Interview with Sascha Gierlings

© projektelf

Since 2019, Dr. Sascha Gierlings is head of the department for technology-transfer in turbomachinery manufacturing. Furthermore, he is responsible for all activities in the business unit turbomachinery at the WZL and the Fraunhofer IPT.

Sascha was born in 1981. He studied mechanical engineering at RWTH Aachen University and graduated with a diploma in production technology. He earned his doctorate at the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering WZL at RWTH Aachen University. Since 2015 he works for the Fraunhofer IPT where he initially established a new department focusing on prototype manufacture. In addition to developing advanced manufacturing technologies for turbomachinery components, Sascha Gierlings and his colleagues are deeply involved in using digitalization as an enabler for next generation aero engine components.

How did you get to the WZL and the aerospace topic?

At the end of my studies I spent one and a half year in Shanghai, China,
where I was doing an internship and later my diploma thesis for a German company. During that time the R&D department hired a new technical director who was a Phd graduate from WZL. He recommended me to a head of department at WZL. I remember very well the interview in which my new boss handed me two project proposals. One had a four year funding, the other one only had a three year funding but was on jet-engine manufacturing. No question I chose this one.

I can say that this was one of the best decisions I have made in my career. Meanwhile I have worked on many other projects but that “ACCENT” project was definitely special – in terms of the technical content but also for me personally.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

In research institutes the departments are typically organized in a competence-oriented way. From the business unit perspective, however, we are often offering solutions to our customers that are much more product-oriented and require different technological competencies. So, my job is to break down the problem into tasks that can be handled by different departments and still result in a bigger solution that helps our customer. That’s the first challenge. Secondly, it is not uncommon that questions cannot be solved with existing approaches and we have to develop new competencies. In this case, I discuss with the departments how to allocate the necessary resources and how to organize the ramp up process for a new field. That might be the biggest challenge – but I’m always fascinated, how quickly we can develop a really profound expertise in novel fields once we are able to describe the problem properly.

What has been the most important lesson in your career so far?

When you join larger organizations at a younger age you take many things for granted and you do not understand the complexity of a successful system. I guess, one of the most important things I have learned over the years is the significance of collaboration. Once you start doing bigger things, you can hardly achieve them on your own. So one of the most important things is to develop the ability to make a goal visible and comprehensible for the team and to help each individual contribute to it.

The WZL and the Fraunhofer IPT as research institutes are no commercial providers of products or hardware. What is your offer to industry?

As a research organization, our core business is certainly research and development in a pre-competitive domain. We have numerous activities that are either publicly funded or that we are working on together with our partners in industrial working groups. However, the knowledge, experience and our well-equipped environment we gain through these activities can be used as a basis to formulate specific solutions in a next step.

So what we offer here is a very high level of expertise on which we can start thinking in customer-oriented solutions that we can validate through industrial demonstrators and prototypes. To say it in very simple terms: We offer our customers a pretty sophisticated sandbox to try out new things and stepwise get from there to a prove-of-concept.

How do you make a difference for the aerospace industry?

One of the main characteristics of research environments working close to universities is that you find a high concentration of young, motivated and highly qualified people there. Since we work in very application-oriented projects with industries for many years, we meanwhile have a relatively good understanding of our customers' problems. So in our environment, we can develop technologies with a clear goal in mind, but in a much more flexible environment compared to industry in a team that is very open to new solutions.

These new solutions often have a much higher degree of innovation and can be tested and matured in our laboratory environment that represents many of the most critical characteristics of an industrial shop floor. In an ideal case, we can advance new technologies to a degree where we can take and implement them in our customers’ environment. We have proved this approach in several cases already where we have even performed manufacturing steps on serial components on our shop floors in order to prove new technology developments.

What makes Fraunhofer IPT and WZL different from other research institutions?

Especially the ‘classic’ research projects where novel ideas are advanced are typically rather low in terms of the technological readiness level being addressed. This involves that you can come with disruptive solutions to problems very easily, but this also brings about two major disadvantages: First, solutions with a low readiness level often tend to be abstract as they lack of specific boundary conditions. Secondly, the knowledge management process is really difficult when project results are not demonstrated in a shared environment.

For that reason we have very successfully established our so-called “technology incubators”. These are product-like demonstrators which serve as a common reference to test, validate and also communicate innovations and developments. For the aerospace sector we have sample products such as an integral compressor rotor design, turbine disk or structural part where technological developments, process-scenarios or new solutions in terms of digitization can be evaluated.

We are following this approach for some years now, and it pays of in many regards – a very important aspect is, that the product-orientation that we generate within the incubators really helps to motivate our team as people see their own work being implemented and they also more easily understand the work of their colleagues.

What is the biggest knowledge-gap in your field and in which direction will activities develop?

That is a not so easy to answer question. To be honest, I have thought about that in several stages of my career. To answer this question I think it is first of all important to understand that different from other natural scientists such as physicists or mathematicians, engineers usually do not search for that one thing such as the ‘Higgs-Boson’ – the knowledge gaps are usually not that distinct or defined. Engineering is much more about steady optimization or finding compromises and solutions in systems that are influenced by multiple variables.

Over the last decades, engineers have done a really great job for any kind of product you can think of in finding a good trade-off in the triangle of quality, cost and time. That actually has brought us into a world where we are surrounded by high-tech products affordable for almost anyone on this planet. The next big thing will surely be, how to integrate ‘sustainability’ into the parameter space and extend the triangle by a new dimension. That will add quite some complexity to an already very complex world. But I am optimistic that our digital infrastructure has meanwhile reached a maturity to support us in managing this complexity. So from an engineering perspective, the means are there to start working on this seriously.