Interview with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ingomar Kelbassa

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ingomar Kelbassa returns to the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft as ILT alumnus after a successful career at Siemens.
© Fraunhofer ILT
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ingomar Kelbassa returns to the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft as ILT alumnus after a successful career at Siemens.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ingomar Kelbassa worked in Aachen for a number of years. He was deputy Chair for Laser Technology LLT at RWTH Aachen University and head of department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT. In 2016, he joined Siemens. There, he was most recently responsible for the Siemens subsidiary WEISS Spindeltechnologie in his capacity as managing director and was in charge of the research campus Werner-von-Siemens Centre for Industry and Science in Berlin.

Now the ILT alumnus is returning to the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft — as institute director of the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Additive Manufacturing Technologies IAPT.

However, for Prof. Ingomar Kelbassa, “return” is the wrong word to use — he always felt a connection to Fraunhofer, and research and development were key areas of focus for the mechanical engineer during his six years in the private sector.

Now he wants to further industrialize additive manufacturing (AM) at the IAPT in new ways. Despite the move from Dortmund to Hamburg, he will remain a die-hard fan, club member and shareholder of the football club Borussia Dortmund.

You worked at RWTH Aachen University and Fraunhofer ILT for a long time, including in management positions. What made you decide to switch to the industrial sector?

Curiosity more than anything else. By that time, I had experienced a great deal in the academic field. The question for me was, can I be successful in a commercial environment and can I hold my own there? Finally, in 2016, I took the plunge and joined Siemens. Among other things, I was in charge of manufacturing technology development for the Gas and Power business unit as well as Company Core Technology Additive Manufacturing for Siemens AG as a whole.

As an associate professor at the Melbourne Institute of Technology and as head of the Werner-von-Siemens Centre for Industry and Science in Berlin, you were never far from academia. How important to you is the exchange between industry and research?

This exchange is central to all applied research and development. Without product-driven industry and without demand-driven R&D that is geared towards it, it isn’t possible, in my view, to create value over the medium term. We’re contributing to the national economy and thus to our prosperity. I see the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft as an enabler for the German economy. As institute director of Fraunhofer IAPT, I want to step up this exchange even more.

Can alumni networks also play a role in this dialog?

There’s often friction at the interface between industry and applied research. Where there is friction, there is also heat from which something new can emerge. We should draw on the expertise of former employees to engage in science-driven dialog and listen to what industrial clients and consumers really need. People tend to highlight their own expertise. But the question that needs to be asked is whether the industry is facing other challenges. This could be moderated effectively in an alumni network that brings together high-ranking experts from the world of business. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has advisory boards. We could also consult alumni on highly critical topics. By doing so, we could establish whether our expertise is in line with the needs of those who require it.

You were head of department for Company Core Technology Additive Manufacturing at Siemens AG and most recently CEO of the Siemens subsidiary WEISS Spindeltechnologie. Now you are returning as an alumnus to an organization that exemplifies applied research like no other in Europe. What motivated your decision?

I was at Fraunhofer for 16 years, and that blood still runs in my veins. Siemens also has a similar logo and the brand motto is “Ingenuity for Life”. But that’s not the only reason it feels like I never truly left Fraunhofer. At Siemens, I started out as head of manufacturing technology development for PG (Power Generation — later Power and Gas) and experienced the field of development from a different viewpoint. This also applies to my role as head of the Siemens Centre in Berlin. There, R&D partners come to a production site, which is a mirror image of what happens at the RWTH Aachen University campus, for example, where industrial partners enroll at an R&D site. In this context, further development at the Siemens campus can be quickly and effectively translated into value creation without any distractions. I enriched my “Fraunhofer blood” during my time in industry, so to speak.

How can we at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft help companies overcome the challenges they face?

To understand what motivates customers, what their challenges are, you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes. The six years I spent at Siemens definitely heightened my understanding of the industry.

Thanks to the experiences I’ve had over the past few years, I would dare to claim that I can speak the languages of academia, industry and politics. I think it’s very important to reduce these three to a common denominator. Now that I have mastered the vocabulary of these three languages, I’m convinced that I can now make a greater contribution to Fraunhofer, and ultimately to our national economy, than I could have before I left.

Another reason is that if you experience a reconciliation of interests twice in six years, it does not pass you by without leaving its mark on you, even if you’re not directly affected by it. There is a family behind every job that is cut. I would love to go back to work with a smile on my face and be able to look in the mirror. I firmly believe that my team and I can be successful AND have fun together.

Do you have a special connection to Fraunhofer?

I owe a lot to Fraunhofer and now I want to give back. My transition into industry would have been different without the experience I gained at Fraunhofer ILT. As a career changer, it isn’t exactly the norm to start off your career at Siemens at management level.

You’ve had the chance to experience both worlds. What are the key differences?

There are of course huge differences, but there are similarities, too. Both organizations have a large structure and centralized management in common. Siemens as a group with its medium-sized subsidiaries, such as WEISS Spindeltechnologie GmbH, pursues specific profit objectives. Fraunhofer, on the other hand, is a non-profit organization with a mandate to strengthen German research and industry. In day-to-day life, however, I actually see a lot of parallels.

