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EVERYTHING REVOLVES AROUND PEOPLE

A team of Steinbeis experts from Würzburg successfully forges a link between people and technology

Despite all the potential offered by digital transformation, ultimately it will be about developing smart things – and in doing so, not losing sight of people. This is a challenge being looked at by two Steinbeis Research Centers involved in a collaborative project in Würzburg. The team at the two centers comprises Sebastian Gläser, Prof. Erich Schöls, and Dr. Markus Thies, whose digital projects focus clearly on the aspect of adding value for people.

Digital technology is a good thing. It brought us the internet, it turned the smartphone into an indispensable companion in our everyday lives and at work, it gave us new payment systems, and it’s now lining itself up to turn industry on its head by introducing artificial intelligence and driving the cars of the future around autonomously. It appears to offer huge potential and it looks like it will affect almost all realms of the economy, society, and our culture. Digital solutions accelerate processes, make the invisible visible, and make the global world of news virtually transparent.

Digital technology is a dangerous thing. It dictates our daily lives, it cramps personal time frames, and it bombards us with gargantuan outbursts of data and information. Driven by technological feasibility, markets are being flooded by a continual stream of new apps and products – concepts that most of us still struggle to make sense of or see benefit in, even after using them for a long time. By the time digital transformation has finished, it could cost millions of people their jobs, because they will be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence.

Admittedly, that was a concise version. But as ambivalent as this all feels, this is how the discussion regarding transformation goes among members of the general public. People are just as fascinated by the possibilities of digital solutions as they live in fear of the disruptive power of things digital. We want to be part of modern life and the world of tomorrow, but we still invest time thinking about digital detoxes, because we find ourselves suffering more and more under the disturbing and sometimes nonsensical “digital doctrine.” It’s almost an empty platitude to suggest that this development will keep advancing in the same way, without change, or that it will have a major influence on all areas of the world we live in. But it will be interesting to see which ideas will be successful or which ideas will go down in the history books as digital blunders.

FORGING A SUCCESSFUL LINK BETWEEN DIGITAL AND ANALOG

If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that technology does not necessarily mean something will be a success. “You have to stand back and look at digital transformation from a broader perspective, separate it from the technology and place it in the human context. When you do, you see that digital developments have to focus on people and they will only add value in the long term as part of this relationship,” says Steinbeis expert Sebastian Gläser with conviction. Gläser manages the Steinbeis Research Center for Design and Systems, and he makes this insight a central aspect of all the studies and inventions he works on. For the past 15 years, a variety of information and media designers have been working at his center with computer scientists – developing digital concepts, prototypes, and solutions for a variety of fields of industry, medicine, and the arts. “The question regarding the meaning of a project and the reactive energy it releases within its sphere of influence are always central to our considerations. We deliberately seek an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas between design and computer science to strike a sensible balance and link the benefits of a potential digital solution with expectations from the analog world,” explains Prof. Erich Schöls, a director at the Steinbeis Research Center.

One successful example of this is project Coperion Showcase – an online platform with an interactive product viewer. For this project, the Steinbeis Enterprise developed a sales tool for Coperion to optimize its comprehensive list of product information and allow sales people to interact with one another. A key feature of the solution is a web-based 3D viewer that makes it possible to explore components in detail and add personal comments directly in the 3D model. This system, based on webGL, allows users to display and use 3D content in real time on any kind of browser without needing plugins. It also offers text-to-speech functions to supplement the acoustic presentation of products. The experts also developed an online presentation tool that allows users to write and save individual product presentations, which can also be sent to customers. The system comes with an integrated AR viewer to allow components to be portrayed virtually in space for simulation purposes.

Another exciting project implemented by the Steinbeis Enterprise was for the kitchen company BES zeyko. The project marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of zeyko in the form of a modern kitchen system, totally in keeping with current times. The Steinbeis experts developed a configurator that makes it a lot easier to position kitchen designs anywhere in a room using augmented reality. This also makes it a lot easier to make decisions. The system includes a module-based, adaptable cooking unit which can be planned, configured, and ordered individually using the app. This is a good match with the online philosophy of younger buyers, for whom such functions are entirely customary.

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A strategic development at the beginning of this year resulted in the Steinbeis Research Center expanding by a second unit: The Steinbeis Research Center for Explorative Digitalization Solutions was founded with Dr. Markus Thies. An established AI and blockchain expert, Thies is working on systematically expanding both Steinbeis Enterprises, with the aim of translating visionary concepts and bold ideas into market-ready systems.