“Our graduates are snapped up by employers.”
Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Prof. E.h. Dr. h.c. Werner A. HufenbachProfessor Hufenbach, you first came to Dresden in 1993. What was it like then?
There was still a lot of initial work to be done. We practically started with nothing. But the main thing was that I encountered intelligent and committed staff with an impressive talent for improvisation. In addition, I was lucky enough that the highly motivated team I had built up at TU Clausthal - people who shared my vision of resource-efficient lightweight construction - were able to join me in my move to Dresden. This was made possible because the funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) was also transferred to Dresden.
Working together, the Dresden and Clausthal contingents invested considerable passion in driving forward the development of the newly established Institute. This was the start of an exciting and difficult time for all of us, but a period of my career that I would not have missed for anything. During the daytime, we would be busy with our research work, then we would come back in the evenings to adapt and update the facility to our own specification. It was also not unusual for us to commute between the university sites at the weekend - a return journey by car of more than 15 hours.
Did you encounter any opposition when you founded ILK in 1994?
Not in Dresden; we were welcomed with open arms. But of course, you also have a fight on your hands if you want to promote new ideas in established structures. That's part of the job. At TU Clausthal, I was engaged in research into the field of fibre-reinforced composites and continued this at TU Dresden. At that time, it was generally thought that such textiles were suitable only for pullovers. But we were on the right track: technical textiles are today an indispensable component in modern lightweight construction. However, the scope of our work extended beyond just one new material. We were interested in the intelligent combination of materials for different types of structures. The term I coined to sum this up was ‘Function-Integrating Lightweight Engineering in Multi-Material Design'.
And Dresden is now at the forefront of lightweight construction. Why Dresden of all places?
Under the communist regime, Dresden already had a strong reputation for a high level of expertise in materials and was seen as the hub of a high-powered regional and international scientific network. Even in those times, the location was considered special. That's why the place was populated by all these clever people that I mentioned earlier, all highly motivated, well-qualified scientists who had been working away without any of the necessary resources or modern research facilities.
Would you go so far as to say that the GDR could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about lightweight construction? I'm thinking of the body of the Trabant car which was famously made out of cotton-reinforced phenolic resin.
Yes, certainly. In those days they often clad rigid frame structures with lightweight materials that appealed to the taste buds of passing horses. By which I mean that the laminates used contained natural fibres. They had made a virtue out of necessity - and it worked. The composite materials used in the manufacture of the Trabant had already been developed in the 1920s. Today, we are once again looking closely at the possibilities for such materials.
Even before German reunification, Dresden had a large research facility for lightweight construction near the airport. When aviation research came to an abrupt halt in the sixties, many of the engineers who had previously worked on aircraft development went over to designing sports equipment. For example, they built the famous Dresden bob and luge sleds. It would be fair to say that the GDR was on a par with the West in terms of lightweight construction, although the procurement of precious carbon fibre was a different story.
So that would account for the rapid return to prominence?
There was already a well-versed team in place of highly innovative scientists and engineers skilled in the practical applications. Furthermore, the scientific community in and around Dresden has a long tradition of partnership and efficient collaboration. And if you have a harmonious atmosphere, good things are bound to emerge from it.
So there is a strong collaborative spirit around here?
Yes, it was important then, and is even more so now. We realised early on that we can achieve a lot if we all pull together - and obviously in the same direction. Having a network in place is good for innovation and good for visibility. Materials Research Network Dresden (MFD) was founded back in 1993. This organisation is open to everyone interested in research, development and industry. We were among the first to join, and it is still bearing fruit.
Under your leadership, ILK developed into a large and highly esteemed institution with 240 employees specialising in complete solutions from a single source. You were recently awarded the Order of Merit of the Free State of Saxony by the Minister President himself for the work you have done to promote this region as a centre of innovation...
I was delighted to receive the highest award that the state can confer and feel very proud as an adopted son of Saxony to have been honoured in this way.
Were you ever tempted to leave Dresden for pastures new?
It's true that I have received a number of lucrative offers over the years. But for anyone who has come to know and love the strengths and beauty of Dresden - and I'm also speaking for my family here - it's a difficult place to leave. Dresden has the potential to one day claim the title of most attractive city in Germany. In addition to my academic and research activities in Dresden, I also teach modern lightweight construction in Shanghai which is an extremely dynamic environment. Nevertheless, I feel right at home here in Dresden and see no reason to leave the place.
The city with its University of Excellence and numerous high-calibre extramural research institutions exerts a similar magical attraction for students, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of new enrolments. Once they arrive here, they are hooked and would not even consider switching location.
Aren't there any disadvantages?
