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Innovation boost for SMEs

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a key technology for modern production. It promises industrial companies in particular high potential for increased efficiency and productivity, greater robustness and flexibility. But although there are great expectations of AI overall, it is still too rarely used. And this is especially the case with medium-sized companies. Why is that? Often, a lack of knowledge about AI and its concrete application possibilities in one’s own company play a role. But a low level of digitisation or a lack of personnel are also a problem. A consortium of science and industry led by the L3S Research Centre and the Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Machine Tools at Leibniz Universität Hannover (LUH) wants to change this. In the project IIP-Ecosphere: Next Level Ecosphere for Intelligent Industrial Production, the 18 partners are working on solutions to make AI more accessible to medium-sized industry and to accelerate AI projects.

User-friendly solutions 

IIP-Ecosphere focuses on building an ecosystem of research, vendors, users, service providers and multipliers that demonstrates the potential of AI in production and actively promotes the exchange of insights, requirements, barriers and experiences. The information gained in this way flows into AI research and into the development of practicable AI solutions that are also suitable for application in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). At the same time, IIP-Ecosphere aims to reduce the effort and risk involved in implementation – among other things, by developing methods for accelerating AI projects and AI building blocks that are to be successively developed into standard components. Producing companies that are still unclear about the added value of AI will gain access to an AI solution catalogue, to examples of success in intelligent production and to the latest research results, independent of manufacturers, through cooperation in the ecosystem. In addition, the partners are developing a virtual Industry 4.0 platform to enable new approaches based on already installed systems. This includes, for example, AI-based services that run uniformly on available resources, such as edge devices, and are integrated into the system landscape. 

Influence through participation 

The exchange in the ecosystem takes place, among other things, in communities of practice. In these working groups on research topics such as interfaces, platforms or business models, manufacturing companies and other interested parties can actively participate and network with each other. In this way, information on requirements and experiences from the business sector reaches researchers and developers directly, while companies benefit from new findings, can discuss and influence current developments in the topic area together and receive support for their individual projects. The Regional Innovation Hubs (RIHs) in the pilot regions of Hanover and Nuremberg also focus on direct exchange – an association of regional innovation promoters who contribute their know-how and contacts to sensitise companies to the potential of AI in production and to promote the application of AI solutions. RIHs bring manufacturing companies together with AI solution providers, for example in information events or workshops. They also support IIP-Ecosphere’s application-oriented AI research in networking with AI and production experts from industry and in transferring solutions to companies. The RIHs’ tasks also include supporting AI start-ups, especially from universities and research institutions. It is expected that from the end of the year, interested parties will be able to get to know the demonstrators of IIP-Ecosphere at the online event series Workshop Talks: AI solutions for production that are being developed as a blueprint for other companies. The participating companies present the demonstrators in a livestream directly from the production hall. Viewers can discuss with the employees afterwards and ask questions about the use of AI. 

AI to try out 

Another offer from IIP-Ecosphere is the experimentation field. It offers smaller companies in particular a user-friendly environment to test machine learning on the basis of real use cases. Companies can get a comprehensive impression of how AI methods can be used. The prototype of the experimental field, which scientists are currently developing together at L3S and IFW, is intended to make the application of AI as simple as possible. Interested parties will have the opportunity to explore sample data, try out AI approaches on real production facilities or also get to know the IIP Ecosphere platform. IIP-Ecosphere shows how companies can build an innovation ecosystem around an AI business model in free individual innovation workshops. Experts from IIP-Ecosphere work with individual companies and start-ups on the first stage of their business model development for a successful AI-based product or service. The three-hour workshop is aimed at project and team leaders from research and development departments, data science or business development. IIP-Ecosphere’s service offerings, event dates, activities and research results are regularly published on the ecosystem’s website. In future, informative video clips will also provide more detailed insights into the work of IIP-Ecosphere and the application of AI in production. 

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Portrait Claudia Niederée
Dr. Claudia Niederée

Claudia Niederée is research group leader and managing director of L3S. Her research focus is on the development of AI methods for smart production, among other things. In the project, Ms Niederée works in particular on innovative methods for AI acceleration and in the coordination of the overall project.

Per Schreiber is a member of staff at the Institute of Manufacturing Engineering and Machine Tools (IFW). His work focuses on sensor technology and mechatronic systems and their use in monitoring and controlling manufacturing processes. In IIP-Ecosphere, Per Schreiber coordinates the overall project.