Every euro of public expenditure invested yields three to four euros in GDP. This is known as the Fraunhofer model, a German public institution founded in 1949 and comprising 75 research institutes in all fields, from mechatronics to biotechnology, with the aim of putting research at the service of business innovation. With highly tangible implications, this approach is closely linked to the industry and therefore aims to actively contribute to business growth.
"Back when the Fraunhofer project took off in 1949 as part of the Marshall Plan, it consisted of just three employees. Seventy-two years later, we have grown to 75 institutions and 29,000 employees, yet our task and mission remain the same as when we set out to rebuild the country after the Second World War: support companies and the economy as a whole", Thomas Dickert, Head of International Relations at Fraunhofer, recently explained to Il Sole 24Ore. "Our model is unique and successful, it works because we work on real projects with companies. We only open a new applied research institute where and if we feel there is a real need for it. The question we ask ourselves is: how can we help this or that company?"
Named after Joseph von Fraunhofer, an 18th century Bavarian physicist and one of the founders of modern optics, Fraunhofer today has an annual budget of 2.8 billion. Funding is also rather interesting: one third comes from the Federal Government and the States themselves, one third from private companies and one third from public funding and national and international tenders. Il Sole reports that in 2014, Fraunhofer scientists benefited from €1.1 billion in public funding, yet contributed €20 billion in GDP and €4.1 billion in taxes, with an 18-fold multiplier effect.
Our model is unique and successful, it works because we work on real projects with companies.
The fields of specialisation at the various centres range from nanotechnology to molecular biotechnology, mechatronics to photonic microsystems, industrial mathematics to toxicology, and pharmacology to solar energy. There are Institute facilities from Frankfurt to Munich, Nuremberg to Leipzig, Hamburg to Freiburg, Dresden to Duisburg, and not only in large cities but also in small towns. The way it works is quite simple: Whatever the field, companies are knocking on Fraunhofer's door looking for solutions, and scientists are responding with applied science.
A branch was set up in Italy in 2009 in Bolzano, now located in the NOI Techpark. As an independent foreign company of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, it was created by Assoimprenditori Alto Adige with the support of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. The model is in fact the same as its German counterpart, "but we are obviously more closely linked to the territory, both local to South Tyrol for physical reasons, but to the whole of Italy, and we have a deep understanding of its economic and entrepreneurial characteristics", explains the institute. "Our applied research services primarily cater to small and medium-sized enterprises looking to innovate in their processes, automate and digitise, both in production and construction. Our research dimensions cover BIM (Building Information Modelling), Advanced Robotics, Sustainable Innovation, Smart Urban Systems, Flexible Production Systems and Human-centred Technologies. Our services range from feasibility studies of an innovation idea and its implementation to prototyping and proof-of-concept".
The research team is very diverse: the average age of employees is 30 and 40% are women. On top of that, for every 30 permanent employees, Fraunhofer Italy offers internal training opportunity to some 15 to 20 students. "We are a springboard for young people with potential", explained Dominik Matt, Director of the institute, in an interview with NOI magazine. Much like in Germany, where there is a 10% turnover rate, researchers can easily move from the institute to companies. The future Faculty of Engineering of the University of Bolzano will also join the Technology Park starting in 2022: an addition that will render the fusion of skills even smoother.
Biologists, engineers and computer scientists work side by side to find solutions that could revolutionise tomorrow's world of work.
Fraunhofer Italy's focus areas encompass digitisation in the construction sector, flexible automation in industry, commerce and agriculture and the development of digital business models. "We were the first to focus on Industry 4.0 in South Tyrol", explains Dominik Matt. The BIM Simulation Lab, for example, is a laboratory where construction models can be visualised using augmented and/or virtual reality techniques, thereby making it possible to measure "the actual progress of the work and to significantly control the planning, execution and operation decisions of every single aspect on the site", Matt explains.
The second area of study is related to automation and mechatronic engineering (also applicable to crafts such as carpentry, where AR glasses can render a 'live' view of the product before it's made). Fraunhofer Italy also draws on nature, observing biological phenomena such as the intelligence of swarms or the behaviour of antibodies to study and improve production and logistics systems. "Biologists, engineers and computer scientists work side by side to find solutions that could revolutionise tomorrow's world of work", Matt continues.
It is an innovative model that weaves the entrepreneurial fabric of the regions with the vision and expertise of the future. "We have an enormous potential for in-house knowledge, creativity and skills, take advantage of it!", Matt tells entrepreneurs. A model that is also highly attractive to young researchers, who find fertile ground here between academic research and business. In the run-up to the implementation of projects linked to Next Generation EU, the programme designed to revitalise European countries after the pandemic, the Fraunhofer model is an interesting example of how to accentuate economic recovery under the banner of digital transition and innovation. The opportunity is there for everyone to see.