or decades Saxony-Anhalt enjoyed a reputation for excellence in a number of industries, including a thriving chemical manufacturing sector. In recent years, the state leveraged expertise and experience in polymer processing and production to transform the central German chemistry triangle into an innovative center of the fiber composite industry.
Using light but extremely sturdy composite material, companies in Saxony-Anhalt manufacture everything from automobile parts to aircraft, premium motorcycle and racing helmets to wind turbines. They're also developing a well-educated and experienced workforce through creative initiatives and programs that drill down deep into the education system. And they're investing in R&D as well. Professor Peter Michel, department head for polymer processing at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials (IWM) describes it as a classic case of market pull and technology push.
"The market pull says 'We want to have lighter cars,' " he says, "While the technology push is 'We have done research and found these materials which are very light, very strong and stiff. We found a process which is very, very fast and could be the solution to your problem.' So we are doing the tech R&D. Then we have to transfer it into the market and combine it to some kind of market pull." All these factors have contributed to formation of a thriving composites hub addressing every facet of the supply chain from R&D to finished product.
" There has been a lot of investment into the infrastructure, the university and into the city itself. This is a great place to be right now."- Jan Becker, CEO, Schuberth Helme
A Perfect Pairing
"In general, the Saxony-Anhalt region and especially the state capital Magdeburg offer very good conditions for a modern innovative environment," says Jan Becker, CEO of Schuberth Helme, manufacturer of state-of-the-art, high performance helmets for Formula 1 auto and motorcycle racing, military, law enforcement and commercial sectors. "There has been a lot of investment into the infrastructure, the university and into the city itself. This is a great place to be right now. Obviously for us as a company the people we have here are a huge asset."
Partnerships with schools and universities, those local and around the world, are essential. Like many companies in the region, Schuberth offers a two to three year vocational education to young people who aren't going on to a four-year university.
"This is a program that is specific to Germany. At the end of the two to three year period, they receive a small salary from the company while attending school for professional training," says Becker. "This is not a university study, but you do get very skilled workers for the factory and for indirect [administrative] jobs."
The company also takes advantage of traditional university cooperative study programs, as students work on their bachelor's degree while getting practical experience in the jobs they're seeking. Becker says the combination of the two programs keeps Schuberth's talent pipeline full.
XtremeAir develops and manufactures high performance aircraft for aerobatics using all-composite construction. The XA41 and XA42 (pictured) are the only European Aviation Safety Agency-approved aircraft in their class. The company has clients worldwide including the Red Bull Matadors aerobatics team which has flown the XA41 exclusively since 2012.
Dr. Steffan Zweigle, head of the design department of XtremeAir, says the company typically has at least one intern on board doing a minimum three-month internship or diploma thesis.
"We also have a partnership with a local university in Magdeburg where we placed a student trainee for carbon engineering," says Zweigle. "We are really proud, having four engineers on our team, including me, who joined the company this way."
Collaborating on the Next Big Thing
As Europe's largest application-oriented research organization, the Fraunhofer Institute is an anchor and a vital partner with local industry. Michel says companies come to them for research and solutions. "Most of our customers come from the mobility industry, especially the automotive industry," he says. "And most of the things we are doing are to make the autos lighter.
"When considering electric cars, for example the BMWi3, the distance you can go is very limited because the energy in the battery system will get you 150 to 200 km, not more than that," Michel says. "When you drop down the weight of the car, you can extend the battery's range."
This isn't simply an exercise in composite engineering. It's a critically important task in light of the European Union target to reduce emissions on new cars from 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer in 2015 to 95 grams per kilometer by 2021.
And then there's the issue of customizing composites for specific applications. "Customizing is the next big thing for a lot of these companies," says Michel. "They've built up their reputation for making very good products, and their customers have asked them to specialize. Often this means research; going deep into the microscopic structure of the material and creating a special behavior of the material."
Speeding up the process for making composites by switching from a thermoset to thermoplastic process - a necessity for any high volume manufacturing - is an ongoing research project at the Fraunhofer Institute. "You have to do a lot of development specializing the thermoplastics; the fibers and the lubricant on the fibers," Michel says. "This is a very challenging thing that has to be done when we build the next generation of i3 from BMW. That's what we're working on right now. And of course we put a lot of research into biomaterials for green and sustainable initiatives. That's one of the next big things."