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12.09.2017Standortpiloten

Hamburg Aviation Series "Hamburg's Pilots" - Episode 12: Birte Juergensen, industrial designer, engineer and Managing Director of zweigrad

We are in a traditional Hamburg courtyard. Birte Juergensen is standing in the workshop of her design studio, zweigrad and pointing to a fire detector. "My colleagues have programmed it to play 'Jingle Bells'," she laughs. The industrial designers at zweigrad get to live out their ideas - and not just in projects for the aviation, medical technology and rail transport industries. For Juergensen and her team of 9 designers, events such as the tradional creative competition for the Christmas party are a chance to give their innovation free rein. "Once a year, every individual here can choose a project and turn it into reality in the workshop. It doesn't matter what it is. What matters is that they have the chance to think completely and utterly 'outside the box'."

But regardless of all this creativity, Birte Juergensen is determined to be different from artistically oriented design studios. "It starts with the name," she explains. "Zweigrad - German for '2 degrees' - represents the typical draft angles used for demoulding almost all plastic injection moulding components. It's not a temperature. It's about our DNA: we are and we will always be a technical industrial design office."

From mechanical engineering to design

And yet Juergensen, Managing Director at the company, started out as a student of visual arts at a renowned art academy in Duesseldorf. She quickly realised, however, that she needed a solution-driven approach, and she wasn't finding it there. Mathematics and the natural sciences had always been as important to her as drawing. So she was true to herself, made the tough decision, and moved closer to her north German roots - she grew up near Bremen - and transferred to the Hamburg University of Technology to study mechanical engineering. She joined a degree program with just five other women enrolled. But for all her fascination with this field, she never lost the longing to design things. After graduating, Juergensen found the perfect combination of engineering and design in another degree program at the Muthesius University of Fine Arts and Design in Kiel, specialising in technical industrial design. She financed her studies by working as a freelance engineer on projects for industry and universities. It was in Kiel that she met Timo Wietzke, who is now her business partner.

Allow ideas and drive innovation

In 2002, Juergensen established her own design studio: zweigrad. Timo Wietzke joined her in 2009, making it possible to split the responsibilities. Today, Wietzke takes care of operative business, whilst Juergensen is responsible for the strategic development of the company. Her expertise has stood her in good stead at zweigrad, as have the work processes she learned and acquired during her time as an engineer. "Our working steps are as structured and methodical as those in structural engineering," she says. At the same time, though, bringing in open, creative moments is an essential part of brainstorming. The "Vision Panel" was introduced for this purpose: a section of the business where trends are monitored and targeted innovation is promoted with workshops and design studies. Industry 4.0, mobility, sustainability ... these are just some of the topics that the designers here are working on. The panel developed an aviation concept study, "Media Window", which was simultaneously a panoramic window and an on-board cinema screen, and won a place on the Crystal Cabin Award shortlist for 2015 in the process. "Ideation Booster", a workshop methodology used for brainstorming ideas in collaboration with clients, is another zweigrad development. Creativity techniques help the external teams, who often come from an engineering environment and bear responsibility for products, to engage in lateral thinking.

Birte Juergensen often turns to networking with her many contacts when she is looking for new ideas. At the Hamburg Aviation Barcamp she brainstorms about cabin comfort; at the Hamburg Aviation Forum she discusses parcel robots. Overall, she benefits greatly from input from her network, she says, because she is confronted with a wide range of perspectives on the subject of design.

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New technologies extend the design horizon

Virtual Reality (VR) is undoubtedly one of the most exciting trends right now, and not just in the world of design. For presenting concepts, zweigrad has been deploying this technology for a long time. The team created a virtual executive jet cabin: put on the VR glasses and explore the cabin, testing various functions as you go. The VR cabin was presented for the first time at Aircraft Interiors Expo 2017. "Then we experienced this defining moment when we had shown clients the cabin with the data glasses and one of them observed that, to be honest, he had thought one of our concepts pretty senseless when we presented it three years earlier. It was the concept for laterally suspended seats. Now that he had the opportunity to walk through the cabin 'live', he found it to be a great approach," relates a delighted Juergensen. She is convinced that VR will become more and more integral to the design process, because it reduces the need for time, cost, and labour-intensive model production. And the moment computer-based design work begins, the data and parameters for the VR software are ready.

Birte Juergensen first encountered VR at Volkswagen almost 20 years ago. In those days, the computing power needed occupied whole rooms. At VW, she was designing vehicle-related products, from production resources to VR input equipment for product development all the way to vehicle accessories. She recalls that she "learned an unimaginable amount, because we were all sitting together in one studio: product designers, interior designers and exterior designers, all working together on the product 'car'."

Aviation - from the very beginning

zweigrad has been developing its links with aviation from the very beginning, particularly in the area of in-flight entertainment. User expectations have changed rapidly over a very short time, according to Juergensen, and things have long moved on from questions such as which control elements are to be rotated and which ones are to be pressed. These days, using touchscreens is a matter of course. Applications have to be intuitive and fast, and they must not hide behind complex structures. This is why UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) designers, ideally equipped to deal with this, have been part of the zweigrad team for several years already. zweirad designs hardware and software for IFE solutions. For Lufthansa Technik, for example, one of the company's earliest clients, zweigrad designed the graphical user interface and the equipment for the "nice" IFE system's wireless system control.

Compared to consumer products, aviation represents a relatively tough design environment, but it is this that makes the work so exciting, according to Juergensen. And decision-makers in the aviation industry are becoming increasingly open to design ideas. "There has been a changing of the guard. Another generation is at the helm," says Juergensen, who has witnessed this change, this transformation, in other industries, too. She recalls the work of designing a grinding train for Vossloh Rail Services, when zweigrad "brought out the maximum innovative potential" in a railway vehicle that was, in design terms, quite limited. This 2015 design won the company the "IF Design Award" along with a nomination for the "German Design Award".

The beauty of understanding

Personally, Birte Juergensen likes designs from the 1970s. One of her favourites is the work a Verner Panto, whose furniture designs and spatial concepts thoroughly challenged conventional usage, opening the door to much more individual and versatile applications. It is no accident that zweigrad's motto is "the beauty of understanding". According to Juergensen, a product excites people when it is emotionally as well as functionally convincing - because it is intuitive. This is a fascinating challenge that the company has set itself, ideally suited for designs in the aviation industry, she says.

Author Julia Grosser/Hamburg Aviation

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