Offers for SMEs — future-proofing the SME sector

Digital transformation poses a big challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Fraunhofer IAO is supporting these companies, helping them benefit from new technologies through tailored project formats.

From quality control in production, to organizing customer inquiries, to identifying targets groups, artificial intelligence (AI) can help companies wherever data needs complex analysis and evaluation. Tasks that take humans lots of time can be taken care of by algorithms in just a few seconds.

This is an advantage that many German companies are already aware of and exploiting. According to a study by the Institute of German Industry (IW), the proportion of large firms using AI has increased from 17.2% to 40% between 2019 and 2021. However, the same study shows that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are lagging behind. Only 17.6% of them were using the technology in 2021.

Are German small and medium-sizes enterprises sleeping through the AI revolution? Fraunhofer IAO has started a range of initiatives to prevent that, aiming to help SMEs to use AI technologies along their value chain or even develop entirely new business models.

(Note: Graphics in German)

Business Innovation Engineering Center (BIEC)

The “practical pilots” run by the Business Innovation Engineering Center (BIEC) are one example of helping SMEs from Baden-Württemberg on their path to digitalization. Within these practical pilots, BIEC supports companies in their feasibility studies, needs analysis, conception, functional models or with technical prototyping, for example.

PraeMedicon GbR is a good example of the concrete results that this kind of collaboration can achieve. The small firm, with its headquarters in Ludwigsburg, carries out movement analyses to develop optimal therapy offers for patients with orthopedic complaints. For the diagnosis, the therapists need a variety of data which is frequently collected by different systems and must be manually collated and evaluated, requiring a lot of effort. PraeMedicon GbR thus asked itself the question — is there the scope to design this process more efficiently? As part of the practical pilots, experts from Fraunhofer IAO combined their specialist data-analysis expertise with the specialist medical knowledge of the therapists and discovered that machine-learning algorithms can support the diagnosis of a movement analysis. This brings PraeMedicon GbR one step closer to its goal of creating diagnosis documents automatically and in real-time in the future.

BIEC also runs the “AI Made Easy” qualification program. Together with the IAT at the University of Stuttgart, Fraunhofer IAO has been offering a qualification program for employees and students since April 2021. Participants do not require any prior knowledge. “The program should help dispel people’s fears about using the new technologies and demonstrate functions and applications with everyday examples,” explains BIEC Project Manager Dr. Thomas Fischer. To start with, the participants all define a concrete task or job from their day-to-day work which they then work on in groups. They should then work together to develop an AI solution for the problem.

Industry network “AI in production”

Another initiative in which exchange of ideas between participants plays a big role is the industry network “AI in production”. The core idea behind this Germany-wide unique network, which includes start-ups, SMEs and larger companies, as well as associations and research institutes, is to work together to build a shared understanding of AI, while systematically tapping its potential. “The network helps the participating companies to build the bridge between research visions and concrete, implementable solutions,” says Project Manager Tim Hornung of Fraunhofer IAO.

In the second phase, which began in December, the network members more closely examined the individual areas within the firm along the value chain. “We wanted to highlight how AI could help — from the development of a product until delivery to the customer — to solve current challenges and improve the long-term competitiveness of the production system, making it robust against crises and external challenges,” Hornung explains. For example, AI can carry out quality checks with image recognition, make human-machine interaction easier or expand the possibilities of preventive maintenance. “In summary, AI offers the opportunity to fundamentally redesign processes, thereby increasing the organization’s efficiency and securing their future viability,” says Tim Hornung. Anyone who wants to investigate the potential for AI within their organization can get in touch with Fraunhofer IAO. “We can support companies in the identification and concrete implementation of potential AI use cases,” says Hornung.

Offers for SMEs: Looking for support?

Fraunhofer IAO supports companies and public institutions with innovation processes. Small and medium-sized enterprises especially are facing the challenge of reimagining their products, organization and business models for the future. You can find a selection of our offers for SMEs here.

Pop-up Laboratory BW

The Pop-up Laboratory BW acts as a sort of “innovation fitness studio”, providing nearby and immediate support to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in implementing new innovations. All information and dates can be found on the website.

BIEC coaching offers

Participants in our BIEC coaching learn about systematic approaches, methods and tools that they can use right away at their organization.

Cloud-based cooperative practical pilots

The Cloud Mail BW Service Catalog offers small and medium-sized service enterprises in particular a good orientation on regional cloud-based services.

Radical digital transformation

Together with international management consultancy firm Ingenics AG, Fraunhofer IAO published a thesis to provide SMEs in particular with concrete approaches for action.