Smart data science for smart factories

It is probably no coincidence that Alejandro Villanueva is doing his PhD in Stuttgart, where Daimler and Porsche are based. After all, the 28-year-old, whose full name is Alejandro Gabriel Villanueva Zacarias, also grew up in a 'car city'. Puebla, a city in Mexico with more than a million inhabitants, is home to a large Volkswagen plant. "I have always been interested in looking at how the latest research can be put into practice in industrial production", explains Villanueva. It was clear to the computer scientist that his doctoral thesis would be in the area of applied research: "I was determined that my research findings should not end up gathering dust in a drawer."

Cooperation with industry

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The computer scientist Alejandro Villanueva wants to make it easier for companies to extract useful information from mountains of data

He found exactly what he was looking for at the Graduate School of Excellence advanced Manufacturing Engineering (GSaME), where he has been researching on a scholarship since 2016. A scientific institution at the University of Stuttgart, the GSaME takes an unusual approach: its structured dual doctoral programme cooperates with industry and enables PhD students to take advantage of the industrial research environment. "On the one hand, we receive academic supervision, and on the other we learn how research is applied directly in practice. To this end, we work closely together with companies, conduct tests and channel the results back into our work", Villanueva explains. The doctoral students are also supported by a mentor in the companies.

Using data science to create new business models

Villanueva believes that an interdisciplinary approach is important if research is to be applied successfully. Computer science, business management and engineering are all interlinked at the GSaME. Villanueva himself is researching in the area of data science, a subdiscipline of computer science: huge amounts of data are generated as industrial production becomes increasingly digitised and networked. This data can be processed using new analytical methods. This will make companies more competitive because the insights they gain from the analyses allow new business models to be created. They also make new forms of self-monitoring and self-optimising production possible. But how does this actually work in practice? How can valuable knowledge for the company in question be generated from the mountains of data? And is it even worth it for companies to make parts of the production process 'smarter'? To date, these have been difficult questions to answer, explains Villanueva, "because one always has to take into account not only the IT side, but also aspects relating to business management and engineering processes." Villanueva's research begins by looking at which smart factory solutions might make sense for which type of production and to what extent. He has designed a methodological approach and developed prototypes of an IT platform for data-driven analysis techniques in industrial companies. "My goal is to make it easier for companies to take decisions in this area."

Funding for ambitious computer scientists

Villanueva spent the first two years doing theoretical groundwork, but now it is time for the practical part. To help him, he has been awarded a special grant: Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research provides 100,000 euros in funding to support computer scientists who are interested in taking up leadership positions in industry or starting their own businesses. Thanks to the Software Campus programme, Villanueva can now recruit staff and buy equipment. The young Mexican is currently developing the prototype for an IT platform in collaboration with Trumpf, a company that manufactures industrial lasers, among other things.

New perspectives by studying abroad

"In the right place at the right time", is how Villanueva feels today. After completing a bachelor’s degree at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in 2013, he decided to go abroad. "I wanted to gain some new perspectives." During his Erasmus Mundus master's degree in service engineering, he got to know Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. It was an "adventure and a challenge to switch universities within a short space of time", he recalls.

In the end, he decided to do his PhD in Germany. While intensive research into the area of smart factories is also conducted in the USA, Japan and China, "Germany is certainly a main player when it comes to shaping Industry 4.0." Furthermore, Villanueva liked the social framework conditions in Europe. He talks about the holistic approach here, which focuses not on the machines but on the human beings. He doesn't yet know whether he will remain in research long-term. He could equally well imagine switching to industry. "There is huge demand there for people with my qualifications."

Various options for young researchers

Students and young researchers will find good conditions for studying at German universities. According to the CHE Ranking, the following universities are amongst those that score particularly well in the computer and data science:

RWTH Aachen University

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Technical University of München

Technische Universität Berlin

Hasso Plattner Institute / University of Potsdam

Technische Universität Darmstadt

Computer and data scientists can also find a wide range of research opportunities at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example at the:

Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics, Kaiserslautern

Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems IAIS, Sankt Augustin

German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, Kaiserslautern

Helmholtz Einstein International Research School on Data Science (HEIBRiDS), Berlin

Max Planck Institute for Informatics, Saarbrücken

Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, Saarbrücken


Graduate School of Excellence advanced Manufacturing Engineering (GSaME)

The GSaME graduate school at the University of Stuttgart applies the dual training concept to PhDs. This is a unique approach in Germany, as normally the dual system is offered only in vocational training and some bachelor's degree courses. This ensures that all PhDs are characterised by close interlinking of theory and practice and of research and application. The doctoral programme is aimed at engineers, computer scientists and business administration graduates.