"Individual products are no longer the focus"

Interview

Prof. Dr. Albert Heuberger and Dr.-Ing Bernhard Grill, Directors of the Fraunhofer IIS, talking about digitalization.

© Fraunhofer IIS/David Hartfiel

Management of the institute: Professor Albert Heuberger (right) and Dr. Bernhard Grill.

© Fraunhofer IIS/David Hartfiel
© Fraunhofer IIS/David Hartfiel

Imagine your daily life without a smartphone. No emails, no quick online purchases. If that sounds difficult, you’re not alone; most people probably feel the same. It is almost impossible to imagine our society without digitalization now, and the process is set to continue. Our editorial team spoke to the institute’s directors, Professor Albert Heuberger and Dr. Bernhard Grill, to learn about the emerging digital trends and what we can contribute to them.

 

Professor Heuberger, before we talk about digitalization, we first want to ask you a personal question of sorts. You led the institute alone until November 2016, and you’ve now been joined by Dr. Bernhard Grill as a second director. Why is that?

Albert Heuberger: We had been planning to take this step for a long time. With over 900 employees, we are the largest institute in the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. At this size, it makes sense to share the responsibility for the institute across more than one set of shoulders. There are numerous decisions to make, and many have far-reaching consequences. I used to make the decisions in consultation with our management team, and it’s good if I can do that jointly with a fellow director. In particular, an institute director has many duties that mean he or she has to be present in political circles, on the executive board, and on various committees. If we want Fraunhofer IIS to have the right kind of public image, we need more people at the top.

Our leadership tasks are clearly defined: Dr. Grill is responsible for the Audio and Media Technologies division, while I handle all the other divisions and oversee the administration. We jointly make the decisions that affect the institute as a whole.
 

What do you focus on when setting goals for an institute like Fraunhofer IIS?

Albert Heuberger: As a research institute, we continually have to reinvent ourselves, get to grips with fresh ideas, and tackle present and future challenges. Without question, one of the greatest changes happening in society at the moment is digitalization. We all know that digitalization is permeating every aspect of our lives. Take our private lives as an example: We listen to digital music on our smartphones; we capture memorable moments in digital snapshots; and we communicate with our colleagues, friends, and family via digital channels. Our information society is moving away from analog and toward digital.

This shift is also happening in industry – albeit at a much slower pace. In this context, we talk of “the digital transformation” or Industry 4.0. The idea is that production systems should become smart, be able to communicate with each other, thereby making manufacturing more efficient and more flexible.

 

»IF GERMAN COMPANIES MISS THE DIGITALIZATION BOAT, THEY CAN’T REMAIN COMPETITIVE.«
 

Why is digitalization in industry not happening as fast as it is in our private lives?

Albert Heuberger: There are a variety of reasons for this. In most cases, the problem is that the economic benefit is not immediately obvious to the managers responsible. It is, therefore, entirely understandable that companies are initially reluctant to get on board. At the end of the day, no one wants to cut off a branch of their business that is running well or even flourishing. To put it another way, the benefit of a new business model must first be understood and it must be shown that the numbers add up. Having said that, the clock is ticking – if German companies miss the digitalization boat, they can’t remain competitive in the long term.

This is where we step in. In collaboration with our customers, we are advancing the development of the necessary basic technologies and producing new examples of applications. We cover the entire chain, from the basic technology to its application. We consider the technological questions on the one hand, and look at the economic aspects on the other. One area of our research within the Center for Applied Research on Supply Chain Services (SCS) focuses on which new business models are emerging as a result of digitalization and how businesses can make the transition successfully. The trend is moving toward system innovations – individual products are no longer the focus. So far, however, it is not yet clear which models will prevail. The interesting thing about revolutions is that they often happen in unexpected ways.
 

»DIGITALIZATION IN PRODUCTION TOGETHER WITH NEW SERVICES AND BUSINESS MODELS WILL CATCH ON JUST LIKE DRIVING A CAR ONCE DID.«

 

Bernhard Grill: Digitization is still relatively new in the fields of home automation and production. I think this is similar to what happened with driving a car. In the early days, technology enthusiasts were the only ones interested in this novel mode of transport. It took some time before driving became universally accepted. Digitization is at a similarly early stage now. But I am confident that digitalization in manufacturing together with the new services and business models that go along with it will catch on in the same way that driving a car once did. I also see a great deal of potential for digitalization in home automation – with smart homes, for instance. It just takes a bit of time before innovative ideas gain traction. Still, regardless of all the reservation there is toward the new, Germany needs to keep pace with these developments.
 

Dr. Grill, as one of the institute’s directors, you are responsible for the Audio and Media Technologies division. Where are the main digitalization trends in this field? Where is this journey taking us?

Bernhard Grill: We laid our first digitalization milestone with the mp3 digital music format. Over time, “mp3” has become a generic term for all digital music – much like Kleenex and Band-Aid. We’ve now launched the fifth and sixth generations.

MPEG-H Audio brings 3D sound to television, and allows viewers to adjust their TV’s audio mix. With EVS, we played a leading role in developing a new communication codec that significantly improves voice quality during cell phone conversations. Vodafone Germany is one of the operators already using EVS. Our division has always delivered the best technology in the field of audio coding – we haven’t lost a technical comparison test in 25 years. That’s our trademark. It has brought us to the front of the pack, and we will continue to make that grade.

Does digitalization play a role in any other areas?

Albert Heuberger: Aside from audio and media technologies, our research at Fraunhofer IIS focuses on sensors, data transfer technology, intelligent analysis of measured data, and producing conclusions in the form of business intelligence or process intelligence. In a very broad sense, you could group this work under the term “cognitive sensor technology”.

Measured data are increasingly being analyzed using complex, machine-learning-based processes and then used in conclusions and findings. Over the past few years, adding cognitive abilities to our existing technology portfolio has become one of our core competencies. We currently have over 50 scientists working with these methods. We will intensify our efforts in this field even further in the future, and digitalization will play an important – or even the most important – role.
 

Where can these developments be usefully deployed? Which fields of application are really benefiting from them?

Albert Heuberger: Cognitive sensors are involved in many areas. For instance, they are used for checking and monitoring materials or components, for analyzing images or recognizing emotions, for evaluating measured data in manufacturing systems and in logistics, for energy networks, and for sensors in driverless cars – and much more besides. They expand the function of a conventional “smart” sensor to include a cognitive component.

Digitization allows us to tap into countless new fields and a wealth of potential. In our development work, we are doing our bit to exploit this potential for the benefit of the economy and our society.

 

Professor Heuberger, Dr. Grill, many thanks for talking to us.