Dr. Pretterebner, you and your partner Wolfgang Anton have made a name for yourselves with your inventive and entrepreneurial spirit. Let’s take a quick look back: which inventive entrepreneurial projects would you name as your most important?
As AP Systems, the two of us truly got some great projects going. This includes various microwave drills with which we heated stones and then sprinkled them with water until they cracked. Today, these drills are used in tunnel drilling, for example. We developed a plastic coated wooden pallet that can be cleaned again and again and can put a stop to the immense consumption of pallets worldwide. This consumption is due to the fact that for hygienic reasons, a pallet can only be used two or three times before it becomes unsuitable for use. We invented a water mat that can be used to water and fertilise turf for months with minimal intervention, drones that can be used as “flying radio towers” at outdoor events and at the same time offer lightning protection, as well as a particularly small X-ray device that allows for X-rays to be taken while an operation is under way. Our greatest commercial success so far has been the development of modular, intelligent batteries as the standard for electric vehicles.
Are there certain principles according to which your inventions “function”?
Wolfgang Arnold and I are both physicists, so of course certain skills and fields of application are a given. I also completed commercial training, which I think is an advantage for the transition from development work to business. In addition, we have dealt with the special properties of a whole range of materials relatively intensively in recent years, particularly ones with magnetic capabilities. We have experimented a lot with this. I suppose we actually have a kind of recipe for success, if you want to call it that, which is: two good ideas will lead you to one really special idea. And it is this special idea that we are looking for.
In addition, it’s a prerequisite for us that new developments can also be commercialised. Only if an invention is “cheap” and basically “easy” to implement is it also a good, usable invention. Nobody benefits from an expensive invention.
You mentioned your particular interest in materials. When did you first come across ceramic?
We have been working with special ceramics in microwave technology for thirty years. In this area, we have become the market leaders for some high-performance components. We also use oxide ceramics in our modular car batteries, because they have to be particularly low-loss so that the valuable energy inside the battery is not converted into heat, but instead benefits the torque.
Today, more and more plastics are used in a wide range of industries. However, the properties of polymers only extend to a certain range. It’s only as composite materials that the range of their applications can be expanded, for example by combining them with carbon fibres. By adding ceramic particles, you’re able to give them completely new properties. For example, it enables them to make an excellent fabric out of a mediocre and cheap fabric. Ceramic also plays an increasingly important role in multi-material design – namely in its properties as a heat sink, because of its special hardness, its wear resistance, or its magnetic effect. The functions resulting from these properties can currently be found in a wide variety of applications – for example, as cutting tools or surface protection. And they still have a great future ahead of them, such as in the area of 3D printing or as “transparent aluminum” – of that we are certain.
... you are also using ceramics in your current project – the development of modular, multifunctional streets ...
That's right. The street lamps are a particularly good example of our principle of combining two good ideas into one really great idea. The first idea was that we wanted to expand street lamps as multifunctional units that not only give light, but can also perform various other functions: in this case, that of radio towers or camera surveillance systems. The second idea was that through means of a radio connection, they serve the region in which they are positioned as a data highway and can thus generate income for cities and municipalities instead of merely costing money through electricity consumption.
Can you describe the basic idea of your current project to us in more detail?
The street lamps, like the intelligent batteries that we have developed, have a modular structure. The module in front is for a light, while the module in the middle can be configured in various ways – for example with a cell phone base station or with a camera with loudspeaker.
The idea behind it is primarily commercial. The current development of new mobile radio standards from 4G to 5G requires an ever higher density of radio masts. Nobody wants to have such masts nearby, least of all where they live. They “disfigure” the landscape and considerably lower the prices of residential properties in the immediate vicinity. With the new 5G mobile radio standard, we need a large number of new, abhorred masts to sufficiently increase transmitter density. The development of such new street lamps, which also function as radio antennas, optimally responds to this situation, especially since the existing lamps can be converted to the new systems relatively easily.
And what role does ceramic play here?
A very central role, because one of our problems was to remove the heat out of these modular street lamps and at the same time make them penetrable to radio communications. It doesn’t work with metals, because you can’t get the signal out from inside. We were able to solve this problem with the use of ceramic particles.
The combination of inventiveness and entrepreneurship: what does it look like in practice in your business?
We have a really wide range of activities within AP Systems. We build models, simulate processes under real thermal, electrical or mechanical conditions and take development on our side up to final product maturity. Then we look for partners, take the first steps together with them and finally step away. This is very important. At a certain point, you have to be able to let go of existing projects in order to be able to devote yourself to new projects with new energy.
As an inventor, as an entrepreneur: what else is important to you?
In addition to physics and business, there’s something else that’s of fundamental importance to me and Wolfgang Arnold – let’s call it our “humanistic perspective”. We want our inventions and innovations to be benefit people – and this goes far beyond commercial use. For example, medical technology is particularly important to us, because we have the opportunity to drive developments in cancer therapy, for example. The development of the new street lamps is also based on a positive, “humanistic” effect. When these are ready for series production in the near future, they will not only help cash-strapped municipalities and cities to generate income by making data highways available to their residents. In poorer regions in particular they will create opportunities to connect to state of the art wireless standards and therefore benefit from the opportunities and advantages that internet connections provide, for example in the education sector.
Inventor and entrepreneur, physicist, businessman and material scientist:
Julius Pretterebner combines good ideas to create extraordinary inventions – and the use of ceramic plays a special role for him.