More than half a century ago, Siemens celebrated the opening of what was then Europe’s largest private-sector research laboratory in power engineering. In his welcoming remarks, German Federal Minister for Scientific Research Hans Lenz praised the company’s courage in making such an investment on its own initiative. Over the years, the Erlangen research center has generated a great many innovations that have made a major contribution toward consolidating the technology company’s world leadership in its markets.
"Everything that has anything to do with generating or converting electric power" – A vast field
Siemens is a global technology powerhouse that has always set a strategic priority on systematic research and development (R&D). With the aim of channeling basic research faster into concrete products and solutions, in September 1959 Ernst von Siemens proposed "combining the laboratories and departments that are active in basic research and development as a new area of responsibility within the Managing Board."
Accordingly, the research laboratories that Siemens-Schuckertwerke was then operating in the southern German cities of Erlangen, Nuremberg and Pretzfeld were combined at a joint location in the southern part of Erlangen. A central facility grew up, equipped with the latest equipment for research on power engineering. The initiative from von Siemens – Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the two parent companies Siemens-Schuckertwerke and Siemens & Halske at the time – was also prompted in part because competitors like General Electric and Philips already had large-scale research facilities.
In an interview, Heinz Goeschel, who took the helm of the Central Research and Development Unit (today’s Corporate Technology) in 1960, defined the new research center’s sphere of responsibilities as "everything that has anything to do with generating or converting electric power."
Between 1959 and 1965, about DM 100 million – one-sixth of the company’s annual R&D budget at the time – was invested in building the Erlangen center south of Paul-Gossen-Strasse. From then on, 1,500 employees would put their ingenuity to work in the research laboratory, the technological development laboratories and the reactor technology facilities, spreading over a floor space of 61,000 square meters. One focal point was basic research in organic chemistry and electrochemistry, plasma physics and solid-state physics.
These last two technologies in particular were to play a key role at Siemens. In the 1970s and 1980s, they served as a springboard for two independent business fields: automation, and reactor technology – the latter in the form of Kraftwerk Union AG (KWU). Milestones in this development included early research on process-control computers and digital drive control technology, as well as developing and testing different types of reactors.
There were also major basic research successes in such areas as developing heavy-duty circuit breakers and superconductors, which were applied in research on magnetic resonance imaging and magnetic levitation technology. The development of what would later become the Transrapid maglev train drew particular benefits from the work of the Erlangen researchers: the “magnetic cushion express” was tested in continuous operation on a special test track built in 1973.
More work, more space, more money – Expansion and structural realignment
From the end of the 1960s onward, the research site repeatedly expanded with new buildings and test facilities – including the production technology laboratories, which were moved from Nuremberg to Erlangen in 1977. Within 20 years, Siemens had invested more than DM 200 million to expand the research center. By 1990, floor space had grown to twice its original size, and the number of employees had risen to over 5,000.
But it wasn’t just the buildings at the "research city for power applications" that evolved – the center’s R&D activities also expanded, in step with the electrical engineering company’s growing technology base and innovative strength. Three years after today’s Siemens AG was established in 1966, the research facilities of Siemens & Halske and Siemens-Schuckertwerke – which had been separate since the end of World War II – were pooled into a single organization. From now on, the Erlangen location would focus mainly on research in power engineering, while the Munich facility concentrated on data and communications technology.
Even then, R&D activities were already turning more toward applications and aligning more closely with the immediate needs of Siemens’ operating businesses. This reorientation would continue systematically in the decades to come.
Fit for the future – From the power engineering era to the age of digitalization
The research location in Erlangen currently has major changes ahead. Globalization and digitalization have made it more important than ever for Siemens researchers to share information with one another and to collaborate with research institutes such as the University of Erlangen, as well as partners in industry. The planned Siemens Erlangen Campus is designed to meet these needs. As Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser has said, the company has launched this large-scale project "to provide a home for top researchers from all over the world." Starting in 2016, the existing research center has been undergoing a transformation into an open and accessible Siemens Campus with office, research and laboratory facilities. Shorter distances and a more communicative environment are meant to foster collaboration and accelerate the innovations that will continue to spread from Erlangen to the whole world.
Dr. Ewald Blocher
You might also find this interestingFurther information on this topic
- Ferdinand Trendelenburg: Aus der Geschichte der Forschung im Hause Siemens, Düsseldorf 1975 (Germain only)
- Lothar Hack: Technologietransfer und Wissenstransformation. Zur Globalisierung der Forschungsorganisation von Siemens, Münster 1998 (German only)
- Robert Buderi: Engines of Tomorrow. How the World’s Best Companies Are Using Their Research Labs to Win the Future, New York et al., 2000