13. July 2021

Interview with Prof. Volker Stich I Director of the Smart Logistics Cluster and Managing Director at Institute for Industrial Management FIR about new technologies, potential and the Demonstration Factory on campus

Professor Stich, what is the role of FIR in the 5G-Industry Campus Europe (5G-ICE) project, in which you collaborate with partners at Fraunhofer IPT and at Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL)?

It is our job to make new technology and new potential on the market accessible for the industry, so that they can be used in concrete scenarios. The same applies for 5G. This new wireless standard is definitely a key technology. The important question is: Where are its many potential uses? Where can they be touched, felt, tasted, smelled and tested? That is a question we deal with as a project partner in the 5G-ICE and in our capacity as 5G.NRW Competence Center, a project funded by the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.
As 5G.NRW Competence Center we succeeded in advancing our Demonstration Factory in Aachen as a 5G model factory. A measure that is supported personally by Minister Andreas Pinkwart. His objective is to develop NRW into a flagship location for 5G. Together with partners from Dortmund, Wuppertal, Essen and Aachen, we are working on examples of 5G applications, inviting mid-sized companies to join us as a competence center, and showing how 5G works and what it can do in real-life applications.
Demonstrationsfabrik Aachen


How about the collaboration between research and industry?

We are the interface point between industry and research. Our task is to develop practical applications and implement them as prototypes. That is exactly what our Demonstration Factory is designed to do, which is outfitted completely with 5G. FIR in particular, which heads up the Smart Logistics Cluster, looks at use cases in logistics within the scope of the 5G-ICE project. Right now, we are focusing on autonomous driving systems. The IPT and WZL are examining other use cases, for example in robotics and machine engineering.

Please describe the benefits of 5G in a day-to-day production environment.

I will need machine feedback in milliseconds if I want to mill, turn or drill at high speeds. That is the so-called latency, or response time behavior. And if I have an autonomous system, let’s say autonomous vehicles, the issue is initially the same. I might not necessarily need latency in milliseconds, but I will need reliable feedback. That is the beauty of 5G. Many people still think 5G is simply faster Internet and they compare the times needed to download a Netflix video. Actually though, it is the so-called Network Slicing that makes 5G so special. In simple terms, that means: I have transmission masts, with which I can work in various constellations for different types of applications: Sometimes I need high reliability, while other times it would be high bandwidth. Network Slicing allows me to achieve both with a single transmission mast.

Short latency times, a high number of connected devices or high data rates are the objectives of 5G. How far have you come at the Demonstration Factory and what are you doing there right now?

To give you one example, we have an autonomous robot there, which is controlled via the IT systems and drives all across the factory without anyone having to look after it. It does have the annoying habit of moving extremely slowly, so as not to injure anyone. That is where we are today. We will now give the robot sensor points to let it know that someone is approaching the path of the robotic vehicle from the left. The vehicle should therefore immediately reduce its speed. Should that someone turn and leave, the vehicle could then increase its speed again. We installed it and compared it to wireless LAN to 5G – our findings were astonishing.

Fraunhofer IPT

First finding: Only 5G guarantees a stable connection and never loses contact, while wireless tends to have short-term hiccups.

Second finding: 5G is a very stable basic service, as you can connect not just one, but many devices. The transmission mast doesn’t care how many devices there are. That is the point, where this technology becomes interesting for businesses, and the automotive industry in particular is working on relevant concepts.

We developed this particular use case in collaboration with our partners SICK and Ericsson as part of the 5Gang research project. SICK is a sensor manufacturer and also produces safety sensor technology, i.e. applications where people need to be protected. Today, that is mostly done via wired interfaces. We are working on the very first wireless interface with 5G that will be transmitting a safety signal. The laser scanner communicating with our robot is such a safety device.


Mid-sized companies are hoping to increase productivity with 5G. How will you meet that expectation?

There are three stages.

The first is the most non-committal. We report about concrete examples in layman’s terms. In the end, mid-sized companies simply want a functioning solution.

The second stage: A mid-sized company asks us to demonstrate an example. That is why we had lots of guided tours for visitors during times without Corona – about five per week. We had and still have inquiries from NRW, from Northern and Southern Germany, from small and mid-sized companies, as well as from multinationals.

The third stage culminates in direct advice and support on site, once a company decides to work with 5G. This is right still a bit of a rare occurrence at the moment, as companies are hesitant to commit to 5G for a variety of reasons.

Do you have an example for where that was done?

Yes, we were working for an OEM in Southern Germany. If that company would go ahead with 5G, it could replace all kinds of communication standards with one single potential standard. There would be no more wired communication using WLAN or quality control via Bluetooth. Instead, there would be one standard that could do it all and replace cables completely. The end result would be a completely different kind of flexibility in assembly. Responses to market changes would be much faster, allowing, for example, a flexible restructuring of the assembly line. We demonstrate that at our on-campus Demonstration Factory with highly flexible assembly stations that have been tried and tested.

