Once dress “warnly“ please!

When a vague notion of doing something to improve the safety of railroad track workers crystallizes into an innovative product: Startup Spirit@Mobility – an interview with Philipp Wehn.

 

Up to ten railroad track workers die on the job each year in Germany. What can Siemens Mobility do about this? That is the very question that Philipp Wehn took up and developed a wearable with the capacity to save lives. Thanks to design thinking, user experience research, and the ability to tap into vast ecosystems, he reached his objective more quickly, effectively and customer orientated.

Wednesday morning at 10:00 o’clock, Factory Berlin near Görlitzer Park. We’re meeting Philipp Wehn, a participant in the Siemens Graduate Program (SGP), at his workplace – a cozy office on the campus of the so-called Startup Community. The five-story brick building, featuring 14,000 square meters of floor space, offers ample room for ideas and a relaxed working atmosphere, plus plenty of opportunities for spontaneous conversations and creative brainstorming. And in fact, the hallways and the areas between the colorful coworking spaces are filled with people of all nationalities. One hears English, German, and Spanish being spoken: a constructive dialog here, wild gesticulation there, all interspersed by loud laughter and hushed phone conversations. Visitors are amazed at the incredible transparency on display here. Workers gladly sketch out spontaneous thoughts and interim product solutions in pen on the walls of the Factory for anyone to see. And with each step you take deeper into the building, you yourself also feel increasingly drawn into this fascinating Startup Community. But what does any of this have to do with mobility, safety vests, and signal technology for track maintenance?

Finding a purpose in the Factory

“The Factory – as a self-contained ecosystem of freelancers, artists, and other companies – offers us many opportunities to successfully network and try out new working methods,” Philipp Wehn explains. “First, here we can meet with our in-house colleagues in a new environment, doing traditional product management surrounded by founders and startups. Second, we use the Factory for workshops with external customers and for exploratory meetings with consulting firms, app developers, and product designers. And third, we’re pursuing a larger project: the workshop – where ideas that are either purely digital or that lie on the fringe of our traditional portfolio or beyond are developed more quickly into a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP).”

It was equally unconventional how Philipp Wehn, who had earned top marks with a degree in international business administration, was given his first task. “On my first day of work, I didn’t yet have a laptop or mobile phone, but I did have an assignment,” he recalls. “And that was: to develop wearable technology for railroad track workers.” It’s a sad fact that fatal accidents at track maintenance sites claim up to ten lives a year in Germany alone, because the workers fail to see incoming trains until it’s much too late, if at all. “And then we brought in design thinking and our early experiences as startup founders,” Philipp Wehn explains. “I had to decide which partners we’d work with and which methodologies promised the fastest and most sustainable path to achieving our goal.”

From office to site container

It all began very traditionally at first. Philipp Wehn and a team of experienced product managers, strategists, and engineers thought about what kind of wearable would even be a possibility. It should be practical and innovative, send and receive digital information, and ultimately have the capacity to be developed quickly into a product. The solution? “Our first idea was a vest,” explains the 26-year-old. “But in a departure from the usual approach, we didn’t simply develop it. Instead, we first talked with users and asked them what they actually needed. A Mobility colleague of mine from the Factory community recommended this approach, because the first thing I had done was to ask my network and our in-house Sales team for advice. And this core idea then transformed into a completely new approach.”

 

The turning point came during the user experience research – conversations with the future users at the future place of deployment, a track maintenance site. “We sat together in site containers talking over pizza with the workers about our idea of a safety vest,” Philipp Wehn recalls, “when one of the workers asked me: A vest? Are you sure? No one here wears vests.” So, after this initial false start, the next idea we put out there was a helmet, something with virtual reality that would vibrate. But most track workers don’t wear helmets, either. “And then one of the workers, as he munched on a piece of pizza, suggested a wristband. That would be much more practical, he added, especially combined with the everyday utility of a watch. An all-in-one: security, information, ease of use, comfort.”

