Director at the ITA for 20 years
Prof. Thomas Gries succeeded Prof. Burkhard Wulfhorst as the Chair of Textile Mechanical Engineering at the RWTH and Head of the Institut für Textiltechnik of RWTH Aachen University (ITA), Aachen/Germany, in April 2001. We spoke to him about the developments over the last 20 years, the biggest challenges, and the high rate of twin births among the ITA's scientists.
First of all, congratulations on your 20th anniversary as Director at the ITA, Prof. Gries. Can you briefly describe how the institute was set up 20 years ago and what, in particular, has changed over the years?
Many thanks! Prof. Wulfhorst left me with a "well-ordered" institute with initial international collaborations and a research group for medical textiles. The research and development of textiles was pushed forward as a supplement and substitute for existing materials, and a close connection to the textile industry was already established. On the one hand, I wanted to increase the research approaches and, on the other hand, intensify the collaboration with the industry. Fiber-based can mean an incredibly wide range of applications: We like to talk about "from the heart valve to the tailgate" – great design possibilities, diverse materials and material combinations, complex process chains and strong functionalization are all possible. Intensifying the collaboration with the industry has always been very important to me: we don't do research for the "ivory tower", but for the industry, to make people's lives easier through research and to advance the industry.
Compared to today's dimensions, the ITA was much smaller 20 years ago.
To achieve these goals, I wished for a larger number of doctoral students. We went from 29 scientists in Prof. Wulfhorst's time to 100 doctoral students and post-docs. A total of 350 employees work at the ITA and the budget has also more than quintupled from €2.7 million to €15 million. In 2009, all employees from 3 locations and all machines were brought together in the new institute building INNOTEX in Aachen.
Prof. Wulfhorst (l) and Prof. Gries (r) in April 2001 (source: ITA) Please explain the expansion of collaborations and the increasing internationalization in more detail.
Today we describe the ITA as international, interdisciplinary, and integrative.
When I started as director of the institute, the collaborations were more national. In Aachen, in the border triangle with Belgium and the Netherlands, we have a strategically favorable location in Europe, and France is also very close. Over the last 2 decades, we have focused strongly on European industrial contacts. My principle has always been that research should benefit the industry. That's why we founded a sales company in December 2002, the ITA GmbH (legal successor of the former 3T TextilTechnologieTransfer GmbH): The ITA and the ITA GmbH serve as collaboration partners in the R&D sector both for textile machinery manufacturing and the textile industry as well as for technology transfer to other branches of industry.
The ITA creates new knowledge along the entire textile chain and is the customer's contact for application-oriented research tailored to their interests. The ITA GmbH further develops research results for the customer and transfers them to their company. This is our contribution to integration.
On the other hand, we train doctoral students who we release into the industry as PhDs, mostly in management positions. The best case scenario is that this leads to good collaborations that we can build on.
Due to the increasing number of scientists, the degree of internationalization has also risen. For decades, the ITA has maintained good contacts in many countries around the world and exchanges students and scientists. I have systematized this, and there are now national experts for important countries and regions who maintain and coordinate the contacts. As a result, the number of visiting scientists at the ITA has increased considerably and we are also carrying out more international projects.What advantages and options in particular have developed from these collaborations?
Through the collaboration with Korea, we were able to acquire another building through our sales company, which then became the Smart Textronics Center Aachen, in November 2016. In September 2017, a second Smart Textronics Center was opened in Ansan City, Korea. Here, we have achieved a close collaboration through our competences in the field of textiles with the Korean competences in the field of electronics, from which a long-term partnership has developed.
In March 2017, the Digital Capability Center (DCC) was opened in Aachen as a result of a cooperation between the ITA GmbH and McKinsey. Since then, small and medium-sized customers have been supported and accompanied on their way to Industry 4.0 and digitalization by the digital learning factory with a fully realized process chain. The DCC is also home to other innovative areas such as 4D printing and digitalization – areas that might not have been developed otherwise.
(Source: ITA) Have there also been changes in terms of collaboration and exchange with the business community in the last 20 years?
Of course, not least the corona pandemic has presented us with the challenge of proving good personal contacts and meetings digitally and establishing new, sustainable business relationships under the same conditions. While trade fairs, meetings and events were still the measure of all things worldwide, we now have to devote more attention to environmental issues and sustainability. In addition, every industry wants to be served in an increasingly individualized way.What are the biggest challenges for the next 20 years and which topics could shape the ITA the most?
Energy saving, environmental compatibility, sustainability and mindfulness are, in my opinion, important topics. We have to develop new concepts here so that we stay ahead. We are working on many important topics, first and foremost the BIOTEXFUTURE programme. Together with adidas and many other project partners, we share the vision of transforming textile value chains from petroleum-based to bio-based.The ITA is also a large and important employer in Aachen. What distinguishes your staff, and you as an employer?
Certainly, a great research scope and flexibility. A large proportion of the doctoral students are female. I am pleased that since I took office in 2001, the number of female doctoral students has increased to over 30%.
One aspect that also contributes to the rising number of doctoral students is certainly that I – myself the father of 2 children – have introduced part-time models for parents at the ITA. There were even plans to build an ITA kindergarten, but this failed due to building regulations.
Every year, 5-10 new children are born to our ITA staff and, interestingly, the twin birth rate at the ITA is about 5 times higher than the average. In recent years we have had 4 twin births. We have not yet found out whether this has anything to do with our exciting and innovative research – but maybe one day it can be scientifically proven.