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Research cluster aims to boost Germany's production technology.

If the phrase "Made in Germany" once stood for quality products, for many researchers, engineers and production workers in the country today, it has taken on an altogether different meaning: employment.

A relentless process of globalization has seen one of the world's largest exporters of manufactured goods--including the machines to build many of these products--become one of its biggest exporters of production jobs. A government-funded "cluster of excellence" initiative is now studying ways that high-wage countries like Germany can maintain local production and sustain employment.

"Integrative Production Technology for High-Wage Countries" is the name of the research cluster led by production scientists at the RWTH (Rheinisch-Westfalische Technische Hochschule) Aachen University, a top address for engineering science in Germany and one of Europe's best. The cluster is part of the federally-financed Excellence Initiative program that aims to increase German innovation and competitiveness in science and research, including all major research disciplines.

Funded to the tune of around 40 million [euro] (US$59 million) over a five-year period, the production engineering cluster unites the expertise of 18 professors of material and production technologies and several hundred scientists from the various Aachen university institutes with numerous other scientists from affiliated research organizations, such as the Fraunhofer Institutes. They are drawing on real-world industry data on organizational, logistical and technical processes from around a dozen participating manufacturers of products such as car axles, printing machines and micro-lasers.

The researchers aim to provide solutions to several pressing questions that manufacturers in high-wage countries need to address to stay ahead of their competitors--many of them imitators--in countries with far lower labor costs: How to minimize and optimize all the planning and decision-making involved in taking an idea and turning it into a product? How to individualize mass-market products cost-efficiently and change production nearly on the fly? And how---despite constant price pressure from low-cost producers--to sustain a continuous flow of innovation in order to maintain a competitive edge?

Polylemma of Production

A key focus of the research effort in Aachen is to resolve what engineering scientists in the technology cluster refer to as "the polylemma of production." The polylemma, according to Simon Orilski from the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology, consists of two sets of contradictory dimensions: economies of scale versus economies of scope, and planning versus value.

When engineers design a production system for economies of scale, Orilski points out, they try to use as many standardized processes as possible to maximize repetition frequency and lower per-unit costs. The problem with production systems based on this approach, however, is that they tend not to be very flexible--a typical problem of mass production.

"You standardize certain business processes to define what people have to do in order to fulfill specific tasks within the company, and once these processes are standardized, everyone is keen on avoiding any requests for changes," says Frank Possel-Dolken, executive manager of Integrative Production Technology for High-wage Countries. "The standardization of business processes, however, impedes the increasing needs for flexibility in manufacturing companies. This could be resolved by standardizing not the business processes themselves but rather the process of how these business processes are designed, changed or adapted."

Alternatively, when engineers design manufacturing for economies of scope, they try to use flexible processes and flexible manufacturing systems to allow for quick, low-cost switching of one product line to another. Although this approach enables a much wider range of different products, it also leads to higher per-unit costs, according to Fraunhofer's Orilski. To resolve the contradiction of economies of scale versus economies of scope, companies need to find ways to produce individualized products at the cost of mass production, he argues.

The other dimension of the polylemma is whether to plan all production processes in advance using models to describe the production system and simulate its behavior or to "value" the self-organizing capabilities of the production system and trust, for instance, in the skills of employees. While this "lean thinking" approach avoids extensive planning efforts, it offers no guarantee of Finding the optimal solution, according to Orilski. The advanced planning approach, by comparison, is more likely to find the optimal solution but the planning efforts are extensive.

Removing Guesswork

Manufacturers frequently find themselves guessing over critical production questions like these, according to Possel-Dolken. "A typical decision in the machinery industry is whether to focus completely on reconfigurable modular machinery or highly integrated, productive machinery," says Possel-Dolken. "The problem is, if you try to optimize to higher productivity, you usually lose modularity and flexibility."

Often companies don't know whether they should increase productivity or flexibility, according to Possel-Dolken. "This is a difficult decision to make," he says. "The polylemma aims to provide support in resolving exactly this type of question."

Scientists at Aachen have organized their research into four main areas of production: individualized, virtual, hybrid, and self-optimizing. The challenge of individualized production, which Possel-Dolken views as a top priority among manufacturers in high-wage countries, is to individualize mass-production goods such as cars both quickly and cost-efficiently.

Virtual production, on the other hand, is about simulation, "beginning at the material structure level and extending through to factory logistics and the global supply chain," he says. The focus of hybrid production is to combine different technologies "to enable the production of a product that wasn't possible before or to increase both productivity and flexibility at the same time," he adds. And, lastly, self-optimizing production deals with monitoring processes and establishing control loops within the organization--from top-level management decision-making all the way down to controllers and sensors in production.

Research for Industry

Around 18 different research teams, of between five and 10 full-time researchers each, are committed to the production technology cluster. The teams are focused on different aspects of the four main research fields. In some cases, the research involves working together with industry to design and build a prototype machine, such as a high-performance multi-technology metal cutting system, "in order to do a very detailed study of the potential of reconfigurability, modularization and flexibility," says Possel-Dolken. In other cases, the focus is on designing business processes.

"The aim of the research is to develop different types of systems and methodologies and help companies implement these," he adds. "We are clearly interested in having the results of our research flow back to industry."

The cluster of excellence for production technology in high-wage countries adds to the many efforts of RWTH to explore new manufacturing techniques and strategies. The cluster taps the university's various competencies in areas such as materials, mechanical, electrical and industrial engineering as well as interdisciplinary areas such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, system sciences, and computer sciences--with more than 750 full-time researchers.

All these production-related competencies are bundled in the "Aachen House of Integrative Production Technology." The university-wide initiative aims at helping big and small companies develop their own future development paths and successful production engineering strategies, in addition to assisting them with their research and development.

Possel-Dolken believes that the capabilities of a company to develop innovative products and production processes are closely linked to its manufacturing. Outsourcing the manufacturing operations but retaining the R&D activities can be fatal for a company in the long term. "There is no business model for German or European companies to move their labor-intensive manufacturing to China or India and keep their R&D at home because their scientists and engineers will eventually dry out of ideas," he says. "They need to have a real feeling for the products they're making and that requires a certain proximity to the people, processes and products."

John Blau, contributing editor, in Dusseldorf
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES: Views and News of the Current Research-Technology Management Scene
Comment:Research cluster aims to boost Germany's production technology.(PERSPECTIVES: Views and News of the Current Research-Technology Management Scene)
Author:Blau, John
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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