Endress+Hauser is charting new paths to innovation. In Freiburg, three creative hubs are working together in a university environment to develop sensors, technologies and automation solutions for the future.
“It’s a prototype for a sensor that transmits data electromagnetically without a power source,” says Dr Adnan Yousaf, grabbing a disc that fits easily in the palm of his hand. The microelectromechanical systems expert had already dealt with wireless instruments like this within the scope of his doctoral thesis, long before the topic reached the lecture halls. He now works next door to other sensor specialists, computer scientists and automation experts at one of three new creative units established by Endress+Hauser in Freiburg, Germany. With these hubs, the company intends to establish an innovative environment for sensor development and automation.
“Our goal is to build a type of collaborative campus,” explains Matthias Altendorf, CEO of the Endress+Hauser Group. “We want to forge a creative space that experts in various disciplines can use to work in the vicinity of the university and other research institutes to develop new products, solutions and services and inspire each other.” To initiate this effort, the company recently set up a series of spin-offs and start-ups in Freiburg, such as the Optical Hub, which is involved in optical analysis and measurement methods; the IIoT Lab, which works on solutions for the Industrial Internet of Things; and the Sensor Automation Lab, which is developing novel sensor technologies.
“We want to forge a creative space that experts in various disciplines can use to work in the vicinity of the university and other research institutes to develop new products, solutions and services and inspire each other.”Matthias Altendorf, CEO Endress+Hauser Group
It’s no coincidence that these agile units were set up in recent years outside of the well-established product development model. “To generate something completely new, you should start small and from scratch,” says Dr Mirko Lehmann, who is responsible for the Sensor Automation Lab and also serves as Managing Director of Innovative Sensor Technology IST AG, which belongs to the Endress+Hauser Group.
“The Endress+Hauser centers of competence are world-class facilities for creating innovations within their own product lines. However, our aim in Freiburg is to give innovations the necessary drive that would not always be possible within existing structures. We want to take momentum from the Endress+Hauser Group and feed back inspirational ideas.”
Substitute for the human senses
Apart from the individual core topics, one of the common goals is to operate outside the boundaries of established disciplines and bring together two completely different ecosystems. In Freiburg, researchers are striving to combine the opportunities that digitalization offers with new sensors and sensor technologies.
The experts are especially interested in technologies that improve the qualitative and quantitative determination of substances and bring laboratory measurement technology closer to the process. “We want to use innovative elementary sensor technology in plants to replace human senses such as smell or taste,” explains Dr Benjamin Scherer, team manager at the Sensor Automation Lab. These new sensor technologies can be combined with artificial intelligence, cloud computing and digital integration to better control industrial processes while reducing the amount of resources used, improving product quality and increasing plant availability.
Besides, the specialists in the units have direct exposure to the latest scientific developments. The location of the labs alone puts them within arm’s reach of academic research environments. The labs are situated on the campus of the technical faculty of the University of Freiburg, one of Europe’s strongest research-oriented engineering schools.
At the renowned Department of Microsystems Engineering, researchers maintain excellent relationships with the various university chairs. The Georg H Endress Foundation is furthermore funding an endowed professorship for Smart Systems Integration. “The school has an excellent reputation in the field of artificial intelligence,” adds Hans-Jürgen Huber at the IIoT lab. Seven university chairs cover all the relevant topics. As well as other well-known institutes, nearby is the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques (IPM), a member of the German Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft research network that collaborates with the Optical Hub, which develops special optical measurement processes.
“Our location gives us direct access to research and university resources,” says optics expert Dr Marc Winter, who highly values the close cooperation with his colleagues. “We’re currently working together to further develop spectral-based analyzers. Among other things, we want to utilize artificial intelligence to reduce the complexity of the analyzers for the user.” Other factors make the activities in the small think tank unusual: the trust that Endress+Hauser places in the experts and researchers, most of whom have never had anything to do with the company, plus the creative atmosphere. All of this encourages people to part from old ways of thinking and spurs innovative energy. As Benjamin Scherer emphasizes, “We have lots of freedom to take a look at new things!”