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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation


Never Say “It Can’t be Done”

Siemens will host Germany's “Jugend forscht” young researcher national contest in May. Frank Anton won the contest himself 40 years ago by building something he had been told was impossible.

“It can’t be done” is the kind of categorical statement that Frank Anton refuses to accept. “Statements like that only spur me on. Especially when something is possible from a purely physical standpoint, meaning it is not barred by natural laws,” says Anton, 60, who is a specialist in particle physics. “The least you can do is find out why it can’t be done.” But often – and particularly in Anton’s own life – it could be done after all.

Siemens will host Germany's “Jugend forscht” young researcher national contest in May. Frank Anton won the contest himself 40 years ago by building something he had been told was impossible.

Spring 1974: Young Frank Anton was talking about signal processing with his high school physics teacher. The conversation turned to Morse code. The teacher said, “These signals cannot be automatically decoded.” Anton, who as an enthusiastic amateur radio operator and is very familiar with the fine points of Morse code, felt incredibly challenged by this statement. Using the integrated circuits available at that time, 82 in all, in less than a year he built a device that automatically converted manually entered Morse signals into letters.

Summer 1975: The Jugend forscht national contest was held in Leverkusen, Germany. Armed with his logic gates and circuits he had developed himself, Anton had fought his way through several regional contests. Hans Matthöfer, the Federal Postal Minister at that time, stood in front of him entering Morse code into Anton’s experimental device. He excused himself for being out of practice since his days in the military, but typed assiduously on the keyboard. He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the Morse signals gradually converted into letters on an electric typewriter, without any errors. Anton went on to win the national contest in the Technology category.

In Love with Physics

Gisela Glasmachers, the winner of the Jugend forscht Physics category in 1975, was at the adjacent stand. Although they did not know it at the time, they would eventually get married, raise three children, and share their enthusiasm for technology and innovation over nearly 40 years of marriage. They had already met at the preceding state contest. “She came over and asked me what I was building,” Anton recalled. After they met again at the national contest, the winners travelled to Persia, as the country was called before the mullahs’ revolution. Three weeks there cemented their relationship. They studied physics in college and spent the rest of their lives together. Anton started his career at Siemens and Gisela became a professor of experimental physics in Erlangen.

Siemens is ideal for Anton. Wherever he worked, whether as a developer of particle accelerators, as the director in charge of surgical X-ray applications, sales director in medical engineering, the director in charge of large electric motors, or head of development for magnetic resonance tomography, he has been able to live out his passion and help shape technological progress. “I always found it fascinating to convert technology into business,” he says. His eyes light up when he talks about magnetic resonance tomography: “The use of oscillating magnetic fields to visualize body tissue, organs and blood vessels represents perhaps the best application of physics for the benefit of mankind,” he says.

Jugend forscht winners 1975: Frank Anton and his later wife Gisela Glasmachers (second and third from left) during their journey through Persia.

Working in medical physics was a formative experience for Anton. As the director in charge of surgical X-ray applications, he would stand next to surgeon’s operating rooms and observe how Siemens devices are used under emergency conditions.  “A badly injured patient lay on the table,” recalls Anton. “The surgeon had only minutes to decide what to do. Our C-arm helped him make that decision. I was very moved by the experience.” Such observations also honed his understanding of how to convert technology into business: “I need to know what the customer does with our things before I can make any kind of sensible offer,” he says.

Electric Flight

At Siemens’ Innovation Day 2008, for the first time ever, the company showcased the diverse innovations of all its Divisions. Supervisory Board Chairman Gerhard Cromme and CEO Peter Löscher came to Berlin, and Anton, then director of the corporate initiative known as top+ Innovation, guided them through the stands featuring more than 100 ideas. “At the time, I wanted to show our executives all the things that were going on at Siemens,” Anton said. The exhibition was designed in such a way that participants could disseminate ideas throughout the company. On the periphery of this event, Anton held a conversation with his guest speaker Jean Botti, the CTO of Airbus. This is where the latest chapter of Anton’s career began.

The two amateur pilots discussed an idea that was considered “impossible” just ten years earlier: Electric flight. “That evening it became clear that two kindred spirits were talking about a plan that many observers would have said was crazy, namely using electric motors to power a passenger aircraft,” says Anton. After some further conversations with Botti, Anton took an elaborated project proposal to Siegfried Russwurm, Siemens Chief Technology Officer at the time. “I want to try it,” said Anton. “And I understood completely that it would be a big step for Siemens.” Russwurm supported him.

Frank Anton (left) with the ultra-compact 80kW electric motor that flew for the first time in 2013.

From Jugend forscht Winner to World-Record Holder

Anton assembled a team and began to collaborate with several manufacturers of small aircraft. Using advanced simulation software, the developers designed a completely new electric motor and built a propulsion system in a Siemens laboratory. The motor has since broken world records. Five times more power than similar machines of comparable weight, it has an output of 260 kilowatts at a weight of only 50 kilograms. The motor was installed in an aircraft that also set a world record. It ascended to an altitude of 3,000 meters in four minutes and 22 seconds, more than a minute faster than the previous record.

Based on these achievements, Siemens and Airbus have entered into a partnership with the goal of revolutionizing aviation based on the use of hybrid-electric regional aircraft.  “We expect the first aircraft with a capacity of up to 100 passengers and a range of around 1,000 kilometers by 2030,” Anton says. Creative engineers are the lifeblood of such ambitious projects. And so it is never too early to support high school and college students. That’s why Anton advocated that Siemens should host the Jugend forscht national contest again. In his capacity as National Sponsorship Officer, he will attend to the young talents and inspire them with his motto: “There’s no such thing as ‘it can’t be done.’”

Norbert Aschenbrenner
Picture credits: from top: 2. picture Stiftung Jugend forscht e.V.