Interview

Sustainability as a driver of innovation

The E³ strategy emerged at Fraunhofer IWU and it was introduced the first time in 2011 by Prof. Reimund Neugebauer, the director of Fraunhofer IWU at that time. What is the difference between this approach and other strategies such as industry 4.0 or the smart factory?

Industry 4.0 stands for the interconnectedness of data and production technology while linking state-of-the-art information and communication technology with manufacturing technologies. The smart factory takes advantage of this development while transmitting it to the factory level: the idea behind it is self-sufficient production processes and self-streamlining and communicating machines and systems. The E³ strategy incorporates these single solutions and expands their horizon. Instead of competing for the fastest and highest-level technology for industry 4.0, we avail ourselves of E³ as a new method for searching for integrative innovations. These new approaches and types of analysis have the purpose of helping us to pinpoint potentials and synergies while interlinking Fraunhofer IWU’s capabilities even more efficiently.

 

Skyrocketing energy prices, international competition and limited resources: how can E³ help German production techniques and in particular German technologies and products continue to provide the cornerstone for real net output in future, thus guaranteeing prosperity in our society?

Innovation is emblematic for keeping one step ahead of the competition: that’s the point of departure for our research work and foremost paradigm for maintaining prosperity by real industrial net output in Germany. This is where the E³ strategy has to respond to agenda-setting global trends in development to guarantee that German production technology can not only maintain its competitive edge; we can also keep ahead of the others with new ideas. That’s something we have done from the beginning with our business partners in industry. That’s also one of the reasons why we are admired in Europe and the world for this close and extremely fruitful connectivity between industry and research. We want to use E³ here to apply and advance issues such as industry 4.0, the smart factory – or Fraunhofer IWU’s core topic, energy- and resource-efficient production – to forge it to an efficient philosophy of innovation.

 

In November 2013, the E³ strategy was integrated into Fraunhofer’s lighthouse project "E³ Production" that twelve Fraunhofer institutes are involved in. What does that mean for the standing of Germany’s production technology and what impact does it have on Fraunhofer IWU?

There’s no doubt that the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has a leading role to play in production research. On the one hand, the launch of the E³ lighthouse project production evidences the fact that the issue of future production has transformed itself into a challenge involving the whole of society. This is the reason why Fraunhofer wants to expand on its claim to leadership. On the one hand, Fraunhofer IWU’s position as a coordinator in this lighthouse project is recognition of our project and core competencies. On the other hand, this function enables us to boost the visibility of our research work beyond the area of our immediate activities, which involves great responsibilities for our institute.

 

The lighthouse project is interdisciplinary – does production technology research have to provide still greater access to bordering realms of the science? Where do you see the added value for the future?

Interlinking is an important component of our lighthouse project. Along with the seven member institutes in the Fraunhofer Group for Production, there are also another five institutes involved such as from material technology, information and communication technology and process engineering. Furthermore, there is a wide range of projects where issues from conventional production research with approaches from other sciences can be synergetically linked to potential solutions. Interdisciplinary work is not unknown to our institute. For instance, we already have a series of win-win links to mathematics, business management or even the social sciences in joint work with the Technische Universität Chemnitz in the Saxon Cluster of Excellence eniPROD® to solve problems with production technology challenges.

 

The E³-Forschungsfabrik Resource-Efficient Production has been launched in May of 2014. What makes the E³-Forschungsfabrik in Chemnitz, Germany a research factory of the future for German production technology?

One of the prime reasons we chose the term research factory was because we don’t work under laboratory conditions. Our new experimental field is closer to a factory than a laboratory because it offers the opportunity to research with industrial equipment on an industrial scale. To be sure, there are other institutes in Germany that delve into production of the future. However, what’s special about our Chemnitz research factory is first of all the fact that we concentrate on two fields of technology arising from the core competencies of our institute, they can continue to and do indeed make their mark there: car body engineering and the powertrain. Secondly, our E³-Forschungsfabrik is a symbol for the way we can work with industry in co-operative partnerships for ideas such as how a new and contemporary form of interaction can be established between science and industry. We have been successful at involving research and development into our E³-Forschungsfabrik with and for large-scale companies that do not have their headquarters in Saxony. This also boosts the attractiveness of Chemnitz as an investment target. This is where our many years of trusting research partnership with large-scale car companies pays off. This collaborative atmosphere has aroused the interest of suppliers and equippers to join forces with us in the factory of the future beyond this classical commissioned research. It’s not a question of excluding companies from Saxony. We want to entice new partners with the regional industry using our partnership as a launching pad and support linking.

 

How should the E³ factory be ranked in the lighthouse project?

In the lighthouse project, we intend to bring the findings into focus at four demonstrator sites. This will not only include Chemnitz, but also Berlin, Stuttgart and Dortmund. We will be placing the main emphasis on technology-oriented issues in our E³-Forschungsfabrik, in particular in creating ultrashort process chains for powertrain components. Another object of study is energy and research management on the factory level. Finally, we are researching ways to open up new options for people’s design capabilities in the production of the future.

 

How is the Technische Universität Chemnitz involved with the E³-Forschungsfabrik?

The E³ strategy and our formidable expertise on issues of energy- and resource-efficient production are putting a lot of trust in joint research projects such as eniPROD® and the fundamental university research it builds upon. We want to be more efficient at exploiting these synergy effects and testing new forms of co-operative relations with industrial partners, including training up-and-coming scientists in MINT profiles.

 

How can the E³-Forschungsfabrik help raise awareness among various industries for new ideas in technology and joint projects?

Our E³-Forschungsfabrik is a flexible open-access platform for the co-operative relationship we are always aiming for, especially with small and medium-sized companies that do not have any or only limited resources for their own research and development. Our research factory provides a realm where technical innovations, new frontiers and modern ideas can be tested – and what’s very important: we can demonstrate to industry the feasibility and profitably of new technologies and processes in close proximity to real-time practice.

 

How might the subjects pursued by your research factory look like in ten years?

That is a very difficult question to answer. After all, as a Fraunhofer Institute, the hallmark of our research work is a high level of application-orientation and timeliness. In other words, it has to be possible to transform ideas into practical applications as quickly as possible. Of course, that does not mean that we do not devote ourselves to medium- to long-term issues in our E³ strategy. This is the reason why the technical equipment in our E³-Forschungsfabrik is extremely flexible and provides a realm and the opportunities for a wide range of still unanswered questions for practical applications. Beyond this, in my opinion, the content of our research will advance along our foremost core competencies. We will be putting more effort into subjects such as interlinking technology and machines.