But the individual organizations of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft also have to refinance themselves.

The RhoWi, i.e., the ratio of industrial revenue to expenses in the contract research area, is a good measure of an institute’s relevance to industry. As a rule, this figure is between 40 and 50 percent in relation to the operating budget. If the figure is close to zero, you can choose an organization that is 100 percent base-funded and does basic research. But that’s precisely what I don’t want. Industrial orders therefore provide a good indication of the organization’s own relevance. This is also a critical item on the IAPT to-do list: In my previous job, I would have talked about profitable growth. My goal at the IAPT is industry-relevant, sustainable growth.

Where does Fraunhofer stand on the topic of additive manufacturing (AM)?

Fraunhofer has a lot to offer in the field of AM and plans to use this expertise to provide the best possible support for the industrialization of AM. However, I came to realize that it is of secondary importance to companies whether, for example, a multi-material application for AM is available. These days, companies are able to work with the materials that are of interest to them. I think the industry is facing other challenges right now.

Where do you see the greatest need for action?

I think there are several areas that have been triggered by the industry. Projects that focus on increasing print speed are very exciting. But 3D printing itself typically accounts for 20 percent of the overall manufacturing process. Why are we not focusing on the other 80 percent, instead of optimizing the 20 percent, where we have much less leverage?

My first approach is a virtual representation of the entire process chain. The industry also needs a consistent data format that covers everything from the CAD model to the finished end product. As I said, in an industrial context, the actual process of printing the workpiece is only one of many process steps. The component needs to be separated from the build platform, depowdered, heat- and/or surface-treated, etc. You need different machines for these stages and they speak different languages. As things stand today, the entire data set has to be manually converted six to eight times in an additive manufacturing process chain. Not only is this labor-intensive, time-consuming and therefore costly, but information is lost during each conversion process.

Why don’t we create a consistent, uniform data format at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft?

Something along the lines of “mp3 for AM”. I’m not talking about music compression here, but rather an AM data format that no longer needs to be manipulated at the various stages of the process.

As yet, we do not have any MES (Manufacturing Execution System) solutions, i.e., manufacturing or production control systems, including SCADA or ERP systems that support 3D printing. It is still the case that 3D printing systems are usually found in stand-alone solutions, without any links to process chains. There are no suitable concepts for line integration of 3D printing for new or existing production lines.

Another topic is standardization: Printer manufacturers don’t tend to have a mechanical engineering background. Despite the process being identical, models from the same manufacturer produce different results. Something like that would be unimaginable in classic machine tool manufacturing.

The past few years have seen many attempts at standardization that have ultimately been unsuccessful.

Implementing format standardization takes a great deal of effort, as we saw with CDs and Blu-ray. But we’re talking about generic topics here. We’re not dealing with detailed issues such as components or machines, but rather topics that address the entire process chain in generic terms. As far as the licensing utilization strategy is concerned, it is irrelevant to Fraunhofer who the end users are or which machine OEM uses this standard, just as long as everyone agrees on this data format, as with the example of mp3.

Let me come back to how I view Fraunhofer: As an enabler of value creation in Germany. In terms of control systems for production environments, I believe there are two or three major manufacturers in this country. If a standard of this kind were to be implemented in collaboration with a strong industrial partner, it would have a good chance of becoming established due to the high level of market penetration. Of course, this format would also need to support what is already in use in industry.

Currently, the IAPT does not primarily focus on software solutions.

That is one of the points I would like to address. I didn’t come back to the company as the new institute director to continue what has already been implemented over the past 10 years. I am planning on creating new positions for software engineers and computer scientists. I believe that Fraunhofer’s job is to make a contribution that a product-oriented industry cannot make on its own. But I will, of course, be pursuing other areas of focus as well. I don’t want to dismiss projects that investigate new materials or speed up printing per se, but it seems to me that the time has come to use complementary, industry-driven ideas to round out these technologies. The organization or company that ultimately creates value with the solutions we develop cannot and must not influence the decision-making process for the time being.

How do you see your role as institute director of the IAPT?

For me personally, I feel that my main priority is not only R&D, but also my role as a mediator and orchestrator, acting as an interpreter for Fraunhofer in collaboration with the group and alliance, especially when it comes to engaging in dialog with industry stakeholders. The beauty of the IAPT is that this need for industrialization, which I have outlined very briefly, is linked to the process domain expertise that we already have at the IAPT on account of our history. The aim is to eradicate problems that are plaguing the industry and, in the long term, ensure that 3D printing is used on an industrial scale.

Germany, the world and, of course, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft are facing many major issues over and above AM. Which ones are particularly important to you?

Energy transition and climate change. In this regard, Fraunhofer is very well placed to make truly significant contributions. We are unlikely to be able to achieve our climate targets through wind power, hydropower and photovoltaics as long as a large proportion of fossil and nuclear primary energy generation is used to generate heat for households and industry. What’s more, electromobility will increase our electricity consumption even further.

We need to come up with some clever ideas if we are to meet the heating needs of households and the process heat requirements of industry not only in an environmentally friendly manner, but also reliably. Expanding the hydrogen economy may be a good way to go.