Collaboration with automotive supplier ZF: a win-win-win situation

About the successful collaboration between FHWS, and its students, and the automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen

The Schweinfurt-based robotics professor Tobias Kaupp and Uwe Wachter from the automotive supplier ZF have been maintaining an industrial collaboration for a year and a half which is of great importance to FHWS, the company, and the students.

An internship, a practical semester or a final thesis with a company? What companies are there? What are the opportunities that can be taken at all? Who is the right person to talk to? Students at the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt (FHWS) get answers to precisely these questions through a wide range of collaborations with industry partners.

Particularly in the industrial city of Schweinfurt, FHWS has a major locational advantage: the students on the technical degree programmes there have local access to a large selection of internationally active companies with multiple thousands of employees. They can complete internships and final theses practically on their own doorstep. This is also the case with ZF Friedrichshafen AG. The German company with its headquarters in Friedrichshafen is placed among the leading companies in the field of drive and chassis technology in the world in the 2019 financial year, with a turnover of more than 36 billion euros. Research and development also play a major role in the group. Thus, in 2019, more than 2.7 billion euro were invested in this area. Higher education institutions, particularly the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt, also benefit from this.

FHWS and ZF have been working together for decades

FHWS and ZF have a long-shared history. The Friedrichshafen-based company has supported FHWS since 1971. The site manager, Hans-Jürgen Schneider, also represents ZF Friedrichshafen AG Schweinfurt on the FHWS business advisory board. “Through participation on this board, the members support FHWS with their know-how,” FHWS chancellor, Stefan Hartmann, explains the long-term partnership. “They thus provide key stimuli for the development of the institution, particularly with regard to the content orientation and development of degree programmes.” A decades-long collaboration which was further strengthened by Professor Tobias Kaupp a year and a half ago. He has held a research professorship in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering since November 2018. He specialises in digital production and robotics. ZF comes into play right here.

People and robots working together

ZF Friedrichshafen AG has established the “Production Tech Center Robotics and Vision” competence centre, which is led by Uwe Wachter, at the industrial site in Schweinfurt. For more than 19 years, the business and engineering graduate has been providing ZF with his specialist knowledge and wants, along with his company, to always be at the cutting edge. In the centre, the focus is on improvement of the production process with help of robotics and camera-based systems, and in particular on human-robot collaboration (HRC): a collaboration between humans and robots in order to assemble or produce things together.

“I simply spoke to Uwe Wachter after a guest lecture on the topic of robotics at FHWS in Schweinfurt during the active search for industrial collaborations and we have been working together ever since,” Prof. Kaupp describes the beginning of the collaboration. This is very important for teaching, as well as for the students’ education. FHWS also benefits from it: “With my research mission, I am particularly in need of industrial partners in order to be able to conduct applied research,” says Kaupp. “We want to train our students for industry […] and research applications which companies are generally involved in must be approved to this end. That can only work if we have good contacts in industry.

Quote Prof. Tobias Kaupp: “I simply spoke to Uwe Wachter after a guest lecture on the topic of robotics at FH in Schweinfurt during the active search for industrial collaborations and we have been working together ever since.”

A win-win situation for both parties

“A tech centre like ours has an advantage over other ‘normal’ projects,” Uwe Wachter describes the importance of the Production Tech Center in Schweinfurt. ZF also works together with many start-ups and higher education institutions in order to be at the forefront of the latest research, trends and developments on the one hand, but also to give higher education institutions or institutes the opportunity to test theories in practice on the other. “That means working on problems or questions which exist in practice but for which we have not yet found solutions and searching for such solutions together,” says Wachter. Both Wachter and Kaupp consider their collaboration to be “a win-win situation for both parties.” 

ZF with cobots in the future

"ZF is outstanding," Professor Kaupp is emphatic in relation to the good collaboration with Wachter. ZF invests a lot of money in research and development, and is very forward-looking when it comes to robotics. With the Tech Center, the company has developed a competence centre in Schweinfurt at which practical questions are investigated and production processes can be analysed with the help of robotics. Specifically, this means that ZF has obtained various cobots (collaborative robots) and other sensor technology systems, evaluated and compared them and integrated them into the production processes. "This is work which is also very interesting for students," Professor Kaupp describes the advantages. "Bachelor's theses, internships – in an environment with 15 to 20 people. It works almost like a start-up. It's our perfect little creative playground."

Quote Prof. Tobias Kaupp: Bachelor's theses, internships – in an environment with 15 to 20 people. It works almost like a start-up. It's our perfect little creative playground.

ZF with use cases – FHWS with expertise

For such collaborations to work, both sides need to establish a certain amount of trust and be able to see added value. “ZF provides use cases and supports our research work with practical specialist knowledge which we at FHWS simply so not have,” explains Prof. Kaupp. “We thus learn a lot from the company.” FHWS is currently building the Institute of Digital Engineering (IDEE), a cross-faculty FHWS institute with five research professorships in the field of Industry 4.0 in order to “also be able to provide all-in-one expertise in return” in the future, says Prof. Kaupp.

The Tech Center Robotics is right on the doorstep, so a collaboration with FHWS was obvious. Nevertheless, according to Prof. Kaupp, Uwe Wachter has problems getting students and experts. “I want to improve that,” says Kaupp. “It cannot possibly be that we have a local university of applied sciences with all kinds of engineering and Mr Wachter is looking for interns.” It is for precisely this reason that industrial partners also want to establish an intensive relationship with higher education institutions. “Direct contact with a professor is valuable, of course, because I am familiar with the students’ capabilities and know what competences we are teaching. I can thus put students and potential employers in contact.

All sides benefit

Ultimately, such a collaboration between FHWS and ZF Friedrichshafen AG is a win-win-win situation. FHWS benefits from the opportunity to investigate relevant issues, the company can take advantage of the professional expertise in research for its own benefit and students have direct contact with a major company - virtually the first step into the world of work. Added value for everyone involved.

Prof. Dr. Tobias Kaupp
Prof. Dr. Tobias Kaupp also teaches robotics and control technology content, among other things, at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. (© Simone Friese)
Uwe Wachter
Uwe Wachter is the head of the “Production Tech Center Robotics and Vision” at ZF. (© Uwe Wachter)
Profilfoto Renan Schmid

An article by
Renan Schmid