Autonomous Systems: Munich’s New Idea Lab

An AI Lab that recently opened in Munich serves as a coworking space for evaluating the feasibility of new ideas. Here, Siemens Corporate Technology is working closely with the Business Units and is attracting external idea generators.

In widely scattered seating areas, groups of people participate in lively discussions, some holding tablets, others with laptops on their knees. Windows look out over Munich’s world-famous Viktualienmarkt open-air market and provide ample natural light. Far removed from daily business operations, this coworking space that Siemens’ research and development department Corporate Technology (CT) has leased for its “AI Lab” has the creative atmosphere of a startup.

Mainstay for tomorrow’s AI solutions

In addition to daily business, the Lab is intended to foster employee research in artificial intelligence (AI), providing minimal distractions and maximum concentration. “The AI Lab is the new creative mainstay for projects that will result in future AI-based solutions for industry,” explains Michael May, head of Company Core Technology (CCT), Data Analysis and Artificial Intelligence (for an overview, see box on CCT). “It’s a place where people can inspire one another with new ideas.”

The Lab’s work is closely aligned with the interests of Siemens’ Business Units. “We’re striving for technological leadership in data analysis and artificial intelligence for industrial applications,” says Norbert Gaus, head of research and development in digitalization and automation at Siemens. “I’m convinced that significant ideas will arise from the AI Lab.”

These expectations were already met by the time the lab officially opened on Friday, November 17. AI Lab experts from various Siemens business areas presented their newly developed prototypes for future AI fields of application to around 100 participants. For example, an app prototype known as a Digital Supplier Management Companion, was developed to increase the effectiveness of supply chain management. One of the key roles in a purchasing department is that of supplier manager. The prototype app helps a manager to automatically prioritize his or her tasks on the basis of 30 inherent criteria. “We deliberately delayed the AI Lab’s official opening by one month so that we could not only make our announcement but would also already have something to show,” says Ulli Waltinger, lab CTO and head of a Corporate Technology research group. “The first few weeks in the lab illustrated that this kind of focused co-creation between Siemens’ business units and its development department very quickly produces results that make the vague term ‘AI’ concrete – results that can improve processes in areas ranging from manufacturing and medical technology to the management of administrative tasks.”

Experts who monitor developments in industry agree that artificial intelligence will be the next big thing boosting business in the future. One such expert is Andy Goldstein, CEO of German Entrepreneurship GmbH, an AI Lab external partner.  “It’s easy to predict the business plan of the next 10,000 startups worldwide: Combine any idea you like with AI,” he says. Like Siemens, other major companies are also creating new Group-wide units for the generation of fresh ideas. An example of this is Microsoft and its recent Microsoft Research AI (MSR AI) project.

Small think tanks for focused work

At the AI Lab and Siemens’ main research campus in Munich, glass partitions create distinct spaces with tables, chairs, and whiteboards, which are ideal for exploring ideas in a group. “In here you can focus all your energy on a topic for two days or a week and quickly validate a hypothesis,” explains Benno Blumoser, the AI Lab’s head of innovation. “In the AI field, a lot of imaginative work is currently being done on use cases. We provide an environment where people can separate the hype from the trend, quickly and with minimal outlay.” Waltinger adds that the appeal of the AI Lab is that “It isn’t Corporate Technology alone creating and offering something, but our collaboration with the Business Units, which pitch the result after a project phase is completed.” According to Waltinger, regardless of whether concrete results or just general knowledge derives from participants’ work in the Lab, “The environment expands our horizons, because we work here in interdisciplinary teams that lack rigid structures but use techniques that enhance creativity.”

Markus Zechel, Project Manager at Siemens Supply Chain Management, experienced the AI Lab as an “inspiring environment.” What makes work here different from normal business operations, he says, is the network that the lab offers. “In addition to coaching and exposure to profound AI expertise, we benefited from external professionals who who taught us value proposition design, which is a very enriching creativity-enhancing technique.” This view is largely shared by Peter Dodell, who works in the Process Integration and Organization Development unit at Siemens Controlling and Finance and was one of the AI Lab’s first users. “Developing a prototype in the lab was a fantastic experience. Without the lab environment and team, it wouldn’t have been possible,” says Dodell. “The interdisciplinary team used a chatbot prototype to evaluate whether access to existing information could be facilitated.” The outcome of the lab project was a prototype that – based on semantic analysis – helps users find the right information.

Open innovation in AI

Another function of the AI Lab is finding idea generators outside Siemens. “We’re looking for external players who are a perfect fit for specific projects,” says Blumoser. Such cooperation is intended to promote the gradual establishment of a lively AI community for exchange and mutual incentives. This community already includes Munich-based German Entrepreneurship GmbH, which has specialized in establishing an innovation infrastructure between business, science, and startups. Another partner is the Technical University (TU) of Munich, currently as part of the “Applied AI” initiative that provides companies in Southern Bavaria with a project platform and a pool of experts. “We consider the greater Munich area to be a global hotspot for industrial AI and the site of a lively AI ecosystem,” says Blumoser. “Here an interdisciplinary network finds the necessary AI expertise, business acumen, and entrepreneurial drive to turn the best ideas into promising innovations. We’re delighted that we can be an active partner who plays a crucial role in shaping this pioneering field.”


Sandra Zistl

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