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How to best explain Digitalization and Innovation

How can companies be persuaded to embrace the benefits of digitization and Industry 4.0? Is it possible to make the spirit of innovation tangible? Dresden offers some very concrete answers to these and other questions.

Wettiner Platz 7

Frank Neuber of DREWAG, Dresden’s public utility company, removes the heavy lock on the door to Hall 9 of ‘Kraftwerk Mitte’. He pushes it open, and we enter a world where past and future meet. The hall – 3,000 square meters in size – is four stories high, with old brick walls. The air is cool in this abandoned control center, once full of humming transformers. In recent years, DREWAG has breathed new life into the old industrial site, which occupies 40,000 square meters of the city center. Until 1994, it was a smoking, coal-fired power station. Now, it’s home to cultural institutions like the Staatsoperette Dresden and theater junge generation. The Heinrich-Schütz-Konservatorium holds lessons here, and there’s also an energy museum, a nightclub, and cafés. It’s a creative interdisciplinary space, and Ronald Scholz just loves it. Scholz is the co-founder of software guidance firm Sherpa.Dresden. He and Nico Herzberg, head of vocational training at SAP Dresden, follow Frank Neuber through a still-vacant building. The paint is peeling off the walls in the stairwell, but that doesn’t stand in the way of Scholz’s vision.

Pit Stop: The Lernfabrik is constantly changing and converting. Not only visitors learn that digital transformation is an ongoing process.
‘It looks good’: Nico Herzberg and Ronald Scholz on a round tour.

“We need low-threshold offerings. Here, entrepreneurs should be able to see what digitization
can do for them. It should be a tangible experience.” But digitization, according to Scholz, has an Achilles heel: Everyone is hearing about this radical transformation, but the message often isn’t coming all  the way across. “A lot of people need to experience something first-hand before they’re motivated to tackle the topic for themselves.” Nico Herzberg nods in agreement. He was one of the first people to share Scholz’s vision. SAP plans to set up an innovation and training center in Hall 9 once it’s been renovated. “We want to think about what the future of work looks like and to share those thoughts with others,” says Nico Herzberg.

»Das Angebot muss niedrigschwellig sein«, sagt Scholz. »Die Unternehmer sollen hier erleben, was die Digitalisierung kann. Sie sollen diese Entwicklung anfassen.« An der Stelle beschreibt Ronald Scholz einen wunden Punkt der Digitalisierung. Alle lesen von dieser einschneidenden Transformation, doch die Botschaft kommt zu selten an. »Viele brauchen ein Erlebnis, eine Begegnung, einen Impuls, ehe sie das Thema angehen«, sagt Ronald Scholz. Neben ihm nickt Nico Herzberg. Er verantwortet die Ausbildung bei SAP Dresden und war einer der Ersten, die Ronald Scholz’ Vision teilten: SAP will in der Halle 9 nach dem Umbau ein Innovations- und Ausbildungszentrum unterbringen. »Wir wollen hier überlegen und zeigen, wie die Arbeit der Zukunft aussieht«, sagt Nico Herzberg.

„Entrepreneurs need places where they can experience digitization in a tangible way.”
Ronald Schiolz
Sherpa Dresden

The large software corporation wants to be open to the public. Hall 9 will become a kind of shop window, and a meeting place for Saxon businesses. Herzberg and Scholz follow Neuber up to the fourth floor, which is illuminated by a long skylight.
In three years, this will be a conference room, a place where ideas come to life. Herzberg and Scholz put their heads together and start discussing the upcoming renovations. They are not alone in their undertaking: Other partners have joined the project, including a bank and a health insurance company. There’s an urgent need for projects like this one: “There are so many companies in this state with over 100 employees. They have to start addressing the topic of digitization,” Scholz declares. It’s a topic he’s passionate about. “Those companies need a place where they can present themselves to potential employees with the right skill sets. They need a place where they can develop further.” It’s another sentence we can take to heart.

This is where one transformator used to stand next to the others. In its current state, visitors often refer to this place as a prison look-alike. As a joke Hall 9 is also called Alcatraz.
Nicole Jäpel and Robert Ringel, employees at the chair of Professor Dirk Reichelt, in the learning factory.

This is just one example of the production processes that take place here. The charm is in the details – which is precisely what Reichelt wants to show us. He takes us over to the press and picks up one of the cases. He turns it in his hands, inspecting it closely. “The chip makes the case unique and unmistakable,” Reichelt says. “When the robot reads the chip, it immediately registers what product it’s dealing with. It communicates, so to speak, with the case.” Next, Reichelt points up in the air and explains that the camera photographing the case is sending visual information to the cloud. A program checks the image, searches for cracks, and reports back on any flaws. Reichelt leads us further along the production line to the shaper. He kneels down and points out a small digital display close to the floor. It shows how much air pressure the shaper needs to do its job and how much energy it’s using.

