As the largest research organization in Europe, the Fraunhofer Society and its 70-plus institutes have set their sights on a bold vision: to develop innovations to make tomorrow better.
To Peter Ebbesmeyer, making tomorrow better starts with improving every piece of the product lifecycle, from inception to retirement. Each role along the way has to work in synchronicity. A change in one area can depend on or affect the work before or after it. Ebbesmeyer joined the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechatronic System Design in Paderborn, Germany, more than seven years ago as part of a team in the Product Lifecycle Management institute, aligning computer science and engineering.
He brought with him a fascination with three-dimensional computer-aided design, or CAD, and virtual product engineering, as well as years of teaching undergraduates basic engineering concepts. His own career began studying aeronautics and astronautics 30 years ago at RWTH Aachen University, feeding a lifelong interest in aircraft and aviation.
His engineering studies coincided with the early days of 3D CAD and he found himself using it to design work for class. But these were not the CAD systems we know today. “They ran on really large, really expensive machines that cost more than a house,” Ebbesmeyer recalls.
CAD hooked him right from the start. He followed up his engineering degree with a Ph.D. from Paderborn University and became a consultant for product lifecycle management and virtual product engineering. Consulting took him to the automotive industry, an aerospace company, and working on everything from industrial equipment to machinery accessories.
Back to the Basics of PLM
These days, Ebbesmeyer is the central coordinator at the institute for Product Lifecycle Management and virtual product engineering. But when Ebbesmeyer steps in front of his mechatronic design classes – whether internal stakeholders or for Fraunhofer’s industrial clients – one of the tools he uses has a familiar face that crosses generations and disciplines: a LEGO robot.
That isn’t to say what Ebbesmeyer teaches about PLM is child’s play. Rather, the opposite is true.
While his course is packed with students pursuing master's and doctorate degrees, they range in specialties from mechanical engineers to electrical engineers, to computer scientists, and even business graduates. This differentiation is largely due to the various expertise needed as a product moves from concept through launch, manufacturing, distribution, and on to the end of the product’s life.
Once the LEGO robot found its way into his classes, Ebbesmeyer had a concrete example to point back to, and his students began to better understand each other and their own roles. He begins by asking his students to build a LEGO robot from simple parts, such as bricks and cables, and motors. They learn how to build the robot and make it function. Ebbesmeyer can then use that robot to illustrate the CAD structure to those who have never used any kind of computer-aided design platform before. The LEGO robot helps him better explain the differences in the CAD bill of materials, or BOM, and the manufacturing BOM and engineering BOM. Without the robot, Ebbesmeyer suggests some of his more beginner students would have a harder time keeping up with the more experienced ones.