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German Industrial Innovation: A more complex future

24. februar 2016

Need to promote technical topics beyond maths and physics. Photo: Thinkstock

Ralph Appel, the Director of the German Association of Engineers (VDI), explains why clusters are important to keep the German economy innovative, the skills engineers will need under Industry 4.0, and what German engineers do to get kids hooked on technology.

Interview conducted by Senior Adviser Frauke Muth, Innovation Norway.

Small and medium-sized companies (SMEs)

IN: The Norwegian economy is small, and the value creation happens to a large degree in small and medium enterprises. Which role do the SMEs play for the development of the innovation hub Germany?

Appel: The German industry is mostly composed of small and medium sized companies, and a lot, if not most of innovation is driven by these SMEs. They are in fact, to quite some extent, the innovation hub.

So what often happens is that the innovation/product development is done by the smaller companies and then this is used or bought by the larger companies. Because of this the SMEs play an important role for innovation in Germany.

«As we know from physics, a lot of small waves may eliminate each other. But if they are synchronised and have the same frequency they could actually support each other and make a bigger wave. That’s the idea under which we are currently working.»

IN: And you’ve got a lot of the hidden champions…

Appel: …exactly, and many of them are in locations where they are not so well connected, but [organized] cluster [initiatives] have helped them a integrate them with other players in the innovation game.


IN: Talking about clusters – which role do clusters play in the permanent struggle of an economy to stay competitive and innovative? Which are the strengths of the German cluster policy?

Appel: The cluster policy was established about twenty years ago, as far as I know around 1996. Today the cluster [organisations] are very important players in Germany’s innovation system.

They are facilitating the emergence of fundamental innovation, and they play a part in developing solutions and realize substantial innovations. This is being done in a triangle between companies, institutions of higher education and research, and, obviously, customers. A lot of innovation is taking place inside those clusters.

Local or central governments do play a role as well, as they provide funding for research to those clusters, and therefore I think it is a very important initiative.

Clusters help to secure innovation in Germany, even in areas where the big companies are not present.

The clusters also help to disseminate the experience and the expertise being developed in a region or in an industry. Most of these clusters are actually regional clusters combining companies, universities and the customers located in an area.

IN: …and I guess they also have a role to play in the industry 4.0 project in disseminating knowledge and skills?

Appel: Yes definitely. I think there is still a lot of coordination needed and this is in the process of being established. The concept of Industry 4.0 has not been formally disseminated into clusters yet.

The formal exchange of ideas, on views about what industry 4.0 is, is still taking place at federal level, accompanied by a lot of initiatives – also by the German government.

Clusters are an important driving force for innovation in Germany. They serve as regional integrators and share experience and expertise developed in a region – this is particularly true for a development like Industry 4.0.

Skills of engineers

IN: If you look at the combination of automation, internet of things and the business services, what kind of new knowledge, skills and competences will tomorrow’s engineers need to bring with them, as employees, in an industry 4.0-world? May engineering education have to be adapted accordingly?

Appel: The world will obviously become more complex. Maybe it will become easier from a user or consumer standpoint, but it will be more complex from an engineering standpoint.

We hence will still need the deep knowledge of engineers in their respective area of competence, but at the same time they will have to broaden their approach and expertise, probably including even more IT or software engineering knowledge. They certainly have to understand better what happens to the left and the right of their expert area.

The world will be become more complex from an engineering point of view. Engineers will continue to need their technical in-depth knowledge. But at the same time they will have to be even more able to look to the left and to the right, in order communicate well with others, with a particular focus on IT.

I call this a T-shape-model: We need to keep up the quality of engineering education and competences. At the same time we need to broaden the expertise of engineers so that they can communicate and collaborate with each other on a wider range.

I do not believe that you can be an expert in everything, but I do believe that we can do a better job by ensuring that experts do understand each other and looking even more to the left and the right so to speak – so that’s the horizontal bar of the “T”.

Engaging young people

IN: How can today’s pupils become interested in maths and science?

Appel: I was in a plane to Lisbon a couple of weeks ago – sitting next to a family with three kids. They told me that the two year old was completely capable of handling her mum’s iPhone – playing games etc. She could hardly speak, but she could use an iPhone.

What you see is that today’s young people are perfectly able to use technology that is available today, but I am not sure if they really understand, or have a keen interest in understanding how the technology works. So I think we should do more to educate small kids, young children and teenagers to create and raise their interest in technology.

Today’s kids are perfectly able to use technology. But we need to raise and develop their interest in understanding technology as well.

And therefore VDI is arguing that we should teach engineering topics / technical topics beyond maths, physics, chemistry or biology at school. We have, however, not yet been completely successful with this and thus need to push harder. Although technical science is approved as a major in the German A-levels, there are not many schools offering this yet.

We do have a lack of teachers who can actually teach technology. Because of that we [the Association of German Engineers] have started to do our own thing. Of course we cannot cover the whole of Germany, but we have, for example, initiatied a club called “VDIni Club” for kids ranging from the age of 5 to 12.

By now we have almost 50 of them located throughout Germany where close to 8000 kids are getting more acquainted with technology by playing with it, building little wind energy plants, or just understanding how electricity works.

We have also started to build up a similar clubs for teenagers; we call it the Future Pilots. This initiative has only started recently, but we have by now close to 25 clubs with around 500 members. We also very actively collaborate with other foundations and associations who do a lot outside school.

There is a German initiative called the MINT forum (MINT=mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technology), which clusters a lot of similar activities and is used as an umbrella to coordinate such activities.

As we all know from physics, if you have a lot of small waves, sometimes they eliminate each other, but if they are synchronised and have the same frequency they can actually support each other and make a bigger wave, and that’s the vision under which we are currently working.

This text is the second half of an interview conducted in Brussels, on November 17th 2015. The first is called “Industry 4.0 is the first revolution that has been announced before it actually happens..


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