Innovation


The constant improvers.

25 Aug 2020

They work for companies that manufacture products at the highest level. Their mission: to make good things even better. We spoke to three people who spend their lives striving for perfection.

Innovation


The constant improvers.

25 Aug 2020

They work for companies that manufacture products at the highest level. Their mission: to make good things even better. We spoke to three people who spend their lives striving for perfection.

The desire for perfection can be exhausting – for the perfectionists, and for everyone around them. Never being satisfied with anything. Always wanting to take something good and make it even better. To keep developing the best. To find those smart solutions that turn an ordinary product into something extraordinary.

Let’s call these people “constant improvers”. Each is a tinkerer, an artist and a perfectionist. We visited three such people – and were fascinated by what we found.

A man in front of a wall

The pursuit of perfection drove Ulrich Perathoner to develop Wellendorff’s folding clasp. Image: Regina Recht.

First, we met Ulrich Perathoner, a master goldsmith and attentive observer. Once, while he was waiting at the airport gate, a woman caught his attention. She was putting on her bracelet, trying to work the jewellery’s delicate mechanism with her left hand to do so. “I wanted to run over and help her,” he says. But instead he chose to be discreet. However, he couldn’t get the problem out of his head.

Delicate and functional 

As head designer for the company Wellendorff, based in Pforzheim, Perathoner decided to try to devise a solution. The family-run company has been producing bracelets and other items of jewellery since 1893. The 53-year-old considered the options: men’s watch straps are often fitted with a special folding clasp, which fulfils two functions - easy to close with just one click, and it adds security. Even if it opens accidentally, the watch will stay on the wrist. With wide bracelets or watches, this kind of patented clasp can be used without impacting the aesthetics of the item. But could it work in a delicate piece, with thin strands of woven gold?

A gold bracelet

It takes around 80 craftspeople to manufacture Wellendorff’s unique folding mechanism. Image: Regina Recht.

Perathoner’s first tool was a pencil. He developed his initial sketch over a period of about three years. Together with his team, he designed a model. His boss’s wife wore a prototype version. And she found that the mechanism for opening the folding clasp needed a great deal of improvement, as the pressure put on the tip of the thumb was unpleasant. “However beautiful an item of jewellery may be, if it isn’t comfortable, no one will want to wear it,” explains Perathoner.

The Wellendorff folding clasp gradually took shape: made from gold, narrower than a pencil, and lightly supple. It is not just a technical solution that has been implanted into a bracelet worth 15,000 euros ($AUD 24,700). It’s an integral part of the piece. There are around 80 craftspeople whose task it is to manufacture this item. The final step is to give the clasp its gleam, for which a polisher uses four types of polishing paste and six different brushes. Just a few metres further on, the item goes through quality control. As a perfectionist, Perathoner likes this close proximity. It helps prevent mistakes.

An eventful journey

We leave the Black Forest and head to Berlin, to visit a manufacturer who appeals to a different sense. Stefan Größler is holding a porcelain tube and grins as he says: “If I were to drop this, I’d have to work for free for four weeks.” The 41-year-old heads the development team at the German high-end hi-fi authority Burmester. In their workshop, the company produces audio components for people who are looking for a special sound experience and who want to enjoy music in the most perfect way possible.

A man in front of a speaker

Stefan Größler, alongside his team at hi-fi company Burmester, set out to build the best speakers in the world. Image: Regina Recht.

The delicate, double-walled porcelain tube is used in the loudspeakers as a bass reflex tube. “Normally, these parts are made of plastic,” explains Größler. But together with his team, he set out to build the best speakers in the world. They didn’t think the plastic tube had a smooth enough surface for their needs; if air streams through, it can create a sort of turbulence, which compromises the sound. So each BC350 loudspeaker now includes two reflex tubes made by Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin (KPM). To show the scale, he stands next to the super loudspeakers – both 1.9 metres tall. But the BC350 is much heavier, weighing 420 kilograms, and takes a week to be made by hand. Is all the hard work worth it? Floating gently from the speakers, we can now hear the warm voice of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, as lifelike and clear as if she were standing right here in front of us. Of course, such high quality carries a matching price tag: a pair of BC350 speakers will cost audiophiles a cool 218,000 euros ($AUD 359,000).

Größler tinkered away at his project for four years before the first 20 loudspeakers could be delivered to customers. An eventful journey: “It was difficult to find a point at which we could say we had achieved our aim.” As much as he loves music, Größler is not the kind of artist who can lose track of time and keep working for hours on end. During his search for perfection, he actually found the constraints of working for a company quite constructive: “The deadline became my friend.”

Artificial intelligence as a microscope

Back we go to Baden-Württemberg. In Sindelfingen, at Mercedes-Benz, we meet another pioneer. His most important tool is the computer. As the head of research in the Artificial Intelligence department, Steven Peters dedicates his time on the job to finding a new way to transform experience into knowledge.

A man in a blue shirt

As the head of research in the Mercedes-Benz AI department, Steven Peters spends his time finding new ways to transform experience into knowledge. Image: Regina Recht.

In more than 130 years of automobile history, the global group has gathered an enormous quantity of data. This data is now being used by Peters and his team to create new things. Their task is to analyse and improve the complex processes used in the development and production of vehicles. To do this, Peters relies on adaptive computers. The machines are fed with human experience values and use algorithms to produce estimations, which can in turn be evaluated. The primary aim of the artificial intelligence is to help engineers with their calculations.

Peters is 32 years old and studied mechanical engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany. Carl Benz studied at the same university 160 years ago; it was there that he acquired the knowledge he later used to invent the automobile in 1886. Even today, the company feels compelled to constantly achieve outstanding results regarding technology. Machine learning is increasingly becoming a tool that supports Mercedes-Benz engineers in developing innovative technologies.

An iPad and a machine

Artificial intelligence helps Peters evaluate a trove of data from the history of Mercedes-Benz. Image: Regina Recht.

Without artificial intelligence, the vision of autonomous driving could never become a reality. It also helps aerodynamicists and designers optimise a vehicle’s proportions. “We’re a kind of microscope,” explains Peters, “which the engineers can use to recognise patterns in what can be a large and often confusing field.”

Artificial intelligence is also already in use in safety research. Mercedes-Benz was the first automobile manufacturer to start carrying out systematic crash tests in the 1950s. Since then, these tests have provided substantial quantities of information. Today, the engineers start by simulating the crash on a computer. But Peters and his team have added an additional step to the start of this process. Using the data comparison, he can give the designers an idea of when a lightweight component will reach its load limits.

Peters holds lectures on the subject nearly every week, often travelling to locations such as India and Silicon Valley in the US. Within the group, his aim is to give more and more engineers the opportunity to use the new technologies for their own work. As he says, the future of machine learning has only just begun. “In 10 years, every engineer at Mercedes-Benz will be working with artificial intelligence.”

The search for perfection continues.

By Johannes Schweikle