Online Laboratory Magazine


Just how virtual can research be?


Even at the best of times, it can be difficult coordinating joint projects and research, especially if partners are spread across different countries - or unable to travel because of a major international crisis.

FutureWork360, a joint project by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA, shows how new and, most especially, virtual forms of communication and collaboration can help.

The current coronavirus pandemic illustrates just how susceptible our constantly evolving world of work can be to major disruption. We therefore need to develop new and virtual solutions that can substitute for classic face-to-face communication in the form of workshops, meetings or similar events. In times of crisis, this is the only way to ensure that research cooperation and other projects can continue to function as smoothly as possible and deliver creative solutions.

FutureWork360 is a project to facilitate the marketing of research. It aims to provide an international target audience with low-threshold access to research and innovation. For this purpose, it employs a digital twin. This enables communication with researchers irrespective of time and place, makes innovations known to a wider audience and advances international networking and research cooperation.

Institutions and commercial companies need to develop new approaches to networking. Virtual forms of communication have big potential here. Together with Fraunhofer IPA, Fraunhofer IAO has developed an online platform that provides virtual access to a range of research laboratories for a target audience in France. The project aims to address the challenges faced by the 300 or more French companies that are members of Plastipolis, an industry and research cluster that promotes the French plastics industry.

The digital twin as a new solution for virtual knowledge transfer

In the course of a virtual lab tour, participants get to learn about coming challenges in the world of work as well as the solutions on offer and some practical examples to illustrate these methods. VR technology and forms of communication offering real-time connectivity are used to transform research into a hands-on experience and focus on innovation topics in a fun way.

In cooperation with the engineering company Hemminger Ingenieurgesellschaft, the project team has used a 3D laser scanner to create digital twins of various laboratory environments, which participants can now explore via an online platform at www.futurework360.de.

Communications for the project are provided by the "Deutschland - Land der Ideen" (Germany - Land of Ideas) initiative. In the future, users will also be able to contact scientists at Fraunhofer IAO and Fraunhofer IPA online. Via real-time web sessions, they can ask scientific or technological questions concerning the developments currently emerging from the two institutes or inquire about opportunities for collaboration.

"It's the first time a digital twin has been used as an alternative form of communication," explains project manager Dr. Stephan Wilhelm from Fraunhofer IAO. "Right now, people are unable to travel and are being asked to avoid all direct contact. By using web sessions and a virtual tour, they can continue to work on a project as best as possible."

The FutureWork360 project is being funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of its international research marketing campaign under the banner of "The Future of Work." Launched in June 2019, the campaign has provided ten leading research networks with a platform over a period of 18 months to showcase their innovative projects for the future of work to target audiences in France, Japan and the USA, thereby giving them an opportunity to attract the interest of international partners.

Source: Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO)