A scholarly view from the shop floor

Top machine tool lab gets dirty, encourages spin-offs

Do not let the sight of all the formal suits and ties deceive you at the world's biggest laboratory for production technology. At WZL, the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Technology at Germany's RWTH Aachen University, the well-dressed PhD students and professors feel just as home on the shop floor.

Behind the Grundfos Design Tool: Dirk Friedrich and Bastian Maier, owners of Grindaix, a spinoff from WZL.

"You must be able to put on a blue jumpsuit and dig into an oily machine," says Dirk Friedrich, a graduate of WZL's PhD program. "Our slogan is: If a doctor of engineering cannot show a machine operator how he can do better, then he is not worth it!"

WZL is one of the most prestigious schools in the world for machine tool technology. With some 160 actual machine tools placed along 18,000 square meters of its own shop floor, the lab can simulate nearly any industrial manufacturing process, Friedrich says. "We are closely tied to learning with practical tools - not only theory," he says. "That is our difference."

While the German government funds 30% of WZL, industries fund the remaining 70% in exchange for optimisation of technology and processes, Friedrich says. "We help manufacturing companies to improve their productivity," he says. "This can be done by better machine tools, processes, management or quality measurement purposes. This is our main value."

Spin-off for Grundfos

Friedrich is also the founder of Grindaix, one of many successful spin-off companies founded by PhD students at WZL. Grindaix co-developed the new Grundfos Design Tool with Grundfos.

WZL supports many such start-ups, gradually transferring ownership to the founders if they succeed in growing the business over five to six years. "Then the exit takes place, and the PhD guys have to stand on their own feet," Friedrich explains.

Grindaix is now owned by Friedrich and his partner, Bastian Maier, after five years in WZL's incubation. The company found its niche expertise in optimising coolant supply solutions to manufacturing  industry. These solutions include more accurate nozzles and other engineering products, web-based configuration software (like the Grundfos Design Tool), and technical service like coolant system design and coolant audits.
"We're focusing on a more resource-efficient production, to use less energy, less water and less material for the same productivity," Friedrich says.