Beate Wittkopp, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center TransferWerk-BW and an active networker and advisory board member of Leichtbau BW, spoke to Dr. Wolfgang Seeliger on behalf of TRANSFER magazine to discover more about the importance of lightweight technology as a cross-industry driver of innovation, about the shift to digital technology, and about future prospects for the industry.
Dr. Seeliger, you’re a chemistry graduate with an MBA and you completed your doctoral studies at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, which deals with materials and energy systems. The focus of your Ph.D. work was renewable energy. After that you worked in places like the automotive industry and the Baden-Württemberg State Bank. So how did you end up in lightweight technology?
I’m fascinated by innovations and developments, the juxtaposition between finite resources on the one hand and the huge market potential for new materials on the other. Lightweight construction opens the door to amazing sustainable solutions for saving energy, materials, and money. It also allows you to achieve lower weights and still raise load capacities and improve functions – just as our slogan goes: “less is more.” As well as presenting our companies with tremendous commercial potential, we can also save valuable resources.
Why is it that lightweight materials are such an innovation driver across so many industries?
Lightweight technology transcends a number of industries, from cars to mechanical engineering, the aerospace industry, medical technology, construction, and architecture. So the lightweight materials industry is safeguarding the future of many valuable jobs in Baden-Wurttemberg, as well as its industrial clout overall. From what we can see, the potential of conventional lightweight construction will already be leveraged in the automotive industry within the next two vehicle generations. So in the medium term, there will be a paradigm shift and this will not just result in digitalization of the value chain, but it will also result in more emphasis on lightweight concepts and process innovations.
What do you believe will be the key industries in this respect?
Market forecasts indicate that the transportation sector will remain the key customer for lightweight design. Studies point to a market volume in this area of around €140 billion by 2020. Over the same period, mechanical engineering will grow to a market size of up to €30 billion. And for whom will lightweight design be particularly interesting? An analysis of the most recent patent registrations has shown that, in the long term, the construction industry could topple transportation from its leading position. It’s a visionary idea at the moment, but a broad field of growth for lightweight design could come from the merging fields of architecture and public travel – or construction in the transportation industry. This is about translating the principles of lightweight design into urban development. So in essence, it’s about transferring lightweight materials and functional integration into buildings.
What are the important trends at the moment? Where will this journey take us?
Lightweight technology not only allows you to reduce mass consumption and cut carbon emissions, you can also achieve essential cost savings. To leverage their full potential, lightweight materials have to be looked at from a broader angle. Simply substituting materials will still be important, albeit with more of a focus on multi-material design. And another paradigm shift has now entered the scene with mid-term lightweight developments – one example of which can be seen in the automotive industry. There are some excellent ways to transfer people’s experience in this area into other industries. The idea behind our monthly ThinKing program is to introduce people to innovative lightweight solutions and provide an incentive and stimulus, but also to give a higher profile to lightweight technology excellence in the state.
How important is the shift toward digital technology for lightweight construction?
Digital technology is essential for lightweight design. Lightweight construction pushes materials to the extreme in terms of the stresses they can take; products are made completely differently and functions are integrated into actual components. To exploit the full potential of lightweight construction, data has to be shared at all stages of the value chain. The result is significant gains in terms of competitiveness, but also for the customer. It does make the engineering process more complex, however, and there’s a shift away from being a consecutive process toward becoming a complex process with feedback loops along the entire process chain, that is, at different stages. So this is nothing less than digitalizing the entire process chain and to do that, data exchange has to be standardized.
What do you believe is the best way for companies to deal with such technology-driven transformations?
As was shown most strikingly by an analysis of training requirements carried out by Leichtbau BW, the “hot potato” for companies involved in lightweight design is changing business processes. This will mean changing work practices. Production and development will have to pull together more and wield more influence on one another, but it will also require new calculation methods. This will all come along with lightweight design, so process innovations will be needed.
So training and continuing professional development (CPD) will also be crucial as part of career development?
Indeed. Lightweight technology requires a complete rethinking in terms of processes and methods, as well as materials. This is what comes from a carefully considered, sustainable design and construction process, but it’s also what happens when you have to master production technologies and select the right materials. All of these changes come hand in hand with new training requirements for the people working at a company. Lightweight technology is already a central feature of academic training. There are more than 50 different degree options in Baden-Württemberg which involve teaching on lightweight technology – from architecture to business engineering. Where we still see challenges at the moment are in CPD at companies. We also conducted an analysis of requirements within companies and we’re planning to introduce certification courses and innovative training models in the future.
One prerequisite that needs to be fulfilled to foster the right kind of interdisciplinary collaboration and give lateral thinkers the room they need is to network lots of key players. How do you pool resources?
One thing we find extremely important is collaboration with industry associations like the LVI in Baden-Wurttemberg (the regional industry association) and the capital goods industry representative VDMA Baden- Württemberg. We do this not just by involving them in our advisory board, but also by organizing shared events and offering ways for providers and users to exchange views. This is an especially important B2B platform for our SMEs. Then there’s collaboration between each federal state and the federal government, for which there’s strong interest within our network. To help market innovations involving “lightweight technology from Baden- Württemberg,” Leichtbau BW offers a number of vehicles, mainly by working with a variety of partners from industry and science to offer companies events, platforms, and project groups. We exhibit at most technology trade shows and this year we shared a booth under the banner “Lightweight technology from Baden-Württemberg” at Hannover Messe; it was extremely successful for the companies that took part. We would also like to pull the key players together that inject momentum, so one step has also been to set up a technology day on hybrid lightweight technology in collaboration with the fiber materials alliance AFBW, Carbon Composites Baden-Württemberg (CCBW) and Leichtbauzentrum Baden-Württemberg (LBZ). This was the third year the conference took place and it was accompanied by a special exhibition. There were 250 participants at the event and 15% of those were from outside Germany. We invest a great deal of energy in work with the LVI to organize cross-industry workshops, for example there was an event called “Aviation Meets Lightweight Technology” organized with the LRBW Forum. Our members also attach a lot of importance to internationalization, so we also collaborate with Austria and Switzerland. We’ve been involved in lots of lively exchange with the state of Michigan and this is intensifying. There have been a number of highly promising tours on both sides of the Atlantic and preparations are already underway for the next automotive manufacturing meeting. The aim is to boost innovation and, with that, the competitiveness of Baden- Württemberg, meanwhile helping to create new jobs. The role lightweight design plays is that of an enabling technology. As a 100% state-owned enterprise, we support industry and research on the path to global leadership in lightweight technology.
Dr. Wolfgang Seeliger is managing director of Leichtbau BW, the Development Agency for Lightweighting Baden-Wuerttemberg. Leichtbau BW is a limited liability company that fosters and promotes economic development and science. As a neutral and cross-industry port of call for companies, research bodies, and society as a whole, the agency’s role is to help organizations share lightweight construction technology and know-how. It also helps with searches for new organizations interested in closer collaboration.
Beate Wittkopp is the director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center Transfer- Werk-BW, which is a member of the Steinbeis Network. As well as offering professional support with managing networks involved in technology projects, she also provides help with change processes. Among other bodies, Wittkopp is a member of Baden-Württemberg: connected bwcon e.V. and the regional industry association of Baden-Württemberg (LVI). She is also an LVI advisory member for Leichtbau BW.
Steinbeis Transfer Center TransferWerk-BW (Schönaich) (Schönaich)