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The fourth industrial revolution is moving fast. That raises the question: Are German universities adapting their engineering courses to the latest requirements quickly enough? The answer is nothing to be proud of.

By Anke Henrich

To be a really good engineer, simply being good in your area of expertise is no longer enough. Industrie 4.0 demands connected thinking that goes beyond old boundaries and departments. While fundamental knowledge of the technical disciplines is essential, it needs to be complemented with digital expertise in informatic technologies, data science, and data security.

Rainer Haus, Head of Training at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, explains: "Mechanical and plant engineering companies now develop their business models and product ideas in a data-driven way. For us at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, this means that we no longer just sell machines, but also develop new business models with integrated consulting and other services. We do business directly at the customer's premises. This means that our engineers need to understand not only the technical interfaces, but the customer's entire business processes. The automotive industry, for example, increasingly focuses on mobility concepts instead of just horsepower. Added value comes from outstanding engineers who are at home in both worlds." Read the whole interview here.

However, companies cannot convey this new knowledge to young engineers on their own - they need the assistance of universities. German universities enjoy an excellent reputation worldwide, attracting thousands of foreign students every year. RWTH Aachen University, the Technical University of Munich, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), TU Darmstadt, and TU Berlin - in that order - currently lead the way as the five best German mechanical engineering faculties.

A far-reaching process of change

However, "the digital transition will not take care of itself; it requires a far-reaching process of change in universities," comments Hartmut Rauen, Deputy Executive Director of VDMA. "As the most important German employer of engineers and a technological leader, our existence in the mechanical engineering industry depends on the success of this process." This becomes even clearer when set out in numbers: According to preliminary figures, mechanical and plant engineering companies generated turnover of some 232 billion euros in 2018 (two percent higher than in the previous year). The total of more than 1.3 employees in the industry is also impressive confirmation of its status as the most important industrial employer in Germany. More than 190,000 engineers worked in mechanical engineering, while internal research spending amounted to 5.8 billion euros.

In 2017, too, the mechanical and plant engineering industry was the most important driver of growth in the whole of German industry. It boasted turnover of 226 billion euros and 1.3 million employees. Including more than 190,000 engineers, while some 5.8 billion euros were invested in research.

In order to hold onto this leading position, VDMA wanted some answers even at this early stage: How digital and future-proof are the courses at German universities? Which specialist, methodological, and social skills need to be added? After all, engineers in the future also need to be able to contribute to dynamic and self-organizing value creation networks that are optimized in real time and span multiple companies. This is the ambitious goal.

Disturbing results

To this end, the Association commissioned a study entitled "Engineers for Industrie 4.0" from the Institut für Sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung e.V. (Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, or ISF) in Munich, in which a total of 224 companies were surveyed. A review of the results reveals the following:

  • The main sticking point is the integration of the new specialist content that is necessary in the fields of smart products, data-driven services, smart factories, and smart operations. Engineers and information scientists should therefore share their knowledge right from the first semester. For example, basic knowledge from the field of informatic technologies should be mandatory in the fields of mechanical and electrical engineering in the future. Measures needed for this include interconnecting course content across disciplines.
  • For this purpose, universities need to improve their processes for deciding which content is to be added and which is obsolete. Administrative hurdles are still hindering the organization of courses spanning multiple faculties and departments. "Silo thinking related to specific fields often dominates departments and faculties," criticizes Rauen. "Better connection is needed, especially in teaching."
  • The way in which knowledge is conveyed also needs to improve. Students still predominantly experience frontal teaching in a classroom. There is still room for improvement in the number and type of interactive formats in which practice and theory are more intensively intertwined.
  • Although some institutions have switched the organization of their courses to the more practice-oriented project work demanded by companies, this is still very much an exception.
  • The transfer of personal and social skills is important to universities, yet even they see a need to catch up in this area.
  • Courses focusing on data are still in the planning phase.

On the basis of these findings, the authors of the study have compiled several clear recommendations for action for decision-makers at German universities. All engineering students should learn the same basic principles over the first two semesters. Specialist and methodological knowledge could be interwoven more effectively and learning techniques practiced. In addition, professors need to cooperate more closely and students could make more informed decisions as to what they wish to specialize in. But this alone is not enough. A lasting, interdisciplinary process of change needs to be initiated at universities and a common set of fundamental principles agreed. This also means that research and teaching need to be viewed as equally important and given equal funding.

Lifelong learning

In addition, VDMA is calling for universities and companies to cooperate much more closely in the age of digitalization. For instance, universities and companies could offer more joint teaching and learning factories and interdisciplinary labs, as well as integrating the students into engineering networks at an early stage. Collaboration between universities and employers should not end once students complete their bachelor’s or master's degrees either. According to the study, reorganizing advanced training as "lifelong learning" throughout employees' careers with alternating phases of learning and working is just as important as institutionalizing education processes.

However, this requires a higher degree of transparency about what universities offer in terms of digitalization/Industrie 4.0 (consulting, joint R&D projects, etc.). Small and medium-sized companies will particularly benefit from this. With an average of 180 employees, they make up the vast majority of the mechanical engineering industry in Germany, but cannot compete with the research budgets of large corporations.

The study did struggle to come up with an answer for one question, namely what should be struck from current curricula to make room for the many new subjects. After all, even in times of Industrie 4.0, a student's day is only 24 hours long.

Further information

VDMAimpulse 02-2019 "Disruptive thinking instead of cramming"   |   IMPULS Foundation