Production processes like these are part of the Internet of Things: Workpieces inform robots of their identity, programs in the cloud check live images for flaws, and sensors record how much energy is being used. Thanks to all this knowledge, Reichelt says, companies can make their production processes more efficient, with far fewer faults. With his contagious enthusiasm, the professor talks us through the remaining modules. In Germany, there are very few places where businesses can learn, in such a comprehensible way, what Industry 4.0 is all about and what its benefits are.

Churning development: At the University of Applied Sciences Dresden visitors can experience the Internet of Things.
Nicole Jäpel and Robert Ringel controlling two robots that work as production assistants at ‘Lernfabrik’

“We aim to calm people’s fears and counter their reservations,” says Reichelt. “We’re showing the basic technology behind the Internet of Things, and can give anyone who’s interested insight into how it works.” At the very least, production managers can gather ideas for their own work, and ideally, they leave with inspiration for a brand-new product. Anyone interested can book a tour of the Lernfabrik and embark on a veritable voyage of discovery. When the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy named the twelve hubs in its Digital Hub Initiative this spring, Dresden and Leipzig were among them (see p. 4). There are so many institutions in Dresden active within the Internet of Things that the city was named the “Smart Systems Hub.” The people behind the initiative immediately got to work developing trails visitors can follow to explore all the digital knowledge amassed in Dresden. One of the places involved is, of course, Dirk Reichelt’s pride and joy here on the ninth floor – a place where visitors learn how the Internet of Things can improve their own production processes. Another is the office of Uwe Aßmann, Chair of Software Technology at TU Dresden’s Faculty of Computer Science: the next stop on our tour.

Nöthnitzer Str. 46

Just a twenty-minute walk from Prof. Reichelt’s Lernfabrik is a bright and beautifully-designed new building. It has floor-length windows complete with green blinds that bear a pattern reminiscent of an old punch card. This building houses TU Dresden’s Faculty of Computer Science. On the second floor, with its grass-green walls, doctoral students Christian Piechnick and Georg Püschel are setting up their sensational new invention. They wheel a mighty robotic arm as tall as a man down the corridor to their office.

Welcome to the future Georg Püschel (left) and Christian Piechnick in the foyer of the Faculty of Computer Science in Dresden’s Nöthnitzer Strasse.
A close-up of the magical gloves at the Faculty of Computer Science

Piechnick pulls on a sweatsuit jacket with circuit boards sewn into it and a pair of gloves equipped with wires and chips. Then he moves his right arm – and the robotic arm imitates him with precision. “The software traces the exact movements my arm makes and passes them on to the robot,” Piechnick says. This might just look like good fun, but it’s actually at the heart of a small revolution called “demonstration-based teaching.” When the two young computer scientists and their team presented WEIR (Wearables for Interacting with Robotic Co-Workers) at the HANNOVER MESSE trade fair, visitors were amazed. “Usually, programming an industrial robot takes many weeks and costs tens of thousands of euros,” says Piechnick.

The jacket and gloves with integrated sensors significantly shorten this process to just a few minutes: All you have to do is put on the clothing, move your body, and send data to the robot. In this way, people will soon be able to slip into “robot gear” and show the machines how to do their work. They can be used, for instance, in a cleanroom at Infineon’s chip-making center in Saxony or at a Bosch factory.

The human demonstrates, the robot imitates. Christian Piechnick and Georg Püschel with their spectacular invention.
The human demonstrates, the robot imitates. Christian Piechnick and Georg Püschel with their spectacular invention.

But like the Lernfabrik, what makes this invention such a sensation is that WEIR is not the isolated brainchild of a single genius – it’s a collaborative project with practical applications. Dirk Reichelt, for example, works closely with a Fraunhofer Institute. At his Lernfabrik, big local firms like Infineon and VW are working on concrete cases, while Dresden-based company ZIGPOS delivers sensor networks and positioning systems, Leipzig firm ccc software installs the industrial software for measuring energy use, and database specialists from Robotron in Dresden take care of the cloud solutions.

The meetings that took place as part of the initiative really helped him get the idea of demonstration-based teaching off the ground. Even Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges used a 5G project initiated by Prof. Frank Fitzek (see p. 11) to make a presentation. There’s an online video of Höttges moving a robot in the same way Piechnick had just demonstrated to us. For Piechnick, it was a eureka moment: “You always need a place and a setting in which you can get into conversation with other people. Otherwise you’ll never make any progress.”

For more information on the Smart Systems Hub in Dresden and the visitor “trails,” check  out

Text: Peter Wagner
Photos: Lệmrich

For more information on the Smart Systems Hub in Dresden and the visitor “trails,” check  out

Fotos: Lệmrich