Innovations – the basis for sustainable growth and employment. The key industrial sectors are metals, mechanical engineering, ceramics and plastics, with over 250 companies and 25,000 jobs in the districts of Altenkirchen, Neuwied and Westerwald. By setting up the regional Metals-Ceramics-Plastics Innovation Cluster (IMKK), the state of Rhineland-Palatinate – co-financed by ERDF funding from the EU – has created an instrument for moderating innovation processes and, above all, allowing small and medium-sized companies fast, well-founded and constant access to the research findings of universities and practice-oriented research institutions, as well as to new production processes and high-tech materials.
Competence network of research and development institutions. As well as the large number of companies, the region is home to relevant research and development institutions, especially in materials and surface technology. Institutions such as the University of Koblenz-Landau, Koblenz University of Applied Sciences, the Research Institute for Inorganic Materials – Glass/Ceramic (FGK) and the Technology Centre for Surface Technology (TZO) are nearby. The Technology Institute for Metal and Engineering (TIME) in Wissen/Sieg in the district of Altenkirchen was founded for the metals sector. When it comes to the topic of plastics and polymers, all roads lead to the Technology Institute for Functional Plastics and Surfaces (tifko) in Neuwied.
The establishment and regional integration of a European Centre for Refractories (ECREF) is another important step in completing the competence network. At the heart of the infrastructure is the construction of a new refractories institute in Höhr-Grenzhausen. All institutions in the German refractories industry will then be located under this umbrella. In association with the structural expansion of the FGK, a ceramics campus which is unique in Europe is also being built here. Together with the Faculty of Materials Technology at Koblenz University of Applied Sciences and the ceramics entrepreneurship centre CeraTechCenter (CTC), ECREF and FGK will in the future form a focus within the Ceramics Education and Research Centre (BFZK), thus establishing concentrated expertise in ceramics in a small area.
The integration of the Bundesverband Leichtbeton, based in Neuwied, is also providing considerable stimulus to the IMKK. The large number of pumice companies in the north of Rhineland-Palatinate has led to the growth of strong representation of interests over the decades with the Bundesverband. The innovations of the lightweight concrete industry, especially in climate protection, energy efficiency and the wide range of application options for this material, are resulting in exciting intersections between the sectors in the cluster. This is also the home of the Material Testing and Research Center (MPVA), a competence centre for the implementation of material tests and building materials science quality assessment of mineral building materials.
New professional apprenticeships and degree subjects have been designed for the modern application areas of high-performance materials. Endowed professorships for refractory materials and for materials analytics have been established at Koblenz University of Applied Sciences’ site in Höhr-Grenzhausen, while a cluster-related professorship for technical chemistry has been created at the University of Koblenz-Landau. In order to make the degree courses offered even more attractive, a new cooperative programme “Master of Engineering – Ceramic Science and Engineering” based on modules is now being offered. The special network of training institutions in Höhr-Grenzhausen allows young people to benefit from education options which build on one another – from an apprenticeship to a world class degree and even a doctorate. As well as the existing networks such as the Metals Sector Initiative (BIM) in the district of Altenkirchen and the Ceramics Education and Research Centre (BFZK) in Westerwald district, there is also close cooperation with the University of Siegen in the neighbouring state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Organisational structure of the IMKK. Since April 2011, the innovation cluster has been organised by Central Cluster Management in Koblenz, where all information is brought together. This cluster management ensures that the various cluster activities are coordinated and networks them internally and externally. Within the economic promotion organisations of the three districts involved, the IMKK maintains regional offices whose responsibilities are geared to the sectors of focus in the particular district.
The regional offices’ areas of responsibility include websites, a central company database, appearances at trade fairs, workshops and publicity work, as well as networking research and development institutions, universities, associations and companies in the region. The highlights of the year for the cluster include the cluster conferences, where representatives from business, politics and research meet to exchange information. The events’ recipe for success comes down to the practically-oriented spectrum of topics offered and the intensive networking between participants.
Sector concept: ceramics. In August 2010, the FGK launched a pioneering project which involves cooperation with companies in the ceramics sector to develop lucrative potential for savings. The sector concept for improving material and energy efficiency in the ceramics industry in Rhineland-Palatinate is helping companies to make sustainable decisions based on these results. The research project is funded by the Rhineland-Palatinate economics Ministry as part of the innovation cluster and the Rhineland-Palatinate efficiency Network (EffNet).
At the heart of the project is the establishment of the cost structure in the ceramics sector and the definition of savings potential using consumption figures, cost distributions and technological increases in efficiency. Its influences on material and energy efficiency in ceramics production are wide-ranging. This includes minimising raw material and energy use, reducing reject quotas and raising staff awareness of the issue of saving resources. The analysis compiles all relevant data, quantifies the potential savings and uses this basis to evaluate the technological and economic feasibility of possible saving measures. The goal is to make the results available to other ceramics businesses so that they, too, can reduce the strain on the environment where possible and investigate the effects of savings.
The innovation cluster represents the goal of Rhineland-Palatinate’s economic policy to use challenges such as the transition to renewable energies, sustainable and efficient management of resources – the green economy – and the organisation of jobs in the future as an opportunity, thus strengthening the competitiveness of medium-sized companies in the constantly changing global markets.
The author works at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Climate Protection, Energy and Regional Planning of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and has been working on the establishment and expansion of the Metals-Ceramics-Plastics Innovation Cluster (IMKK) since 2007. Since 2011, she has coordinated the activities of the cluster’s management on the ground as central cluster manager. She is based in the TechnologieZentrum Koblenz.