This intense and complex collaboration is typical of German innovation. Much of it grew over decades among companies large and small that are now so used to working together they know instinctively what information they can share and what is best kept proprietary. “This trust between companies and institutions that cooperate but also compete is unique—you don't see that in very many countries,” says Beñat Bilbao, an economist at the World Economic Forum in Geneva and co-author of the latest “Global Competitiveness Report,” which every year shows Germany outranking the U.S. in industrial innovation. Most of these clusters of companies and their suppliers grew organically over decades (in some cases over centuries, such as the former clockmakers in the Black Forest that are now the world's leading producers of precision surgical instruments), which makes them not so easy to copy.
Still, the Germans manage to keep creating such networks in newly emerging industries. One of the latest is the BioEconomy Cluster near Leipzig, where a network of more than 60 companies and research institutes is developing ways to produce chemicals and plastics from biomass, replacing costly and CO2-spewing petroleum not just for energy but for other products now refined from oil. When Fraunhofer sets up new tech centers, it identifies companies and institutions that are already strong in their fields instead of trying to create something from scratch. “Our philosophy is to take something that's already working and water it so that it grows,” says Fraunhofer Society president Hans-Jörg Bullinger. In setting up the new carbon composites cluster, for example, Fraunhofer identified existing companies and university departments and provided funding, staff and a facility to encourage collaborative research.
The second lesson, Bullinger says, is to commit to the long haul. New Fraunhofer centers have their funding secured indefinitely and are left to themselves, with no evaluation taking place for the first five years beyond the requirement that they raise double their seed money from private companies. The companies, too, are invested for the long term; many of Germany's most innovative and tech-driven manufacturers are family-owned companies that do not worry about quarterly reports. A typical German tech company looks like Trumpf, an almost invisible, family-owned firm that has been a world leader in industrial laser technology for over a generation and now has annual sales of almost $3 billion. Fraunhofer, too, added 3,000 new researchers in the worst phase of the financial crisis. “Many countries have tried to copy us,” Bullinger says. “But their efforts fail because they think short term.”
That may be the fatal flaw in President Barack Obama's proposal, unveiled in March, for a $1-billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation that is explicitly modeled after Germany's Fraunhofer. If Congress approves it, the network will be a public-private partnership in cooperation with manufacturing companies to put in place up to 15 manufacturing technology centers around the country—so far so good. But the funding is only set up for the first four years. In Bullinger's view, that is much too short for the best companies and researchers to commit to serious projects. “The likely result is a scramble for project money instead of something sustainable,” Bullinger says. Still, he says, it is a step in the right direction.
The German system has its weak sides, of course. The country's precision culture can be better at perfecting existing technologies than inspiring radical innovation. And the nation has had its periods of “technophobia,” during which politicians and protest movements chase away promising high-tech industries, such as biotech in the 1980s. But Germany's drive for industrial innovation has put to rest the old cliché that manufacturing is low tech and has set an example of how to go head-to-head with China. Those graduate students reinventing manufacturing in a university lab in Munich are a model to learn from.