Professor Robert Schmitt is Chair of Production Metrology and Quality Management of the Laboratory for Machine Tool and Production Engineering (WZL) of RWTH Aachen University and a member of the Board of Directors at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT.
WLZ, Steinhard

Strengthening Green and Sustainable Production

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Robert Schmitt on the Aachen Machine Tool Colloquium 2023 (AWK'23)

Societal, social, and political upheavals demand change and a rethinking of production engineering. "It's no longer just a matter of higher, faster, further, but actually about better, more careful, and more responsible," explains Professor Robert Schmitt, Chair of Production Metrology and Quality Management at the Machine Tool Laboratory WZL at RWTH Aachen University and a member of the Board of Directors of the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT. Chairholder since 2004, he has been researching how to industrialize operational processes in production technology with his team since then. In this process, they record measurement data in networked manufacturing and analyze assembly processes in virtual models, process them further, and in the end, derive information relevant to quality management from this.

The manufacturing industry’s dependence on global logistics chains, fossil fuels, and rare raw materials means it is more urgent than ever to strengthen green and sustainable production. Professor Robert Schmitt and his three WZL colleagues, professors Thomas Bergs, Christian Brecher, and Günther Schuh, would like to invite you to AWK'23 to discuss how this can be achieved with representatives from industry and politics: Concrete approaches and developments for the transformation to a more sustainable, energy- and resource-efficient industry and economy are the focus of the renowned conference that will be held in May next year.

"AWK is always a kind of milestone, while it also provides us with points of reference for our further research. This has always been a special feature of AWK in Aachen."

Professor Schmitt, what significance does AWK'23 have for you personally?

Not only the 2023 event, but AWKs in general, pool our institute’s efforts and those of everyone associated with us to work towards a central theme, organize the community, and bring a topic of high relevance to the forefront. For me personally, AWK is so important because it is not just another conference. The essential feature of the event is that the experts and presentations that are given do not just report on current research. Rather, they offer a sense of direction that is naturally geared toward the future. AWK is always a kind of milestone, while it also provides us with points of reference for our further research. This has always been a special feature of AWK in Aachen.

What is the biggest challenge in bringing the community together?

We face two principal challenges: One is addressing a topic of broad interest and consequence. At the same time, we must be able to narrow down this topic enough so that it can be presented in a two-day format. Bringing the community together is then not so hard anymore and is generally just a matter of organizational tasks. In fact, defining the central topic is a far greater challenge because this involves essential issues that go far beyond the realm of production: How do we take responsibility in this increasingly complex world? And how do we take responsibility for the production engineers in this world? The organizational task is particularly enjoyable: namely, introducing people to the topic who are new to it – and perhaps also talking about it with individuals who have long held established positions. And last but not least, of course, we would like to give the staff at the institutes a chance to present their own work, to look at it from different angles, to discover new questions again in the process, and then to integrate them into their personal lives beyond their research questions.

AWK'21 was not that long ago: do you feel there is a difference now compared to previous AWKs, which were only held every three years?

Yes, we are under more time pressure. Basically, however, I am almost grateful that we have the fantastic opportunity to work in a two-year cycle this time. Because we cannot wait any longer – we have to provide answers now: We realize that social, economic, or, right now, even armed conflicts are a real challenge to our free societies. And if we can take advantage of the opportunity to do creative research here, in an environment that allows us to look at a wide variety of topics from a scientific approach, then of course it is also our duty to do so and to ask the big and important questions. Of course, AWK cannot do all of this, but it can and must emphasize the right topics at the right time – and that is what we are doing.

Why is the motto "Empower Green Production" more important now than ever and what does the industry need to do to follow this motto?

We do not have an awful lot of time to talk about what could be done, because a lot of things just fall into place. It is not just economic questions, but actually also the matter of social cohesion. Many people are anxious and do not know what will happen next. And that is why it is so extremely important that we at the university and in production engineering also clearly state where our responsibility lies: It is not enough for us to just reduce CO2; we also have a responsibility to ensure we have a stable society. And I am convinced that industrial production is a stabilizing factor. But I think we have been too one-sided in some of the questions we have previously asked concerning the concept of efficiency. For example, what is productivity? Or in my area of expertise, quality management: What is quality? When we have talked here about avoiding waste, this originally also had a very strong social component, but over time this has been superseded by a purely economic perspective. We ask where we can produce our goods for the lowest costs, and do not even consider that we might be transporting goods halfway around the globe in doing so – just because it seems to be cheaper. The correct question is: What is value creation really? The impetus we would like to give with AWK is related to the interpretation of the associated key dimensions. Another question, of course: Is what we are doing sustainable? And: Are we investing in a future that will compromise the next generation? These questions have been asked for many years now, but time is running out and we must provide answers. We are currently seeing that a country that has always been blessed by a mild, moderate climate is suddenly experiencing economic difficulties because the water transportation routes are no longer functioning. Rebuilding our infrastructure is more important than ever. And, of course, this also raises the issue of social participation. What is equal opportunity? How many people actually have the opportunity to participate in the invention of the future? Is this just an elite project, i.e., an economic project? Or is this a task that concerns us all? These are all aspects that AWK must address.

"What is equal opportunity? How many people actually have the opportunity to participate in the invention of the future? Is this just an elite project, i.e., an economic project? Or is this a task that concerns us all?"

What do you hope AWK will do, then, if it sparks people to talk in the community, share their ideas, or even take action. What would you like to see happen when AWK is over? What should come after the event?

I would like for us to have drawn a clear picture showing an optimistic way forward. A picture that shows how we can actually maintain industrial value creation in Germany, i.e. conventional production. But this must also lead us to actually tackling the issues at hand: How will we deal with those affected – just to pick one topic here: Training and a lack of skilled labors? What are we actually expecting? And I would like to see some of the results of the discussion translated into an actual action plan that clearly shows how we need to proceed.

2021 is the first time AWK was conducted both on-site and virtually due to the pandemic. This hybrid concept will also be offered in 2023. What can participants expect from the virtual format? What can we look forward to?

We are convinced that it is beneficial to actually come here to Aachen for the event. It is worthwhile because you can interact with each other directly and learn a lot from our speakers first-hand – in the sessions and panel discussions and of course from the working groups. Moreover, we offer the opportunity to experience our research live on site in a prototypical or even realistic application during our institute tour and hall tours. Of course, our virtual platform can only offer this to a limited extent.

The virtual format, on the other hand, is helpful when it comes to exploring information even more on the operational level: Participants will receive additional information on the virtual platform with access to open networking, which will be presented in more detail by selected project managers. We will also be offering a new speed dating format for companies. And a virtual guided institute tour. For our international guests in particular, the virtual ticket offers the best opportunities for networking, even across different continents without the hassle of traveling here. The key point of AWK has always been to provide a platform for presenting new solutions and an opportunity to discuss these with other experts and stakeholders – we will always stay true to this, whether the event is held virtually or on-site. Networking with fellow researchers, wrestling with the community jointly striving for the best solution, these are all things to look forward to.

– Viktoria Ingelmann

"It's no longer about higher, faster, further, but actually about better, more thoughtful, more responsible," explains Professor Robert Schmitt.
Photo: Strauch


Empower Green Production

In 2023, AWK will be presenting Empower Green Production from May 11 to 12. It will be a hybrid event, held both at Eurogress in Aachen and virtually, showing what new technologies and concepts for more crisis-resistant and green production could look like in the future.