An era ends

Reinhart Poprawe is retiring from his positions as director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT and from his Chair of Laser Technology at RWTH Aachen University.

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An era ended on Sunday night, 23 June 2019, when Reinhart Poprawe was celebrated in Munich, Germany for his lifetime achievements. He retires from his positions as director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, Germany and from his Chair of Laser Technology at RWTH Aachen University. The Fraunhofer ILT, with its staff of more than 540, is seen as Germany’s biggest and probably most important institute for industrial laser technology. And Reinhart has shaped this institute over 23 years.

Bringing high tech to industry effectively
A recent interview with Poprawe presented him as a very broad-minded person: A philosopher, a poet and painter, and a family man, but also a gifted teacher and a strong leader. Accordingly, the speakers at the farewell colloquium on the eve of the LASER World of Photonics trade show in Munich tried to focus on just some of his major achievements.Reinhart Poprawe with some of his 200 PhD students.Reinhart Poprawe with some of his 200 PhD students.Andreas Thoss

The most obvious was certainly the Fraunhofer Institute. While the sheer numbers  were impressive, it was a financial spin that made the audience thinking: The annual value-added tax (VAT) payments of the 40-plus spin off companies from Fraunhofer ILT is about four times the public funding for the institute itself.

With one or two exceptions, these startups were successful from the beginning and do very well today. Which leads to a second achievement of Poprawe and his people at the Fraunhofer ILT: Bringing together research and industry in an effective way. Have you ever seen a scientific institute where companies pay to rent a small lab in its experimental hall? Within the Fraunhofer ILT, this has been daily business for many years.

But within the last decade, Poprawe lifted this idea to a new and unprecedented level by successfully applying for funding for two new and connected R&D centers -- one for teams from small and large companies plus a second building for researchers. The labs in the industry building were rapidly rented when the house opened in 2016.

Part of the research team is a group with an even larger vision: At the Integrated Interdisciplinary Institute (I3), researchers from 17 institutes across six faculties of the RWTH Aachen University conduct research together on the use of the unique physical properties of photons for technologies of the future.

This may look very complex at first, but let’s face the truth: technology development in the 21st century is complex and the ideas realized in Aachen represent best practice on a global scale. It works and with an annual funding of 2 million Euro for up to 15 years for a major part of the structure it has quite some time to evolve further.

Thinking beyond: Teaching values
The main focus of the farewell colloquium was actually a different one: it was about how to transfer today's knowledge to the next generation. Poprawe excelled in this field as much as he did as an institute leader. By decision of the students, he received the Award for excellent teaching at the RWTH four times. After setting up a “Double Master Program” with Tsinghua University, he was awarded an honorary professorship at Tsinghua University.

One man who started his career in the laser industry as a student at RWTH and as an apprentice at Fraunhofer ILT is Peter Leibinger, who is now CTO of Trumpf. At the ceremony, Leibinger made some thoughtful comments on what he found was most important in preparing people for the challenges of today’s (laser) industry. He said that a university or an institute should provide a cultural imprint to the students, involving four major points, which are:

-- Fascination and passion, resulting in top performance
-- Craftsmanship
-- Learning to think
-- Basic values, such as diligence and perseverance, thoroughness, and the talent to succeed in teams

Today, Leibinger tries to establish such values in his company and in partnerships with institutions. But he also sees new challenges that arise when hiring new people, not only due to technological changes but also in the labor market. Here, people increasingly chose the company and not vice versa, as he had to learn recently. Leibinger presented a surprising anecdote in which a young applicant told him that he would consider Trumpf as an employer and promised to give notice as soon as he had made a decision for or against this employer.

What’s next?
As Raimund Neugebauer, the president of the Fraunhofer society stated, Poprawe has resisted several temptations to extend his Fraunhofer engagements. New projects, such as his own vineyard, may take more of his time in the future.

And this is in accordance with the starting motto of the evening: “Paths are created by walking them” (from the writer Franz Kafka). While this is certainly true for Reinhart Poprawe, it might be just right for his successor. He or she doesn’t need to be compared with the obviously large footprints of his ancestor. One must remain true to oneself and break new ground, as Poprawe would probably agree.

Reinhart Poprawe and the former ILT apprentice Peter Leibinger, who is now CTO of Trumpf.Reinhart Poprawe and the former ILT apprentice Peter Leibinger, who is now CTO of Trumpf.Andreas Thoss

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