“When we first opened, much of the day could pass without seeing another employee because there were so few of us here. Ten years and 250 employees later, we are building an addition to accommodate our growth,” says Carlos Härtel, Director of GE’s European Research Center in Munich, now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
In 2004, Härtel, employee number four, was one person on a launch team of two dozen or so researchers in the newly built research facility, with capacity for 180 researchers. Now the center has more than 250 employees from all over the world.
“Developing next generation technologies was the purpose and the vision of the new center when we started 10 years ago,” says Härtel. That’s exactly what the Global Research Europe team has been doing – taking great ideas from the lab and working with GE businesses to take them into the real world. As you would expect on a 10 year journey, Carlos and the team have seen initial plans and expectations come to fruition but also some new directions and surprise successes along the way. For Härtel one particular success is the relationship with the Technical University of Munich(TUM).
The center in Munich is unique among the GE Global Research sites around the world for its co-location with a university campus. “One aspiration was to get great talent into the company”, says Härtel. “This was one reason we were co-located next to a university campus. We wanted to create a special neighborhood.” (Coincidentally Härtel had previously studied aerospace engineering at TUM, specializing in aerodynamics and propulsion systems.)
And there have been some surprises on the journey. Says Härtel: “Our scope of work has developed very organically with evolving and changing needs of our businesses and with upcoming new technologies.”
“As time progressed we started to reflect both global and European priorities, which is why we built a Carbon Composites Manufacturing team. We have good strength in composite materials especially at our Aviation business, and there is good expertise in Europe too. Similarly with research on water technologies we found a company close to here that has world-class competencies in the field of water membranes, and we were successful in setting up a collaboration.”
“Compressor and turbine technology is another example”, says Härtel. “The topic was not on the radar when we set up, but it has been quite a successful area for us. In just the same way we always planned to have a healthcare lab, but the amount of development we have done on MR imaging is above and beyond expectations.”
The changing concerns and priorities of the past 10 years have also been reflected. Says Härtel; “When we started, the wind business in 2004, it was largely a technical and electrical engineering challenge. How to control the turbine, what happens if there is a voltage problem, how to get the gearbox issues under control that troubled the industry? Now in wind turbine development, aerodynamics, aeroacoustics and wind-farm management are key topics of research.”
Härtel has also witnessed developments in the approach to R&D. He says; “I would say one of the main changes has been how our company today is much more open to work with outside parties, to explore new spaces, new opportunities in partnership. With the large scale challenges that the researchers are involved in, it is inevitable these days. No longer can you do everything in house and on your own. You need to forge alliances to be successful.”
Härtel believes the response of the GE businesses in the region is another reason for the success of Global Research Europe. A number have worked closely with the research center, building their own complementary specialist teams and centers of excellence to maximize the joint opportunities.
After 10 years, it feels like the starter phase is over for Härtel. He says; “We can identify what some of the success factors have been such as the development of strong research partnerships, connecting with regional GE engineering teams, leveraging proximity to European lead customers, and tapping into the talent pool in the region.” He believes new areas of growth and expansion for the center can be robotics, manufacturing automation, and reciprocating engines.
One of Härtel’s goals over the next 10 years is to develop similar collaborative arrangements (like the one with TUM) with other universities and academic institutions across Europe. “I think there are good opportunities to do this but for the best results there has to be a long term plan. You can always find some special expert in academia for a one-off project; however, to make the effort worthwhile for us and the university, there should be a strategic intent and a willingness to work together over the longer term. To remain at the forefront of technology and innovation, Europe needs these kinds of relationships between industry and academia.”