“Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps”

“I’ve been working in the field of technology and innovation management for some time now”, says Robin Kleer, who was recently appointed Professor of Innovation Management. “I study how firms can better organise their R&D.”  Robin joins us from the TU Berlin en the RWTH Aachen University, where he was Professor in Technology and Innovation Management and Assistant Professor, respectively.

3 related areas of expertise

His research focuses on three areas in particular: (1) digitalisation, (2) technology transfer and (3) sustainable business models.

He explains: “Digitalisation deals with the question how firms can use digital technologies to make their production processes more efficient. 3D printing is a good example. The area of technology transfer relates to technology sourcing by companies. How can we better transfer research and scientific results into practice? How can we incentivise researchers to share their knowledge so that it can be put to good use? And what can companies, in turn, do in order to get access to all the knowledge and technologies available?”

The topic of sustainable business models ties in with the previous two. “But, mind you, I don’t want to focus on ecologically-oriented firms specifically, rather on traditional firms and on how they can use digitalisation and technology transfer to establish business models that allow them to achieve certain economic, ecological and social targets, i.e. that enable long-term, sustainable profitability.”

Customisation made easy

Let’s go back to the example of 3D printing”, Robin says. “By now, everyone has heard about additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, and how it’s at the heart of digitalisation. The essence of additive manufacturing is that you no longer need tools or moulds. The final product is created directly from a digital file. For firms this is interesting because it means they can offer more complex and more individualised products, without sacrificing production efficiency. For me as a researcher it’s also interesting as I have a background in mass customisation. Conventional wisdom has it that if you want to efficiently customise or individualise, you must modularise your product. With additive manufacturing, this no longer holds. Modifying a digital file is so much easier than changing the assembly line.”

You can do this at home

The technology itself has been around since the 1980s, but only in recent years has it really taken off in the industrial and consumer markets. “Some key patents expired. So, technology transfer has become much easier, and as a result 3D printing is far more accessible and affordable. Additive manufacturing relies on a variety of technologies, ranging from extremely expensive and sophisticated laser printers for fused deposition modelling, a technique used for prototyping in large manufacturing companies, to basic and relatively cheap 3D printers everyone can use at home.”

We live in exciting times, times of change. “Look at initiatives like the Fab Lab movement, a worldwide community of manufacturers and designers, connecting professionals as well as amateurs via an online platform to share developments and collaborate online.  Fab Labs are small-scale workshops, offering personalised digital manufacturing services, using technologies such as 3D printing. We’re witnessing the democratisation of production. Everyone can print want they want.”

3D printing changes the stakes

Now here is a fascinating development: not only can we share product designs and view them on our pcs, we can actually print them. But Robin warns it is also a major challenge for companies: “Remember how mp3 technology turned the music industry on its head. Companies will have to start preparing for when their designs are shared via the internet, just like mp3 files. They’ll have to seriously rethink their business models, how they’ll be making money in the future, how to best use their expensive production lines and so on.”

The applications of additive manufacturing are not limited to engineering environments, the technology has also gained a firm foothold in de medical industry, where individualised healthcare will be the focus of the years to come. “Additive manufacturing lets you print anything from perfectly matching replacement hip joints to detailed models of organs and body parts, which surgeons can use to practice complex surgical techniques before operating. The technology makes it possible to print special molecules, so the 3D printing of personalised drugs no longer sounds like science fiction.”

Teaching as core activity

Asked what drew him to Vlerick, he replies: “I want to teach, so I was swayed by the prospect of being able to work in an environment where teaching is considered a key activity rather than a necessary evil. This is so different from most public universities where faculty tries to reduce their teaching workload and where they can be heard bragging about the fact that they no longer have to teach that much. I think that’s a bad thing.”

And he goes on: “Teaching at Vlerick will be all the more interesting for me because the School has a sophisticated selection process, so I can expect critical feedback and challenging discussions with very engaged and highly qualified students. And then there’s also the School’s infrastructure, which is second to none. I can have my students work in small groups, send them to break out rooms where they have all the ICT facilities they might need so they can work professionally. In public universities that’s just not possible.”

“As for my research activities, the School has more than 20 high-quality researchers in innovation-related fields, which offers huge opportunities for collaboration, synergies and knowledge exchange.”

If you enjoy what you do, you do it better

What does he hope to achieve? He hesitates and smiles: “So far I haven’t really planned far ahead. Whatever I do, I’ll always do my best. I’ve been lucky to be able to do what I enjoy doing. Because if you enjoy what you do, you do it better. Other than that ... when an opportunity comes along, I evaluate it. The opportunity to work at Vlerick I grabbed with both hands. Let’s say I will use all the tools and skills I have to do what I have to do in the best possible way. That’s about the only short term goal I’ve set for myself.”

“There is this German saying ‘Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps’. At work you should concentrate on your work, while in your spare time you should just enjoy life. I like listening to music, going to concerts and I do a lot of sports. It’s important for me to maintain a healthy balance between my professional and personal life.”

Profile

  • Professor in Technology and Innovation Management, TU Berlin, DE (2015-2017)
  • Visiting Researcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US (2012)
  • Visiting Professor, German University of Technology, Oman (2010, 2014)
  • Assistant Professor, RWTH Aachen University, DE (2009-2017)
  • Visiting Scholar, Michigan State University, US (2007-2008)
  • Ph. D. in Economics, University of Würzburg, DE (2005-2009)
  • Diploma in Business Engineering, University of Karlsruhe, DE and HEC Lausanne, CH (1999-2005)

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