Fraunhofer Design Competition
15 April, 2017

1st Prize to Anja Lietzau (Hochschule München) and Tim Bastian Klaus (Fraunhofer LBF Darmstadt). © Marc Müller

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  A competition held by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft demonstrates the potential of bringing scientists and designers together. Fraunhofer researchers collaborated with design students at two German universities to develop product concepts for technologies not yet on the market. Joachim Schirrmacher took a look at the project.

Men in suits versus people with bed-head hair, PowerPoint versus PDF, Windows versus Mac, professional experience versus student freedom. The two cultures couldn’t be more different. The setting: the kick-off of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s Form Follows Future design exhibition at Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) in November last year. A similar workshop had taken place at the University of Applied Sciences Munich
a few days earlier. The goal of the competition, which both educational institutions were invited to participate in, is to translate research work into visionary ideas for products through collaborations between scientists and design students. “As an incentive we selected technologies not yet on the market,” comments Michael Edelwirth, head of internal research programmes at Fraunhofer.
With a budget totalling just under €250,000, the competition is in a good position financially. The results were presented at the Fraunhofer Netzwert symposium in February. The two first prizes are each worth €10,000, the second prizes €7,000 apiece. In collaboration with the SYN Foundation, the four winning teams will also receive threemonth grants, each worth €25,000, to implement their ideas.

600 MPS @ 50m?
The kick-off events mentioned at the beginning establish who teams up with whom. Some 20 young designers and 12 engineers meet at UdK in Berlin. The demands on the visual communications, product, new media, fashion and architecture students are high. After all, who would immediately understand what’s meant by a “modular system of pultruded composite profiles with electrocontact adhesive bonds”? What does “600 MPS @ 50m” on the slide mean? Who can evaluate technology and come up with new applications in just a few minutes? The Fraunhofer engineers are clearly entering new territory as well. To obtain the €500 bonus, they first have to make the case for their projects and choose appropriate students. Not all of them are
successful. Putting across what their work involves to people outside their disciplines is clearly not part of engineers’ training.

A lot of expertise and experience
In the end, there are seven teams in Berlin and nine in Munich. A total of 16 engineers and 23 young designers take part in the competition. The countdown starts for each side to get to grips with the subject matter. It’s not easy for a 22-year-old student to work with an assertive engineer.
But the two sides still manage to listen to what the other is saying. Visits to the institutes follow, as well as hours of Skyping and in some cases even new friendships. But they also wrestle quite a lot with one another and need crisis meetings: The young designers say that “Engineers don’t want to take their technology any further, they think our remit is just to make it pretty.” The question of what’s feasible is hotly debated.
Presentations between phases have proved to be exceptionally important. It takes a lot of expertise and experience to identify potentials, market opportunities and reduce the students’ designs to a core concept. Unlike the University of Applied Sciences Munich, where Professor Peter Naumann mentors the students intensively, the competition isn’t part of the course at the UdK under Professor Kora Kimpel. If the much older students here take part, it’s on a voluntary basis and any mentoring tends to be of a more informal nature.

Relevant results
The results are impressive. Clearly inspired by the technologies and discussions with the engineers, the students produce not luxury products or the umpteenth gadget, but relevant solutions instead. Many designs look so simple, plausible and obvious that you wonder why they weren’t thought of a long time ago. What an enormous achievement.
A fabric conceived to reduce vibrations in planes was turned into a stylish support corset, while in another project words a portable lab was made from a wearable. And while engineers harnessed the forces from a shape memory alloy to open a tank cap more easily, the students designed a self-sufficient pump drive for African countries. “These new applications have surprised us all. We’re used to developing technical solutions for complex problems while designers often take a more interdisciplinary approach,” comments Björn Schmalfuss, one of Fraunhofer’s project managers.

Opposed working cultures 
Despite all the success achieved, the competition shows that there’s still plenty of room for improvement with regard to open-ended collaborations like these. Working cultures and views of the world collide and are often diametrically opposed to one another. The designer’s language is visual and not verbal. Through publications, designs obtain a certain amount of protection, whereas they are detrimental to patent applications. Therefore, these types of project need to be well moderated, which at the UdK for example hasn’t always been the case, as Kora Kimpel self-critically remarks. There was, for instance, no opportunity to meet up on an informal basis to start with, to become acquainted with the mindset and views of the other party, or to gravitate towards one another. That’s surprising because the two experts involved – Kimpel and Maria Schraudner, director of the Fraunhofer Center for Responsible Research and Innovation – are engaged in research into these very processes.
But at Fraunhofer, design’s potential has been recognised nevertheless. Consideration is now being given as to how this can be used in the future. President Reimund Neugebauer is convinced “that innovation processes can improve if we collaborate more closely with designers”.

Deutsch: www.joachim-schirrmacher.de/2017/04/15/die-kraft-der-kooperation/

Design Report, 2 / 2017
, page 80 – 83

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