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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation


Jumping out of the Ivory Tower

Doctoral students Dominic Berges (left) and Sönke Appel in Siemens' electromagnetic radiation measurement chamber of Corporate Technology in Munich. They are looking for new tracking and localization methods based on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Companies such as Siemens urgently need such technology for new production processes, such as those being developed for the implementation of Industry 4.0.

Close collaboration with universities has been a pillar of Siemens’ innovation process for decades. Partnerships with universities encompass the work performed by graduate students who perform research and write their dissertations at Corporate Technology. The students’ research findings often contribute to the development of innovative technologies that lead to new products and services.

Dominic Berges is a bit nervous. In a few minutes, he will have to present the status of his dissertation to the entire faculty of the Chair of High-Frequency Engineering at Munich Technical University (TUM). Berges, who is 28, researches how new kinds of radio frequency identification (RFID) transponders could help to locate objects to within less than one centimeter. Such an application could solve many industrial problems in the near future.

RFID Applications in Industry 4.0 Facilities

Unlike Berges, doctoral student Sönke Appel already has completed his research. He discovered that RFID systems can be used to track objects in three dimensions – a potentially important milestone on the path to Industry 4.0. This is still uncharted territory, because the systems that have been used for this purpose to date are complex and thus expensive. Appel now only has to write down his findings and submit his dissertation to his professors at Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen.

Dominic Berges researches how new kinds of RFID transponders could help to locate objects to within less than one centimeter.

Berges and Appel are just two of the 59 doctoral students who are currently working at Siemens Corporate Technology, where they have temporary, three-year job contracts. If everything goes well, they won’t just have completed their dissertations by the end of their contracts, but will have also contributed to a new development or even a new product at Siemens. “We are looking for new tracking and localization methods that use RFID, because industry urgently needs them for new production processes, such as those being developed for the implementation of Industry 4.0,” says Dr. Andreas Ziroff, who is in charge of research in high-frequency solutions at CT. His team of 21 employees (including three doctoral students) is working on around 50 projects. The students’ support is therefore very welcome. “Doctoral students can immerse themselves in a topic over a period of months or even years. What’s more, their findings might one day contribute to one of our new tracking systems,” says Ziroff, who considers himself to be an idea provider. Thanks to his many years of practical experience, he can sometimes give doctoral students a nudge in the right direction for their research. However, Appel and Berges don’t have to fear excessive supervision. On the contrary, “our doctoral students have to work very independently and select their own focal points,” states Ziroff.

Sönke Appel discovered that RFID systems can be used to track objects in three dimensions.

Fast Track to a Doctorate

In the selection of their topics, the two doctoral students had a clear goal: To take research out of the ivory tower and into industry. Appel studied electrical engineering at Hamburg University and had written his master’s thesis at Siemens. “Working at Siemens got me interested in practical applications. That’s what made me want to go deeper and get a doctorate,” he says. Berges shares this view. Moreover, neither of them wanted to stay at their universities for many more years, because doctoral positions there often entail a variety of other tasks such as the supervision of other students. “It often takes four or five years before you can get your Ph.D. there,” says Berges. That’s too long for his tastes, which is why Berges wants to complete his dissertation during his three years at Siemens. However, some graduate schools ensure that external doctoral students continue to have close ties with their universities. The graduate schools of all German universities require doctoral students to attend certain events. This is no problem for Berges, who says that “it’s fun to stay in contact with other doctoral students, even though it costs me additional time.”

External dissertations mainly benefit a university if they are written as a result of a close partnership with a company. This is the case at TUM as well as at Friedrich Alexander University (FAU) in Erlangen. “We work very closely with TUM and FAU on long-term projects in order to share information on technological developments and even influence the universities’ research agenda through joint measures,” says Ziroff. For example, research at FAU focuses, among other things, on radar. “If you have a problem, you can quickly drive over there and ask somebody to take a look at it from the outside. Moreover, whenever we suffer from personnel bottlenecks, we can generally find a student who will gladly work for us.”

A Win-Win-Situation

Professor Martin Vossiek from the Institute of Microwaves and Photonics at FAU points out that “the overall strategic network is important.” Vossiek is the doctoral advisor of Sönke Appel, who moved from Hamburg to Munich in order to work on his dissertation at Siemens. Vossiek has very close ties to CT, because we was himself an employee of the high-frequency engineering department until 2003. What’s more, his former coworker at CT, Ziroff, is a lecturer at FAU. Industrial partnerships greatly help professorships get good evaluations. “Every professorship is evaluated on the basis of the number of its publications and the projects that receive third-party funding,” says Professor Thomas Eibert from TUM, who is Berges’ doctoral advisor. That’s why Eibert welcomes the opportunity to work with CT, which Andreas Ziroff initiated several years ago. “We also want to find out about new solutions from industry of course,” says Eibert. His doctoral student, Berges, has discovered this as well. “Everyone was very interested in my work,” he says. “The colloquium went extremely well!”

Katrin Nikolaus