Ulrich Berger is the holder of the Academic Chair of Automation Technology at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg. Before he came to Cottbus in 2001 he had been the chief engineer at the University of Bremen and Professor of Production Engineering at the University Lüneburg. Prof. Berger is the spokesperson of the Cluster Metal.
After stepping into a modern factory, one producing cars for instance, one is time and time again taken aback by the small number of persons working there, many tasks are being carried out by “Mr. Robot” and the processes are automated. Is this your field of work?
That is correct, when people step into a factory today or enter a production site they will not find them completely devoid of persons, but the number of staff members will be quite limited. The production plants are fully automated or semi-automated; alongside robots many automated machines are being designed and used specifically for certain production mechanisms. However, this is also based on the fact that we are fostering production ergonomics and therefore limiting mechanisms and operations with a high workload for the employee. At the same time in Germany we are faced with a lack of skilled employees not just when it comes to engineers; we also lack skilled mechatronics technicians, toolmakers and electricians. This is where automation helps us. And there’s also the quality. German automotive manufacturers, for example, continue to be very good exporters. It is all about selling high-quality products and quality also implies that we no longer have the time, as we did before, to readjust products and processes. After a certain period of time it must be possible to produce everything basically in a fully automated way and in accordance with quality regulations.
A German saying goes like this: “Für den Ingenieur ist nix zu schwör” (more or less: “For an engineer there is nothing that is too hard to do”). So what are you currently researching? What challenges did you choose to face and which ones emerged and so you had to face them?
Currently we have to face the fact that products are becoming increasingly individualised. Individualisation means that the customer intervenes much more in the production process, the manufacturing process and of course in all logistical processes. The customer is individually configuring his or her product. It is difficult for producers to react to this trend, but they can do so with the help of platform technologies or with the help of sufficiently fast supplier networks. In this regard the following question comes up: How should the factory of the future look like if the customer is to be increasingly brought into the factory – virtually, of course – through the Internet, social networks and in other similar ways? And how could the customer simultaneously find out whether his or her chosen product configuration has a rather positive or a rather negative ecological footprint? This gives the customer the opportunity to make an informed decision whether he or she wants to stick to his or her decision or not. The prices and the delivery times must also be adjusted accordingly, of course.
Is “Digital Factory” the key concept here?
That’s right. Nowadays the entire factory processes are being digitally depicted by using simulation technologies. Everything is simulated on the computer before even a single screw is picked up; this includes the calculation of the number of units to be produced and of the cycle times; layout configurations will be set in advance and with regard to costs it will be calculated if a factory is economical at a certain production rate. All of the components will be depicted in a three-dimensional space and subsequently different scenarios will be played through, for instance one in which the production capacities are not so well utilised, one in which they are almost fully utilised and one in which the production capacities fluctuate. This is also where customer wishes are being considered. The digital factory is therefore an important point of departure for these systems.
How important is the Association of German Engineers here in this region – also for the transfer of knowledge and technologies and for the creation of networks?
Here in Berlin-Brandenburg we currently have more than 6,000 individual members that foster a professional and, of course, also a personal dialogue in more than 50 work groups. The dialogue with the society, the dialogue with the population and the dialogue among one another form an important argument in favour of the existence of the Association of German Engineers.
Getting back to the already mentioned lack of skilled employees: How much of a problem is it in Brandenburg and Berlin?
The lack of skilled employees has in the meantime spread also to Berlin and Brandenburg, it is no longer just a phenomenon of my old home state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where we are currently looking for 15,000 skilled employees and are not able to find them. In the past the region of Berlin-Brandenburg used to be a donor country in the sense that the engineers who were trained here later spread out to the entire country. Currently we are lacking approximately 1,700 engineers and the number tends to grow. This, of course, leads to an explicit loss of added value. All vehicles – a railway vehicle or an engine turbine – produced here are always based on the work of engineers. Furthermore, three additional jobs – in the fields of logistics and maintenance and in the service sector – are being created by every single engineering job. This means that a lack of 96,000 engineers (2012) throughout Germany leads to a loss of almost EUR 4 billion per year in terms of added value.
Why are you, of all places, here in Cottbus? What keeps you here in Cottbus?
In comparison to the larger institutions, such as the University of Stuttgart – where I studied – or the University of Bremen – where I received my doctorate – Cottbus offers a lot of space for personal fulfilment and self-realization. A lot of development work can be done here in Cottbus; this is something I enjoy very much. And the Brandenburg University of Technology is a really well-equipped and technology-focused university offering many opportunities for further growth. I was able to establish myself very well in a new field. Engineering schools or higher learning institutions and universities with a focus on engineering science are traditional institutions that are already 100 years old; there are well-renowned technology-focused institutions in Berlin, Aachen, Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. In this environment it is of course important to find a special feature, to go down the path of intelligent specialisation, and this is what we have managed to do. The change management process that is taking place bears the opportunity to do something truly innovative now, something that would be visible at the international level and I find it impossible to just leave during such a process.
Cottbus is located somewhat at the periphery. What do you think are the advantages and the disadvantages of its location?
In this regard I could mention Aachen as it is located on the opposite side of Germany and equally on its periphery. Nonetheless Aachen is, of course, very prominent also at the international level thanks to its RWTH Aachen University. Being at the periphery has never been a problem for Aachen. Everyday research takes place at the international level anyhow and so it doesn’t matter if you are flying to Copenhagen from Cottbus or from Aachen. In this sense the world has become smaller and flatter.
What are the framework conditions for your work like? Which conditions should be created in your opinion?
The framework conditions are excellent in terms of the equipment of the higher education institutions and the subsidizing and approval of new constructions. As regards the students, the bulk of them of course come here from Berlin and its surroundings or from the state of Saxony, for example from Dresden and its surroundings. We have to continue our work in this regard. But at the same time it is important to continuously develop our profile. We cannot allow it to get diluted. The profiles have to be very distinct and we have to clearly state: Do we stand, for example, for the energy of the future, do we stand for electromobility, do we stand for the factory of the future, and if so, how can we back our endeavours scientifically, in terms of staff and the appropriate equipment?!
Where do you think you rank personally and where does your location rank internationally? Do you also have partners in the Brandenburg region?
I have learned in my home state – Baden-Wuerttemberg – that a lot of innovation work can be done with small and medium-sized companies. The large innovations predominantly really do come from small and medium-sized companies; the large companies usually undertake the subsequent utilisation of these innovations. In Brandenburg we have a very good portfolio of small and medium-sized companies in many specialised fields, many of which are also prominent at the international level. First we look – perhaps erroneously – towards large companies that are efficient in their press and public relations work. I would never forget about the small and medium-sized enterprises. They are mostly managed by associates and owners who are personally liable; they are there for their employees every day and they also constitute an important social and societal element within their regions. And I'm proud of that; it is something I would gladly support and I would like to make this kind of cooperation broader and encompass the entire state; I want to find out where in Brandenburg potential project partners might be bustling around.
As a scientific ambassador you also have to be a diplomat; what would you like to tell the world about the science and technology location Brandenburg?
Brandenburg is a cosmopolitan state. 40% of the staff of my very own academic chair consists of non-German nationals. I have noticed that colleagues from abroad are being integrated in a very welcoming and forthcoming way. And they appreciate the environment and the proximity to Berlin. The whole situation is comparable to Cambridge being a suburb of London. Cambridge, too, is surrounded by greenery, by waterways, by sea routes, and it also has canoeing clubs... To be able to conduct research in this green oasis not far away from a metropolis, to have the opportunity to be given more space and freedom, all of this within an international and open conversational environment – in many places all of the above is being seen as something very positive.