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“For me, there’s nothing more exciting than being at the forefront and witnessing the very latest technology”

An interview with Dr. Christian May, manager of Transfer Platform Industry 4.0, the Steinbeis Innovation Center

Dr. Christian May of the Transfer Platform Industry 4.0 Steinbeis Innovation Center talks about the issues SMEs face due to digital transformation and how they deal with these thanks to the support of the Steinbeis experts at Transfer Platform Industry 4.0. Work at the center transcends a variety of fields and universities and revolves around transferring knowledge and technology between science and academia on the one hand, and SMEs on the other.

Hello Dr. May – you’ve been managing Transfer Platform Industry 4.0 since November 2017. What motivated you to become involved in the project?

You feel the effects of digital transformation everywhere at the moment. The term Industry 4.0 is so omnipresent, it’s almost wearing a bit thin, but on the one hand lots of people are still not sure what it’s supposed to mean and on the other, it’s still surrounded by a lot of insecurity and skepticism. My perception of this atmosphere of change is that it’s a challenge but also an opportunity to be an active part of the process. For me there’s nothing more exciting than being at the forefront and witnessing the very latest technology happening, and at the same time being able to make a contribution toward safeguarding the competitiveness of our economy or even boosting it. I’m convinced that Germany can only defend its role as the global leader in industrial production and automation technology in the long term if the topic of Industry 4.0 is tackled actively and sustainably.

The aim of the transfer platform is to make it easier for SMEs in Baden-Wuerttemberg to exploit the opportunities presented by digital networking and intelligent manufacturing. Where do you feel these firms have the biggest deficits, and what services does the platform provide in this respect?

The economy is thankfully doing very well at the moment but in a way, that almost makes things worse: The companies’ order books are full so they don’t have the spare capacity to free up people from everyday tasks and put them to work on planning the future of the digital economy. Of course for SMEs there are also financial hurdles, which aren’t such a difficult issue for bigger companies. For these reasons, an innovation and digital technology gap has been opening up between the SMEs and large companies for some time now, and in the long term the danger is that the SMEs will get left behind by the competition. This is where I’d like the transfer platform to provide a starting point by lowering the threshold for getting into Industry 4.0 technology. The idea is to offer low-threshold ways to raise awareness among companies in terms of where it would already be possible to use Industry 4.0 solutions right now, and point to the different things being researched at the moment at the individual universities. What we also want to do is find out what specific needs the companies have so we can react to these and if possible, start individual projects. To do this, we’re setting up a shop window function at some of the individual universities for the SMEs to gaze into at a local level, and this should result in certain projects and even alliance projects with several partners with interest in the same or similar areas. At the same time, focusing on the actual problems faced in business benefits universities teaching in the field of applied science – their remit is to make graduates with the right education available to the SMEs.

Your Steinbeis Innovation Center provides the underlying organization for a joint project at universities of applied science in Aalen, Esslingen, and Reutlingen, as well as the Steinbeis Foundation. What are the advantages of this mixture of different parties and what implications does it have for your role as a platform manager?

There are three universities involved in the initiative in four locations and each contributes with its own research expertise in each of the different fields. That enables us to act as a platform in quickly bringing together any interested SMEs by putting them into direct contact with experts in a variety of areas. The wide spectrum of research activities covered by the universities also enables us to offer a holistic view of any problems faced, for example if people need to understand the details of certain technical aspects or if business management aspects need opening up. We also always have the Steinbeis Foundation in the background so we can draw on the wealth of experience offered by the Steinbeis Network and tap into those resources. What this setup means for my tasks as a platform manager is that we can work on an integrated level and allow various aspects relating to the different partners to be conveyed to the outside world in a uniform manner. This starts with sharing booths at trade shows and a common website, but it can also include projects in which we all pull in the same direction.

There is already a pilot project underway, initially focusing on the automotive industry. What direction do you think future projects will take you in?

It’s not exactly surprising that the automotive sector plays such an important role in an area where the leading suppliers to the carmakers industry and their suppliers are based. But there are also a host of global market leaders here in a variety of market niches – the so-called hidden champions – in industries such as mechanical engineering and medical technology, and it’s precisely at SMEs in these sectors of industry that I still see major potential.