Students and industry experts collaborating on the future of production
Prototyping application-oriented solutions to real problems
Almost one and a half years into the pandemic, most of us have participated in every possible form of online gatherings. But the Techathon 2021 was a pleasant surprise. From 22 to 25 June 2021, the Techathon 2021 took place virtually. But unlike most other online events, it was not just a patchwork of faces on a screen but rather an actual place to roam around and collaborate in. As part of the Excellence Strategy of RWTH Aachen University, the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL), together with RWTH Innovation, hosted a virtual Techathon to embed the entrepreneurial mindset at RWTH Aachen University. Under the motto “Everybody is a Maker”, students and business experts were invited to meet on an immersive gamification platform. With their avatars they could move between individual conference rooms and common areas with board games, musical instruments and an integrated screen to watch the games of the European Football Championship.
The challenge: 4 use cases by 4 industry leaders
The purpose of the Techathon was to allow students to work on real industry challenges and develop unique and sustainable solutions for the future of production. The exact tasks to be completed in this challenge depended on the specific use case. With four industry leading companies on board, there were four use cases to choose from: automated wrapping techniques by 3M, 3D printing in serial production by BASF Forward AM, a recommendation system for the DIY market by Saint-Gobain, and individualized audio equipment by Sennheiser. Despite the industry-related differences, the tasks of all four industry partners presented actual questions and problems in the respective sector, providing the teams with profound insights into current trends and issues in production. By participating in the Techathon, the students were able to gain hands-on experience in product development and entrepreneurial thinking.
The characters: teams, business mentors and prototyping partners
The challenge of the Techathon was accepted by 16 young, motivated students, whose academic backgrounds were as diverse as the tasks themselves – from product development to robotic systems to business administration and engineering, from Bachelor students to more experienced Master students. The differences in academic disciplines and levels of experience allowed for interdisciplinary teams, as the assignment of the students to the four competing teams was based on their personal preferences regarding the tasks. However, the students were not alone with their tasks. Each group was joined with at least one company expert who mentored and assisted the team over the course of the event. Apart from the group-specific business mentors, the teams were supported by the 3D printing team of IGO3D, who had its own printing room on the gaming platform.
The tasks: problem-solving, prototyping, pitch preparation
The event was kicked off with three training sessions to provide the students with everything they needed to succeed. In addition to a first technology check and briefing by their business experts, the teams learned how to address the entrepreneurial questions surrounding product development and what it takes to deliver a convincing elevator pitch. A teambuilding activity allowed the students to get to know their teammates and put their teamwork to a first test, before diving into their use cases. Over the next three days, the team members put their heads together to find solutions, discuss them with their business mentors and test them with the help of prototypes. To facilitate this process, the materials provided by the companies were delivered directly to the students’ homes. With the equipment in hand and ideas in mind, the teams were ready to determine the design of their prototype and ask the printing team in the online room next door to produce a 3D print of the prototype. Throughout all the different stages, the company experts would stand by to answer questions, provide guidance and give feedback. And even before the final pitch session, the benefits of the three-day event were already palpable, as Alex, one of the students in team BASF, pointed out:
“I learned more in these three days than I did
in the last semester of mechanical engineering.”
The goal: a convincing pitch
On Friday afternoon, all participants gathered in the “Shark Tank”, a large room with a stage for presentation in the virtual Techathon world. In 10-minute pitches, each team had the chance to present their idea, technology and business model to an expert jury consisting of the company mentors as well as entrepreneurial experts, who evaluated the pitches according to a pre-defined set of criteria. And as the result of the assessment revealed, it was a close call: Team BASF won by a narrow margin over team Saint-Gobain, followed by team Sennheiser and team 3M. The team of BASF succeeded with their concept of an add-on device for dishwashers and took home a set of prizes.
After all, the students left the virtual meeting world with lots of valuable impressions and hands-on experiences, both technology-wise and in terms of entrepreneurial thinking. The key takeaway for all students participating in the Techathon 2021 was a profound understanding of what it takes to develop an innovative technology and turn it into a business model. On top, the teams were offered further opportunities to keep in touch with the respective companies, e.g. through visits to their headquarters or the invitation to pitch to further company experts. As the offers to the students indicate, the participating companies were equally impressed with the teams and the outcomes of the event. All four companies – whether they are experienced techathon participants or first-time explorers of the format – emphasised the efficiency of the event as well as the mutual benefit of complementing industry experience and expertise with unconventional ideas and approaches. Gunnar Dirks, Product Manager at Sennheiser and one of the team mentors, concludes:
“It was a very pleasant and easy-going event to discuss product and process ideas in a group of highly interested participants – off the beaten track of regular processes.”