The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is one of those places that nurtures the German spirit of engineering as well as the country’s famous Mittelstand, the innovative SME model that helped it withstand the current financial crisis. With more than 9,000 staff and 22,000 students, the KIT is one of the biggest educational centres of its kind in the country. Teaching at the KIT is not purely academic - students are encouraged to become high-tech entrepreneurs, and researchers collaborate closely with industry.
Professor Thomas Ummenhofer is one of those KIT lead engineers who believes in the need for research to be market-oriented. From 2006 to 2010, he was responsible for one of the most ambitious research endeavours undertaken by the KIT, the REFRESH project. The project was funded through the EUREKA framework and carried out with seven private companies and three other Europe-based research centres. Its aim was to solve the problem of Germany’s ageing public infrastructure, particularly striking in the eastern part of the country, the former GDR.
IN THE PUBLIC'S INTEREST
'WE WANTED THE PROJECT TO BE BENEFICIAL TO THE PUBLIC IN GENERAL.'
‘Compared to the techniques used up until now, it is a relatively cost-effective process, as the device used for the operation is cheap and small,’ says Ummenhofer. Most recent studies show that the lifetime of a fatigue loaded structure can be extended tenfold thanks to the use of high frequency peening. Since the end of the project the technology, also known under the acronym of HiFIT, for High Frequency Impact Treatment, has been taken in by several major European firms, such as REpower in the wind energy sector, the national railway company Deutsche Bahn and the heavy trucks constructor MAN. Another German company, Schachtbau Nordhausen used HiFIT on different infrastructure restoration sites.
Given the innovative and highly original nature of the technology, obtaining certificates from recognised regulatory bodies was essential to the success of the project, several of them had been involved in REFRESH since the very beginning. ‘Unfortunately in Europe the use of high frequency peening technology still remains in a legal limbo,’ explains Ummenhofer. ‘We are moving as fast as possible in order to make it part of European civil engineering codes within the next three years.’ But the university is not in a hurry to make HiFIT a new cash cow. ‘We have not patented the technology,’ says the project leader. ‘We want it to be beneficial to the public in general.’