SPEEDING UP THE INNOVATION PROCESS THROUGH STANDARDS

At FIR e.V at RWTH Aachen, one of the most prized outcomes of a research project is not an academic paper, but a kind of applicable standard. Preferably followed by a spin-off company that brings the innovation to the market. And among their many applied research fields, 5G is looking very promising indeed.
 

“Before we begin,” says Volker Stich, “let me explain what we do here.” He walks to the flip chart behind his desk, and starts drawing.

Stich is Managing Director at the Institute for Industrial Management (FIR e.V.) and the Director of the Smart Logistics Cluster at RWTH Aachen University. For more than 23 years, he has been leading this facility, and it is with practized and friendly ease that he takes command of the interview.

“There's fundamental research,” he explains, scribbling on the white paper, “and there's industry. And we are right in the middle, bridging that gap.” In between the words 'research' and 'industry', he writes 'FIR', and circles it with a blue marker.

 

Translating fundamental research into market opportunities

“You see, I've been working in industry for a long time, and I know that there's a certain suspicion of research,” he continues. “We need fundamental research, but it does not speak a language which directly translates into practical application. So at FIR, we're more or less a translator, finding the actual potential of new research outcomes. 

“We need basic fundamental research, but it does not directly translate into practical application.”

Volker Stich, 

Institute for Industrial Management (FIR e.V.),

Germany 

Our topics are organizational issues, IT issues, and new issues of technologies that are available on the market. What we are trying to do is create opportunities for companies to become more competitive, or stay competitive, with new organizational approaches based on innovative technologies.”

Standards as a preferred outcome

This strong focus at FIR on applied research also means that the preferred outcome of their research projects is not what you might expect from a research institute affiliated with a university.

“One of the most intended and beloved outputs of a research project could be a feasible standard, that industry can use,” says Stich. “We ask ourselves: what can a research organization deliver? It can deliver written reports, but those have limited practical value. It can deliver demonstrators, but those become outdated sooner or later. Or it can deliver something that will remain reliable in the future, a guide to proceed to the next steps. This is why we try to convince the public bodies that it has more value to deliver a standard at the end of a project, a DIN SPEC or a publicly available specification, than just delivering a written report.”

Academia meets industry

At FIR, academia and industry literally blend together in their gleaming 'cluster building' that houses everything from staff offices to innovation laboratories, a demonstration factory, and commercial space rented out to companies exploiting FIR research findings. “If everybody is here, we're about 500 persons, out of whom three quarters come from industry, and about one quarter is dedicated to applied research,” says Stich. “And we are working under one roof, to find the most feasible solutions in the shortest time.”
 

e.GO

One of their most important success stories, explains Stich, is in the area of e-mobility. “Perhaps you might have heard that an electronic car called e.GO was manufactured at RWTH Aachen University. The first prototypes until the mini-series production were developed in the demonstration factory downstairs, and we were heavily involved in the process. 

“About a dozen startups have now been founded, monetizing potential and standards that were developed here at FIR.”

Volker Stich, 

Institute for Industrial Management (FIR e.V.),

Germany 

Our intention was not to compete with other car manufacturers, but to prove that we could develop innovative vehicles quicker than industry, by using SCRUM and SPRINT approaches. These are well known in IT, but we used them for the smooth transfer from development to production.”

Spin-offs and startups

Once the commercial potential of a new technology has been proven, a startup is often founded, as a spin-off of the research project. “We are a not-for-profit, unfortunately,” laughs Stich. “And we are an industrial membership organization. So, when we get to the point that something could be monetized, we immediately externalize. About a dozen startups have now been founded, monetizing these potentials. But they're separate entities, doing business by themselves.”


Examples are Trovarit (a platform-based solution for IT systems, and FIR's most successful startup) and Center Connected Industry (CCI), which deals, among other things, with 5G. “CCI was established about three years ago, as we realized that connectivity is a key issue across industries. 15 people are employed there, helping companies, for example, to integrate and realize 5G applications.”

5G

“Ah, 5G! Everybody is talking about 5G,” says Stich. “The technology is available, everybody is aiming for it, but nobody really knows about the potential, and how to bring it into industry.”

Demo cases are tested in the demonstration factory, in collaboration with industrial partners such as Ericsson, Deutsche Telekom and American Towers. Stich: “For example, if you're talking about AGVs, Autonomous Guided Vehicles, on the shop floor, which standards are missing? We are actually able to drive the AGVs with 5G, but the interaction of a physical object in the complex IT system is trial and error. And what we derive from this, is the need for standardized forms for 5G for AGVs. All in all, I think we're running about 5 to 6 projects on 5G, which in the end will lead to a kind of standard.”

Involving their national standards organization

A research project at FIR may result in standards specifications, e.g. DIN SPEC. That's why the research institute is a regular collaborator with DIN, the German national standards organization. “Only a usable standard is a good standard, all the rest can be thrown away, that’s just writing on paper. This is why we try to get DIN involved as soon as possible. They have the experience to organize stakeholders, bring everyone together to ultimately use the standard.”
 

“Only a usable standard is a good standard. Everything else can be thrown away.”

Volker Stich, 

Institute for Industrial Management (FIR e.V.),

Germany 

Harnessing collaborative energy

The “Connected” part of the Center Connected Industry not only represents the interconnection of information technology, but specifically points to the interconnectedness with partners in the community. “You can talk the same language with others. Even if it's not actually the same language, you're talking about the same topics, the same description, so you have a certain kind of mutual understanding on the same topic.”

For roughly the past ten years FIR has been accumulating their own experiences on whether delivering standards at the end of public-funded projects is a good approach. In fact, they found the results overwhelming and Stich has been promoting standardization to peers and researchers as a key element in research projects ever since. “The innovation process itself, it's speeding up through standardization.”

Speeding up innovation with standards

When asked to elaborate, Stich goes on: “Standardization has always been compared to patents. With patents being seen as a global competitive weapon, and standardization as more or less the boring, little sister. But I think that companies have finally understood that patents can be copied anywhere in the world, whereas standardization is a way of thinking. The little sister is standing up, and is showing that it is quick to be developed and quick to implement in terms of usage. Having a standard means, that somebody has figured out how to solve a problem, so you don't have to spend time on this. To my mind, this is the speeding up potential through standardization,” says Stich.

“On the other hand, speed is not the only thing that matters. Perhaps even more importantly, our world has become very complex, and standards help to manage this complexity.”

The merit of learning about standardization in higher education

“I have learned a lot by only reading standards! It's like a library. You do not necessarily need to implement each and every standard, but by reading and by understanding, it's a certain kind of concentrated knowledge that you can reference.”

However, Stich is of the opinion that there is still too little information about standardization at university. “Students are our management boards of tomorrow. 

“I have learned a lot by only reading standards!”

Volker Stich, 

Institute for Industrial Management (FIR e.V.),

Germany 

Yet if you're going into industry, standardization is still absent in management courses. I think that we should show students the potential of standardization. Not by giving lectures, but by industrial driven cases.”

FIR offers a so-called case competition once a year based on a challenge provided by a company. Up to twelve student groups participate and work on solving the problem, resulting in a standardized solution. “I think this is what students love to do, to work on actual cases and understand the mechanisms. Don't ever use a slideshow to teach standardization to students.”

“Don't ever use a slideshow to teach standardization to students.”

Volker Stich, 

Institute for Industrial Management (FIR e.V.),

Germany 

Further readings

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