The TechCenter, including the test infrastructure, is operated by ZAL GmbH, the company which Roland Gerhards leads. The company is also responsible for the overall coordination of research projects at the site. At present, some 30 people are currently employed directly by ZAL, to be joined by a further 20 over time. "In the future, we want to press ahead with our technologies on the basis of our own know-how, expanding our role in the network," says Gerhards.
But first, the CEO explains, the focus is on "getting this thing off the ground". For the past three years, he has spent the majority of his time on building-related issues. "Now the building is finished. Finally, I can put my focus back on the technology. So I am excited about the time ahead. This is what I have always done best," says the 47-year-old.
Before taking on the leadership of ZAL in May 2012, the graduate aeronautical engineer spent 15 years working in various positions with Airbus in Hamburg and Toulouse. He experienced many decisive moments in the company's history at first hand, from the establishment of EADS to the problems with on-board electrical systems during the development of the A380. His last role with the company was heading up the fuselage development for the A330, where he led a team of 300.
"The management and technology experience that I gained at Airbus has been a solid basis on which to build here," says Gerhards, who also has an American MBA to go along with his German engineering degree. In terms of completely new areas he has had to master, the main focus has been on legal issues, particularly during the revision of the funding concept. But he never stopped enjoying his work. "I may well have been close to banging my head against the wall once or twice. But I am an optimist, and even when the going got tough, I never lost my faith in the ZAL project," says the CEO.
It's not just insiders who are enjoying ZAL, though. "Absolutely everyone is impressed by the building the first time they see the ZAL TechCenter with their own eyes," enthuses Gerhards. But it's not just the building, it's also the concept behind it. "ZAL is a unique chance for Hamburg to establish a new form of collaboration in aeronautical research, securing the region's future over the long term. ZAL's job is twofold: on the one hand, it has to be a political guarantor for the viability of the research sector here; and on the other hand, it needs to achieve commercial success by means of research results finding their way into the industry. This is the ground that ZAL has to occupy and it defines the standards by which the TechCenter and our company will be measured."
Gerhards aim is that products developed at ZAL will already be ready for deployment in aviation within three to five years. "As the name says, we are focussed on applied aeronautical research - on products and concepts which that will be implemented in the real world. We are not going to conduct research just for the sake of research!"
This means, too, that an individual research emphasis may have to be abandoned if it is holding development back. "The industry may look very different in 10 years. New aircraft programs may mean a whole new dynamic and direction, and we must be flexible enough to respond by reassigning our space and facilities at short notice. And maybe we will have to expand the building again - although, to be honest, I've had enough of that for now," he says with a laugh.
A definite and fixed goal for the next 10 years, however, is to build ZAL into a world-renowned major player with an established position in the aviation industry. And at the same time, to still find the time to go flying. In the frantic last months of the final construction phase, flying time drew the short straw, according to Gerhards. But he has taken care of this problem now: he obtained his night flying permit at the end of October 2015, so that he could theoretically take off after work. He won't be doing loopings, rolls, or any of the other daredevil manoeuvres then, but it's a start.