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“More room for creativity”

Germany’s powers of innovation can only be harnessed if both industrial concerns and the engineers working for them are prepared for change.

An interview with Ralph Appel, Executive Director of the Association of German Engineers (VDI).

(Interview: Judy Born)

What challenges do engineers face today?

As a country with few natural resources, we will need to rely on our powers of innovation – or our innovative spirit, if you will – to an even greater extent in the future. Take, for example, Industry 4.0, a topic that is currently preoccupying all companies. Digital networking will cause production flows and business models to radically change. This will make the demands placed on engineers even more complex.

In what sense?

Expertise alone is no longer enough. Engineers need to expand their fundamental IT and software skills in order to understand how processes can work and be managed. It will also become increasingly necessary for them to work in an interdisciplinary manner. Their work in technical development can no longer be kept separate from the commercial side of things. In the future, engineers will need to have a more precise understanding of the economics involved.

So getting up to speed on digital developments is not enough?

No. It is equally important to look beyond the horizon of engineering. In the past, engineers, in the traditional sense of the term, fell into two categories. They were either electrical or electronic engineers, or they worked in steel, iron, or automotive manufacturing. Things have changed – primarily in the automotive industry, where the distinction between the two old engineering categories is increasingly blurring. Nowadays, when it comes to cars, electronics are just as important as mechanics are – if not more so.

Ralph Appel, Executive Director and Managing Director of VDI
Ralph Appel is the Executive Director of VDI Verein Deutscher Ingenieure e.V. and the Managing Director of VDI GmbH.
An understanding of IT, an interdisciplinary approach… what else will companies need to emphasize?

The need for communication is growing. Both stakeholders (such as shareholders, employees, and customers) and the general public want, and need to be, more heavily involved. It is important to bring them on board at an early stage to ensure that new projects – particularly large ones – succeed. Companies need to take the interests of numerous, often differing groups into account, both those internally and those from outside.

So engineers need to focus more on external concerns?

Precisely. And they need work from this perspective starting in the early stages of development. They need to come together at an early stage and seriously consider which versions of a project are the most technically and socially viable. The idea is to convince one another without having to resort to persuasion.

...many companies are still dominated by overly rigid work organization. Interdisciplinary work requires new working models and the willingness to make mistakes.

Ralph Appel
How does VDI prepare its members for the future?

We offer seminars on very specific topics for individuals, companies, and project sponsors. Our research employees give lectures at universities to raise awareness of important topics among the engineers of tomorrow. Our Knowledge Forum is a training academy where up to 30,000 engineers per year can learn about all kinds of technologies and soft skills. We provide them with valuable knowledge because it is clear to us that it is no longer sufficient to have gone to university. The digital transformation has shown us the need for life-long learning. And that is precisely what VDI supports.

How do you do that?

Well, for example, this year we are focusing primarily on the topic of Work 4.0 – working conditions are changing. We are also currently coordinating our educational content closely with that of the Fraunhofer Institute of Labor Economics and Organization in Stuttgart, Germany. We hold symposiums on key future issues for representatives from the fields of politics and business as well as members of the general public.

What kind of working environment should engineers have?

Engineers need more room for creativity. We do not necessarily need a German equivalent of Silicon Valley, but we should address the fact that many companies are still dominated by overly rigid work organization. Interdisciplinary work requires new working models and the willingness to make mistakes. Of course, this does not refer to the end product – I mean that we should allow for errors and false conclusions to arise during the developmental stages. That will take courage.

So companies need to adjust accordingly?

Absolutely. But this does not only apply to engineers. This is a broader issue of differences between generations. Generally speaking, we need up-to-date working models and fewer patriarchal structures. We need to make strides in that area if we want to maintain, or even enhance, Germany’s flexibility and powers of innovation.

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