Ingeniously Puzzled

What makes an invention successful? How do you develop innovative ideas and products that take the market by storm? A visit to the inventors’ workshop run by Dr. Björn Graßl and Matthias Gehrke in Nuremberg reveals some of the answers.

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Among their collection of lathes, milling machines, workbenches, and computers Dr. Björn Graßl (left) and Matthias Gehrke have enough time to think laterally. Photo: Jean-Claude Winkler Photography

An address in a modest industrial building on one of Nuremberg’s busy arterial roads. A sign saying “LiKoS,” the name of a product that they invented, points to the door on the ground floor. Behind this door are two of the most creative people currently at DEKRA. On workbenches dotted among computers, circuit boards, and 3D-printed components, Dr. Björn Graßl (44), Matthias Gehrke (44), and their external colleague Lars Liebmann (43) are beavering away at inventions that are both ingenious and useful. Inventions like “LiKoS,” which translates as “elevator control system.” About three years ago, it completely revolutionized the industry. That’s because there is no longer any need for bulky equipment when carrying out routine inspections of elevator systems.

Instead, the work is done by an unremarkable-looking device packed with sensors that measure and record the elevator’s movements. Gehrke recalls the initial idea: “I had just started working as a DEKRA elevator inspector, which meant hauling four boxes full of inspection equipment through the pedestrian zone to the customer’s premises. About 35 kilos of kit. I thought to myself: ‘there has to be a better way.’ So that was my first innovation for the company.” But in order to bring the idea to life, he needed an IT expert to do the programming, so he turned to his childhood friend Björn Graßl, who holds a doctorate in physics. “We’ve known each other for more than 40 years, and I asked him whether he wanted to help me put my idea into practice.” The result was LiKoS, which can now even be supplemented by an app. “We harnessed the rapid development of smartphone sensors, which have been dramatically enhanced to support virtual reality applications. Nowadays, a conventional cell phone is all that’s required to provide elevator operators with a constant stream of extremely useful operational data,” explains Graßl, whose face lights up when talking about the technical details.

invention

Two men, thousands of light-bulb moments: Björn Graßl (left) and Matthias Gehrke are bursting with ideas. Photo: Jean-Claude Winkler Photography

For these two real-life versions of “Gyro Gearloose,” the key to innovation is to focus on an existing problem and then develop as straightforward a solution as possible. The pair’s philosophy: “As soon as it gets too complex and we start trying to tweak individual shortcomings, then the idea is ready for the scrapheap. “That’s when we go back to zero.” This approach applies to their latest project, a device for measuring headlight adjustment surfaces. This is required as a response to new headlight inspection guidelines, which stipulate a flat adjustment surface. This constitutes a problem for many smaller repair shops, as only deviations of a few millimeters are permitted. Gehrke: “These areas could be anywhere on-site, such as on the forecourt or in the parking lot. Businesses are faced with spending thousands of euros on leveling these surfaces in accordance with the guidelines or otherwise ceasing to be DEKRA test centers.” Matthias Gehrke cycled to the nearest automotive repair shop (barely 500 meters from his own workshop), where he took a closer look at the problem: a parking lot with dog-bone paving. “There were height differences of more than six centimeters in an area measuring two meters in length.”

Back in the workshop, the two inventors got to work and conceived a measurement device that, when guided across the existing uneven surface, scans it using lasers and a conventional computer mouse to generate an elevation profile. A smartphone films the section in the process, superimposing the recorded values on the resulting video. “We then present this data video to our subcontractor, who creates a surface using special plastic panels. Two days later, the repair shops receive the pinpoint plastic panels; all they have to do is then mount these onto the aimer location for a level and legally compliant workspace.” During the prototype phase, Gehrke’s daughter’s red skateboard served as the vehicle for transporting the measurement device across the area in question. And it’s still lying around in the workshop. “At some point, we did a control test and guided the device across a preleveled surface. However, the sensors still indicated too much unevenness, which we couldn’t explain. Were they false positives? We eventually realized that they were caused by tiny imbalances in the skateboard’s wheels! We then knew we were onto something big, so we decided to break open a glass of sparkling wine,” recalls the inventor, with one eye on the skateboard. Scratching his head, he then adds: “It’s about time I gave it back to her.”

A dozen patents on behalf of DEKRA

The adjustment surfaces are already in action at the DEKRA Cologne branch and in the repair shop around the corner in Nuremberg — and the patent application has already been filed. And the invention could soon be making a big difference to DEKRA partner organizations. The two inventors estimate that they have come up with about a dozen patents on behalf of DEKRA. The question remains: what is the secret behind so much innovative excellence and the seemingly endless stream of ideas? “You have to talk to people, and you’ll soon find out what needs to be improved,” explains Gehrke. “Everyone at DEKRA really does have what it takes to be an inventor. But what matters is that the company creates an atmosphere that encourages people to make things better. They have to feel confident. And failure has to be allowed.”

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