One drawback is that none of the relevant players in the industry have set up a major development centre in East Germany. Consequently, you have to travel far every time to acquire new projects. Actually, the Dresden region is a fantastic breeding ground for innovative ideas, as is shown by the large number of spin-offs. After all, we have the most modern factory facilities in the world, for example the BMW and Porsche factories in Leipzig and the Volkswagen works in Zwickau.
Is lightweight the manufacturing technology of the future? Is this the end of the Iron Age and the start of the Carbon Era?
That's a slight exaggeration, as the classic materials are also innovative and up to date. New alloys are constantly being developed. It is this competition between the different materials in the value-added chain that is driving progress, at the same time consolidating Germany's position on the world market in terms of products, processes and services. I am convinced by the concept of multi-material design, which is to say intelligent composite construction: the right material in the right place at the right price with the right ecological credentials. Price is still a strong argument. It's no good just creating something new; you actually need to sell it.
So carbon-fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP) are not the one and only material of the future?
CFRP is certainly part of the picture. But that does not mean we have now arrived in the black Carbon Age, as if there were nothing else. Let's put this in perspective: approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of steel are produced annually worldwide, but only around 40,000 tonnes of carbon fibre. This relatively small amount is mainly consumed by the aerospace and automotive industries; in addition, you have all the golf clubs and tennis rackets as well as lightweight bikes that have to be made... So it is immediately apparent that availability is quickly becoming a problem. At the moment, we just about have enough CFRP, but only because the aerospace and automotive industry is still tentative in its use. If the new models from Airbus and Boeing are a big success, we could see scarcities.
But if demand increases, we should see a response?
Yes, once this new material is used on a wider front, CFRP production will be stepped up and mass production will cause prices to fall. Prime candidates for lightweight construction amongst new vehicles are electric models; they will certainly benefit, because there is no sign at the moment of any significant advance in battery design.
Do you think that lightweight construction can help e-mobility make a breakthrough?
Electric mobility is definitely coming, but we cannot yet accurately forecast when that will be. It is imperative that vehicles get lighter. It's a matter of every last ounce or gram. BMW are leading the way. We still do not know what their future electric car will cost or when it will appear on the market. It is an ambitious project acting as a pilot for other vehicles and for other manufacturers who are already in the starting blocks.
Your institute leads the way in electromobility. Together with ThyssenKrupp, you have developed the ultra-lightweight InEco, a pioneering prototype of the electric car.
We're not talking about a ‘prototype' here but rather a ‘generic demonstration vehicle', because it is all at a decidedly pre-competitive stage. This is also reflected in our commercialisation strategy. The relevant parts suppliers and major car manufacturers should be able to look at it and say: "We want to take on the manufacture of these particular components, use this specific material for a particular purpose or adopt this specific bonding technology for the composite."
Our ultra-lightweight four-seater InEco, weighing in at under 900 kilos, has not been realised as a monocoque design but as an ‘integral CFRP/steel composite construction'. Instead of the conventional prepreg and autoclave processes, we are now seeing high-pressure RTM and thermoplastic hot-pressing in conjunction with adapted textile techniques being introduced as cost-effective manufacturing processes for CFRP components. Furthermore, with the right construction technique, the number of car body components can be reduced from approximately 300 to around 60. In this way, you save on weight and on costs. We have also developed lightweight carbon wheels that fully comply with industry standards. Not every institution can offer anything similar! And there are many other refined innovations of this kind. Expert opinion is that the InEco contains many features that will be commonplace in the future.
You have been to a number of trade fairs with this car. What sort of reception is it receiving?
People are queuing up to see this model, and we have just been visited by a number of auto manufacturers and parts suppliers. The eTRUST generic demonstration vehicle - a CFRP/aluminium composite construction that we developed as part of another project and successfully road-tested - continues to attract favourable comment.
When will such vehicles leave the development phase behind and be seen on our roads?
The German federal government has set a target of one million electric cars on the road by 2020. BMW have taken a bold strategic decision and are now building in Leipzig. The launch of the i3 - their first series-production electric vehicle - is scheduled for late 2013, and the i8 sports car with its plug-in hybrid drive is set to follow. In 2014, the market should be quite varied, with the Smart from Daimler and the Golf and Up! from VW. If things go well at BMW, it can be assumed that the others will follow suit - and on a massive scale. I can assure you that everyone here in the Dresden science and research community is well aware of the potential of e-mobility and that we will be generating a lot of momentum towards establishing Germany as a global lead market and lead provider.
Recycling is more complicated, though, isn't it?
In multi-material design, recycling always presents a problem. That's why, at the concept stage, you already have to factor in the eventual safe disposal of the materials. This is a general principle in composite construction and is crucial for successful recycling. The holistic approach of our institute makes the re-use of materials a priority. I personally have a wealth of experience in this area from the many years I was director of the department for environmentally friendly dismantling and recycling of residual materials at the Clausthal Institute for Environmental Technologies (CUTEC).
