The Kronach region is an economic area with a long tradition as a center of industry and production. In addition to timber and forestry, the region is characterized by a high concentration of small and medium-sized industrial companies that have so far successfully held their own on the global market (automotive suppliers, glass and porcelain industry, communication electronics, mechanical engineering, medical technology). However, structural change, digitalization, a partial shortage of skilled workers and migration, primarily of young people, to the metropolitan areas are putting companies under high competitive pressure and thereby posing major challenges for the region. More than half of the region’s employees work in small or medium-sized companies. In addition, technological and environmental change has taken hold in many industries, challenging established companies to radically rethink their product portfolios and business models. An AI hub for medium-sized businesses has been planned to address this change. The foundations for these new innovations in the Kronach district were laid back in 2012 with the establishment of the Kronach Region Innovation Center (IZ-K). This quest for rejuvenation and innovation in Kronach led to efforts to develop Kronach into a university location. This development culminated in the creation of the Lucas-Cranach-Campus (LCC), with its degree programmes launching in the summer semester of 2021. The LCC has been created to offer a unique range of programmes with the participation of various universities.

The Nuremberg Institute of Technology is planning to establish and coordinate an AI hub in Kronach that will be affiliated with Nuremberg Tech’s AI Institute, which is currently under development. It will support the LCC with further education and professional development programmes in digitalization, automation and artificial intelligence, and provide consulting services for the industrial use of machine learning methods. An AI hub in Kronach such as this would support the already high willingness of Upper Franconian companies to innovate and help to make AI a real possibility for regional companies.

Areas of activity

The AI hub concept consists of three areas of activity:

The first area focuses on raising awareness of the AI hub’s work in the region. This includes, in particular, developing awareness of the importance of data for AI algorithms. Data is key for training the required algorithms. Through effective information management, the companies in the region will be informed about new digital technologies and new digital applications as a basis for a comprehensive digital transformation. Another focus here is on showing companies that the institute supports them in the implementation and application of these technologies.

The second area focuses on making the benefits of AI accessible to companies. The emerging challenges posed by Industry 4.0 in the areas of automation, digitalization and artificial intelligence are ubiquitous for all industries, and for SMEs in particular. However, the benefits of AI are not immediately apparent to many companies at first glance. They also lack the necessary expertise and hardware to turn ideas into prototypes.

To overcome these challenges, companies need external expertise. This is developed by the AI Hub in Kronach for and with the companies on site. Here, the focus is on targeted knowledge transfer and the implementation of applied AI projects in the companies. These projects are carried out through the illustrative development of prototypes with the involvement of the requested research staff. This also fosters applied teaching concepts in the form of final theses. The projects are presented in university-company network meetings with the aim of developing greater awareness on the one hand, and of improving the skills of the employees through applied examples on the other, which thereby enables the ideas presented to be adapted to other problems. The network meetings are scheduled to take place every six months. Successful projects can also be integrated directly into the lectures on machine learning at Nuremberg Tech as illustrative examples. By connecting successful educational experiences with company projects in this way, targeted knowledge transfer can take place in both directions.

The third area of activity promotes targeted further education and is actively supported by the OHM Professional School at Nuremberg Tech. The OPS offers part-time degree programmes and further education opportunities in the form of certified programmes, which are set to be rolled out locally in Kronach. The further education courses are geared towards the needs of local companies and fall into the fields of digitalization, automation and artificial intelligence. In future, the courses offered will be successively expanded in coordination within the company network. The aim here is to make them permanent. For this, synergies are being developed, with spaces at the Lucas-Cranach-Campus in Kronach being rented as classrooms In addition, company employees will be trained as multipliers in “Train the Trainer” seminars to enable them to pass on their Industry 4.0 knowledge. This measure will help to establish coaches in the companies. Training coaches in this way will ensure that project ideas developed under area of activity 2 are also implemented in the company.