Or there is the example of Bosch. Bosch installed hundreds of microphones in one of its factories to find out where a machine was having trouble or possibly even threatened to fail. It would be impossible to connect all these microphones with each other using any of the popular communication standards. But 5G could do it.

Plus 5G is also energy-efficient. All these microphones need is a battery change every ten years.

What about autonomous driving?

We can currently only practice autonomous driving in protected areas. We currently do that alongside the freight forwarder Hammer at their Logistics Campus in Eschweiler. Safety in autonomous vehicles is already relatively high. But how will they interact with non-autonomous vehicles? If there was an inner city area only for autonomous vehicles, there would be significantly fewer problems than in today’s mixed concepts. A basically unmanageable problem occurs if a single autonomous vehicle drives among non-autonomous ones.

Another is that local residents often claim that 5G radiation is a health hazard and should therefore be avoided at all costs in the inner city. Some of the discussions are excessively exaggerated and lack substance. There have been many years of studies and analyses carried out at the Aachen University Hospital, and it has also amassed the largest database on studies on the effects of 5G on the human body.

Let’s talk about small and mid-sized companies. Where do we stand in terms of user-oriented development in Germany?

We are in a very good position. In international comparison, we are among the only nations reserving spaces for the industry and leaving companies the freedom to bid for frequencies for their own sectors for very little money, where they can then do whatever they want. They can develop their own network or work on developments with Telekom or any other specialized provider. This option to not just give licenses to the big mobile network operators, simply doesn’t exist in many countries. It will become a great driver for innovation in Germany.

Additionally, of the three largest global providers – namely Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei – two are located in Europe. We work very closely with them. However, users from small and mid-sized companies are often not yet aware of the difference between the consumer network, i.e. Telekom, Vodafone, etc., and the private industrial network. With our partners, we are now in a position to set up a 5G network on site for one or two days to test the opportunities 5G could bring for individual companies.

But confusion still reigns among small to mid-sized companies, as they are continuously told to wait for the next new wireless LAN standard or even 6G, as that is sure to come at some point!

In effect, they are being talked out of an excellent technology. All it does is stir up unnecessary doubt.

Does that mean that the technology dimension is still being underestimated?

We need to stress over and over again that 5G is not just a transmission standard, but a complete innovation of network technology. We talked about Industrie 4.0 for seven years. We thought it was nothing more than a new form of network connectivity. Over the past two years we learned that it is useful for companies, because that connectivity exists, meaning data can be accessed that can then be very reliably processed in real-time for implementation in new business models. More and more people talk about data as a company asset. We therefore need a technology that is firstly ultra reliable in terms of availability, and secondly, such networks must be able to transfer huge data volumes safely, process that data and maybe even generate new business models as a result.

How could a small business owner now build such a 5G network?

With our help, because we do three things:

Firstly, we do a so-called technical feasibility study with the individual company, meaning we find out, whether it fulfills the necessary requirements.

Secondly, we jointly develop a customized project plan defining the steps the company will have to take in preparation for the transformation. That will include data infrastructures, data models and an oftentimes extremely heterogeneous IT landscape, because companies can quickly run up around twenty different IT system applications.

Once we have created this digitization roadmap, we then proceed with the third step: the business case calculation. How much does all that cost and what are the benefits? We have developed a proprietary process for that.

And why should even small businesses invest in 5G?

Because 5G will help realize a significant increase in productivity. Currently, the utilization of our production facilities is only 50 per cent on average. Not because we can’t do any better, but because we don’t know any better, we don’t have any real-time feedback. When a machine fails, we need a relatively long time until it becomes apparent in the production planning system that the machine has actually failed. And after that, we need even more time to find out why it failed. On top of that is the so-called decision latency, meaning the things we need to do and the time needed, until e.g. the needed replacement part arrives and can be installed.
In other words, we need an enormous amount of time. If we had 5G, then I could predict the breakdown of the machine, order the replacement part and repair it immediately when it does fail. The main benefit lies in the reduction of latency times, which means a massive increase in productivity.
The potential is gigantic and we only see the tip of the iceberg today. We were approached by a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, who wants to revolutionize harvesters. They are not thinking about bigger machines at all – instead, they want to build smaller machines for farmers with smaller fields. A technology like 5G is exactly what is needed on farms. We have created a platform that will allow the agricultural industry to roll out 5G with full coverage.

An honest answer, please: Is Aachen a top contender when it comes to 5G?

Right now, Aachen is the biggest continuous 5G campus location in Europe. Our advantage is the fact that the big players Ericsson, Telekom and Vodafone are already enrolled members on RWTH Aachen Campus. Which proves: We have an impact beyond Aachen’s city limits, which we don’t even realize sometimes in our day-to-day business.
You want to know more about 5G in practical use?

Interviews and more information on the topic of 5G at RWTH Aachen Campus: