtu logo sported stylized blue and red flames. Together with the Off-Highway Division of Detroit Diesel Corporation and the Mercedes-Benz industrial engines arm, mtu formed the Off-Highway Division of the DaimlerChrysler Group from 2002 to 2005.

Going public to sustain growth

While mtu required substantial investment in capacity and research and development to continue its growth strategy, DaimlerChrysler was concentrating on its core car and commercial vehicles business. Consequently, a new partner was sought for the off-highway operations centered around mtu. The Swedish investor EQT bought up the Off-Highway Division and invested in it. Tognum, the new holding company for the group, became stock-market listed in 2007.

The future

Accepting challenges, seizing opportunities for growth and researching new technologies so as to remain the preferred partner for energy and engines was not just Karl Maybach’s ambition. It remains the primary objective today. Distributed energy systems for peak demand, emergency backup or continuous duty represent an important future market with potential for growth. Since September 2008, the Tognum Group has used the mtu trademark as part of a new brand. mtu Onsite Energy is the name under which all distributed energy systems are now marketed. The subsidiaries in Mankato/USA (formerly Katolight), Augsburg (previously MDE Dezentrale Energiesysteme) and Ottobrunn (latterly CFC Solutions) now trade under the new title of mtu Onsite Energy. In 2008, mtu also purchased SKL Motor GmbH in Magdeburg for engine overhauling and reconditioning operation and is in the process of converting it into its European remanufacturing center.

To expand business in the growing Asian market, production of mtu engines in the Chinese city of Suzhou started in 2006. A joint venture with North China Industries Corporation (Norinco) will assemble Series 595, 956 and 1163 engines from 2009 on as an extension of the cooperative relationship that has been in existence since 1986. At the same time, mtu relocated the central departments of the MTU Asia headquarters from Singapore to Shanghai.

The forward-looking developments are also evident at headquarters in Germany. A new logistics center for spare parts supply in Überlingen, 30 kilometers from Friedrichshafen, was opened in 2008. mtu is also planning to build a materials management center in the Lake Constance area for supplying the production plants.

2009 will also mark the start of a new chapter. In October of this year, volume production of the new Series 1600 will begin at a pilot plant in Überlingen. The new model will secure new business for mtu. Specially designed for off-highway applications, it will be used to drive power generators, construction and agricultural machinery, and also trains. Ultimately, production is expected to reach around 20,000 engines a year.

Tighter emission regulations in the near future will offer new opportunities for technologically advanced companies in particular. mtu engines meet emission limits without the aid of subsequent exhaust treatment. In order to be able to satisfy even stricter regulations, mtu is developing exhaust treatment systems designed specifically for its own engines. To that end, the joint venture Envirovent has been established conjointly with the Swiss company Hug Engineering.

As great as the differences may be between the time in which the company was founded, on 23 March 1909, and the present day, 100 years later, it has always remained true to the ambition of the pioneering designer Karl Maybach to produce high-quality, technologically innovative engine systems throughout its long history.
Wolfgang Boller Spokesman Regional and Business Media
+49 7541 90 2159
Julia Höchel Spokeswoman Business and Financial Media
+49 7541 90 3989