What other visions for the future are you currently researching and implementing at ILK?
Ultra-lightweight vehicle structures will dominate mobility in the future. For urban mobility in particular, electric vehicles in their various manifestations will play a central role and will therefore continue to be a focus of research and development at ILK.
Also featuring strongly will be aerospace projects ranging from the fuselage and cabin to the engines. This is an area in which lightweight materials are essential. For example, we are collaborating with Rolls-Royce to develop engines with CFRP blades that are much quieter in operation than the ones currently in use. Incidentally, ILK is a member of the strong university network that Rolls-Royce has built up. Worldwide, there are 28 UTCs (University Technology Centers) working hand in hand on nationally and internationally based R&D projects. For aerospace applications, we are also developing lightweight actuators using innovative fibre-composite/metal hybrid construction. A fair number of these hydraulic actuators are being installed in aircraft, so that means a lot of weight reduction. After all, you don't want to be flying deadweight around instead of actual payload.
Electric bicycles are also a big issue with us, either in pure CFRP or composite construction. For example, we have built a sturdy CFRP delivery bike. Another field is classic engineering which is still largely dominated by metals, although it is precisely here where high feed rates and accelerations are required that a great deal of energy could be saved through the use of ultra-lightweight CFRP components. In addition, we are busy with high-performance shafts, rollers, transmission housings and springs with a high CFRP content. The shipbuilding industry is also using new fibre-reinforced stabiliser fins designed by us, and these have already proved themselves on the high seas. Furthermore, we are developing CFRP extreme pressure vessels for storing energy, in which the safety electronics are integrated into the material.
We are also researching biomaterials, because I am convinced that, as resources grow scarcer, we will have to resort more and more to natural materials. There are a few more areas I could list here such as medical and rehabilitation technology.
But the important thing is that we remain constantly aware of the system as a whole. We are developing not only the component, but also the relevant technological process. Any gains you make by changing individual components will be limited if you fail to take into account the way they interact with the overall system. It is a hallmark of ILK that we offer lightweight solutions from a single source. This starts with the material selection, includes the simulation, design, prototype manufacturing, quality assurance and testing phases and culminates in the recycling. This ability to see the big picture is what makes the Dresden approach so special.
Tell us how research networking operates at ILK in Dresden.
ILK is the founder of and partner in numerous DFG-funded basic research collaborative projects (SFB, Transregio, priority programmes etc) as well as AiF, BMBF, BMWi and EU projects. We are a longstanding member of Materials Research Network Dresden (MFD) and a founding member of Automotive Cluster Eastern Germany (ACOD). Furthermore, ILK is a member of the Competence Center for Aerospace and Space Technology Saxony/Thuringia (LRT) and of Carbon Composites e.V. (CCeV). In the field of plastics technology, the Institute is a member of the Scientific Alliance of Polymer Technology (WAK).
ILK fulfils a spokesman role for the European Centre for Emerging Materials and Processes Dresden (ECEMP), the high-technology cluster which was founded in 2007 and, since 2008, has been funded by the Saxon State Excellence Initiative. No fewer than 40 professors are involved. If you add it all up, you find that there are over 2,000 materials researchers in the network. That's what I call high-powered! We are the envy of our colleagues everywhere for this cluster in which scientists interact intensively with engineers. One of the tasks of the cluster is to combine different materials so that we can generate multi-component materials with new properties. Again, the focus is especially on efficient processes. Developing new products is something almost any company can do, but it is only those who successfully master the most efficient and reproducible manufacturing processes who will ultimately succeed in the market.
Here in Dresden, we also take particular care to cultivate regional and Eastern European networks. ILK is not only well connected in Saxony and Germany but also with selected universities in Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine and Russia. This is a huge opportunity for Dresden as a science hub. We can draw on the expertise of old contacts and networks because many Dresdeners have studied in one of these countries or vice versa. This is future potential for which the Dresden area is ideally suited. And let's not forget, these are also the markets of the future; Poland has progressed by leaps and bounds while Russia is not far behind.
And the teaching side...
That's vitally important to us, of course. Very early on, we involve our students in basic research projects as well as in application-oriented industrial projects in which they can often experience at first hand the pressures under which industry has to work. And it also helps them to gain valuable experience for their future careers. The increasing number of young women enrolling for our courses shows that lightweight construction is also a highly attractive area of study for female undergraduate engineers. We have no worries for our students and graduates - they are snapped up by employers. No-one here needs to be anxious about finding a job after graduating. And we all benefit from this, because the students of today become part of tomorrow's network.
Thank you for the interview.