Everything clicks into place and the HackTrain leaves the station

That was the breakthrough moment for everyone. Now the direction was clear, and everyone could see that this insight never would’ve come together even after months at the office. In the weeks that followed, the product development team spoke with the German Federal Railroad Authority and GB Bau, the general contractor responsible for construction projects, to ask them about their own projects. It also researched the competition and brought a sparring partner on board that had more experience with app development and wearable technologies. “In the end, we always ended up back at square one,” Philipp Wehn recalls. “We kept running into barriers, even though we knew that we wanted to develop a wristband.” A simple example: The idea was to combine the wristband with a sensor built into the track. As soon as a train passes over the sensor, a signal is sent to the worker, who then vacates the track to get out of the danger zone. But there are various laws and regulations that stand in the way of a smooth, simple implementation of these plans. “In the three months that we worked with our partners at aperto, an IBM subsidiary, we had to change directions four or five times. We tried expanding, then shrinking the product and the idea, and in the end, we decided to push through a digital twin of a railroad construction site. Fortunately, the HackTrain came on board at the critical junctures and steered us onto the right track.”

 

And here, too, the connection came about in the Factory and the unique, vastly interconnected, comprehensive ecosystem of the Community. Philipp Wehn had just reached the point in his wearable project when he knew that the wristband alone could not be the entire solution. He looked around for help within the Factory and got a tip to get involved in the next HackTrain. HackTrain is the best-known hackathon in the railroad industry and is also held to coincide with InnoTrans, a leading international trade show for transport technology. The principle: Companies sign on as sponsors, and in exchange, they are given support for a current project that cannot be ultimately resolved using the company’s own in-house resources. These projects are pitched from the stage, and the hackers on the exclusive guest list then have the opportunity to select which area they wish to work on. At hackathons like this, people often work around the clock on these problems to elevate them to the next level. “At InnoTrans, we wanted to know how the digital twin of a railroad construction site could be developed quickly, easily, and efficiently. We brought along all the content and data that we had accumulated up to that point and asked the participants: How can we develop a user interface and provide the customer with all the necessary data, GPS, locations, safety, and danger zones? And then the nerds got to work – working late into the night, often without a break, and from a total of 20 ideas, our project ultimately made it into the final round.”

Layover and final destination

The result? The development of a prototype on the basis of proprietary algorithms and contact with a key sparring partner, the Head of Innovation of Network Rail, based in London. As part of the hackathon jury – whose members in the UK control nearly the entire infrastructure of tracks, signals, tunnels, rail bridges, and most train stations – he nurtures a keen interest even beyond this event in a wearable technology that could save lives and improve track safety. Network Rail manages up to 4.8 million trips in England, Scotland, and Wales and has name recognition in the UK comparable to that of Deutsche Bahn in Germany. Its top priority is safety: for passengers, personnel, and track workers. Bringing this key rail network operator on board to further develop the mobility wearable would be more than just a clever move for the entire safety sector in the railroad industry.

 

The future? “Our immediate plans are to find the first customers for the wearable this year,” Philipp Wehn reveals. “In Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, or the UK – an obvious choice, given the contact to Network Rail. A memorandum of understanding and an initial offer would also be great. Now we just want to develop on our own – not based on a spec sheet or request for proposals but because like a startup, we have a unique idea, and because an investor wants to work with us to bring this product to market and ideally develop it even further.”

 

Once an investor has been found, the wearable’s continued journey will be engineered by others. But it’s more than clear that the ambitious mobility enthusiast and amateur athlete already has a new plan: to flesh out the idea of Mobility’s own “workshop” and implement it as soon as possible as a fixed component in product development. The wearable for track workers demonstrated the speed and focus with which things can move forward when creative minds have the right ideas, the right environment, and the necessary freedom. Then today’s Mobility workshop becomes tomorrow’s incubator of new product developments. Or, as Philipp Wehn might say: “And then you just need to follow up with a lot more cool ideas, cool projects, and cool business models.” Philipp Wehn has big plans in his personal life as well. This much we can say: He’s writing a book that will capture everything he’s experienced in the last year. We wish him all the best on his journey!

Nicole Lydia Engelhardt, journalist - Berlin
Pictures: Tobi Bohn, photographer – Berlin and Philipp Wehn

HackTrain


HackTrain is organized by the London-based startup Hack Partners, dedicated to driving forward innovation with digital solutions for the railroad industry. To achieve this goal and make the event itself a success, Hack Partners relies on a variety of sponsors that include Deutsche Bahn, Network Rail, and Siemens.

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