“Give professors continuous involvement in live development projects in industry”

An interview with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jürgen van der List, 2007 Löhn Award prizewinner along with the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Microelectronics

The Löhn Award was awarded again in 2007 as part of the annual Steinbeis Day. In front of an audience of more than 500 guests, the jury awarded the prize to Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jürgen van der List and the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Microelectronics in Göppingen for the many years of outstanding contributions to and projects in the field of technology transfer. The jury also recognized the personal commitment of Dr.-Ing. Wilhelm Schmitt, Senator E.h., as a long-standing member of the Board of Trustees and the Steinbeis Foundation Board of Trustees and Committee. TRANSFER spoke to Prof. Dr.-Ing. van der List, who founded the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Microelectronics in 1991 and has been pivotal in building and expanding its work.

Professor van der List, first of all congratulations on winning the 2007 Löhn Award, to you and the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Microelectronics, the TZM. Taking a look at the TZM today, with 130 employees and customers in every corner of the globe, it scarcely seems necessary to ask why the Transfer Center was set up in 1991 at Esslingen University’s site in Göppingen. Despite this, could you tell us something about your original motives. What value-added were you hoping for? What could you offer to clients in industry? 

In 1987 I was asked to set up a new faculty for electronics and microelectronics at Esslingen University. Within three years I had the professors and staff in place along with excellent technical equipment, perfect for providing students with education and vocational training. I noticed pretty quickly that state-of-the-art equipment, hand-inhand with the highly specialized knowledge of the professors was not only useful to students, it could also be interesting in research and development for companies in the surrounding area.

In 1991, I resolved to set up a transfer center for microelectronics with Professor Osterwinter. In setting up the centre I was aiming to achieve a number of things: on the one hand, university professors should teach their subjects with the practicalities of business in mind. For this to work best you have to give professors continuous involvement in live development projects in industry. The microelectronics transfer center is the ideal vehicle. At the same time, I wanted to meet some of the high ongoing costs of the electronics laboratories by generating income from industrial projects. Finally, joint projects within the TZM would strengthen cooperation between professors. And of course the department of electronics and microelectronics would become better known in the industry and the public in general through spectacular discoveries made by the TZM.

Once the TZM had been set up, we offered our services to a variety of companies in the area in a number of electronics fields and received a warm welcome. Small and medium- sized companies in particular took the opportunity to use the modern equipment and expertise of the professors for their needs. The quick and spontaneous approach offered by the TZM was particularly appreciated, in particular with respect to customer requests, development work and speed support.

It is often difficult to resolv the chasm between universities and research establishments on the one hand and the actual transfer of products into industry on the other. Obviously the TZM seems to have got around this successfully. How did you manage to convince clients and the university to commit to the specific transfer process, from the university into client products?

The opportunity to become involved in product development only arose after we had established a sense of trust between the companies and the TZM by working on lots of projects. This gave us a chance to come on board with projects at the early stage of development. This led to more special demands that could only be solved by concentrating on specialist disciplines. We went about systematically restructuring internally. In the early years we covered off a spectrum of disciplines; for a number of years now we’ve been focusing on embedded systems, software and services for fields such as the automotive industry, automation technology, and medical technology.

One of the products that bears your hallmark is the automotive bus system called FlexRay. Could you briefly explain what is innovative about FlexRay and its advantage to your customers over conventional bus systems?

In recent years the use of electronic control devices in vehicles has risen continuously. These control devices are connected to each other via “data bus systems” so they can exchange information. With the sharp rise in the number of electronic components in a car, the bus systems currently being used can’t keep up. The new FlexRay bus system solves this problem by significantly accelerating the speed at which data is transferred. Certain functions in a car need immediate responses so the data has to be transferred via the bus system – without delay. FlexRay makes sure this happens. Compared to conventional systems, FlexRay also offers a lot more flexibility which is why it is being recognized by leading automotive companies as the bus system of the future. The FlexRay bus system is an open bus standard and is certain to be used in the future by most car producers throughout the world. First serial production cars and test vehicles are already equipped with the FlexRay bus.

One of your emphases lies in software development in the field of medical technology. Which problems are producers and users currently faced with and what developments are you aiming for in this area in the future? 

Software is now an integral part of lots of types of medical equipment. According to trend research, the role played by software in medical technology will continue to intensify, especially when introducing innovative functions and operations. The increasing importance of software in medical technology is reflected by a number of things including new standards such as EN 62304 or the third edition of IEC 60601 1-1, placing detailed demands on the development of medical software. These standards provide a basic template for the things you need to take into account when developing software and the requirements to be fulfilled to set up certified software development. The problem is they tell us little about how to implement this basic template in practice. This provides producers with a certain amount of leeway in terms of methods, technology and the tools used in development, but it makes it difficult to gain a grasp on the status of technology when developing software for medical technology.

Before we finish, could you please end the suspense? What will you do with the Löhn Award prize money?

We haven’t thought about it in detail yet. But one thing is clear: people have put years of outstanding work into their projects so they deserve plenty of credit; something like a special event.

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