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#TPRCminds: Erik

Researcher, Business Developer

‘This dual role is tailor-made for me.’

Erik Krämer is living proof that top-level scientific research can go hand in hand with commercial insight and business acumen. At the TPRC, he forges essential links between the hard science and the wider world of application. As both researcher and business developer, he builds bridges every day.

Read other #TPRCminds interviews with Jeroen, Wouter, Yannick, Ramona, Sebastiaan, Jagadeesh, Vanessa and Dennis & Rens.

Erik Krämer remembers it like it was yesterday. Asked about the moment when he first realised that thermoplastic composites made his heart beat faster, he doesn’t have to think for long. “Like several of my fellow TPRC colleagues, it had to be during my time with Solar Team Twente. That’s when the seed was sown. Ten years ago now, but a wonderful time. As students, we were given the chance to be pioneers: to build a world-class solar-powered car and race it through Australia. My focus was on the car’s structure and its materials.
A far cry from the steel and aluminium I was working with for my mechanical engineering degree at the University of Twente, where I learned a lot of course. On the Solar Team, we were working with composites, cutting-edge technology at the time. Even then, I began to realize it was a niche that very few people really understand. Everyone knew that the aircraft industry had to become more sustainable and aircraft had to become lighter. Composites seemed to provide the perfect answer, especially the thermoplastic variety, thanks to their scalability and speed of manufacture. Ten years ago, that was no different than it is today. But when you see where the market is now, and where I am myself... It’s a whole new world.”

As part of your master’s degree you did your internship at the TPRC. What changes have you seen at TPRC?

“To be perfectly honest, in terms of atmosphere and teamwork it’s much the same. And that’s a good thing. The attitude at the TPRC is still very informal and relaxed. We are willing to help each other out. It’s all about passion and freedom - no one has much time for hierarchy. The realization that we are a smart – and in many cases young – bunch of people who excel at what we do makes for a healthy working environment. As for the field of thermoplastic composites, things have changed all the more.”

You’ve contributed to those changes, haven’t you?

“I dare say you’re right. When I was approaching graduation, I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do but I knew I was completely sold on research. When I was invited to apply for a PhD position, it was a challenge I was happy to accept. My focus was on defects that occur during the production process of thermoplastic composites. To be specific, a phenomenon in the fibers known as ‘waviness’. If these tiny waves find their way into your product, it becomes less strong and less rigid. And that’s the last thing you want. I showed how waviness occurs during the consolidation process, caused by a combination of the mould expanding and friction between the mould and the composite. I was therefore able to demonstrate one of the causes of waviness in action. It had already been mentioned in the literature, but I was the first to make it visible. I felt like a pioneer all over again. I recently completed my PhD research. A personal milestone.”

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A milestone that marks four years of your life as a dedicated researcher. You have since changed direction to some extent, taking on the role of business developer. Why the shift?

“Let me start by saying that I don’t see it as a completely different direction. I’ll explain why. The TPRC organises Technical Advisory Board (TAB) meetings four times a year with the aim of keeping our partners up to speed with the latest developments in our research. The findings that emerged from my PhD research were incorporated into the whole TAB process. My dissertation is in the public domain, but it’s still difficult for outsiders to use a study like that to figure out what the added value for their own company might be. I made a point of involving our partners fully during those TAB meetings and that was very well received. Despite their best efforts, every company has to deal with defects in the production process from time to time. My research helped identify the cause of this, so that it can be prevented in the future. During our interaction, I noticed how much positive energy I was getting from my contact with the business sector. Gradually, I discovered a desire to help them with the commercial side of things in addition to the technical side. For me it’s fascinating to tap into a company’s mindset, to understand their problems and to search for a solution together. Even if that solution has yet to be developed through our research. I continue to be active as a researcher, but in combination with a business focus. As a business developer, I need a certain level of knowledge about thermoplastic composites but I no longer want to get into the very fine detail. The balance is right. I feel right at home in this role.”

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You’re still very much in contact with the TPRC’s partners. What kind of topics do they raise?

“New or potential partners are an interesting group. For example, they want to make the transition from an existing thermoset factory to a production environment for thermoplastics. In a nutshell, their question is ‘Help me, how do I make that happen?’ I then need to ask a few questions. ‘What parts do you make? How complex is the geometry? What production techniques can be used? What knowledge do you lack?’ That kind of thing. In other words, we start with the content, and then together we push the envelope and develop the desired expertise. Having the opportunity to engage creatively with a partner like this is the best part of my job.”

How do you see the future of your profession?

“At present, thermoplastic composites and their production processes are relatively costly compared to conventional materials, but that is set to change. We will therefore continue to see our materials in situations where lightweight construction has a vital role to play. In the aerospace industry, of course, but also increasingly in the automotive industry. It is essential to keep the weight of vehicles as low as possible. The urgency is growing and the energy transition is another major factor. Motor vehicles will have to get lighter. In thermoplastic composites, we have already overcome the fundamental obstacles. We can produce the right materials flawlessly and extremely quickly, and we have a detailed understanding of how they work. To cut a long story short, the use of thermoplastic composites will increase enormously in these sectors.”

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And how do you see your own future?

“I want to keep pushing boundaries, working closely with our partners and (PhD-)researchers. Within that combination, I want to focus on new techniques like induction welding, and bringing the electrical and the materials domain together. That’s where the future lies. I also want to spend more time on the road again, getting a feel for how our partners operate. Covid made life difficult on that score. Getting a real sense of how things work in practice is essential in my line of work. I can see myself being happy in this job for years to come. I often explain to friends and family that thermoplastic composites are the equivalent of the next-level carbon material you see in road bikes. In other words, I keep it simple. But as thermoplastic composites are used more widely, the familiarity and understanding among the general public is increasing. Doing my bit to move that process along is definitely fulfilling.”

#TPRCminds

Our series #TPRCminds introduces you to the people behind our success. Who are they? What is their background?
What drives them and what do they dream about? How do they look at the future of thermoplastic composites?

Continue reading other #TPRCminds episodes:

Photos ©Gijs van Ouwerkerk, photo of the brand new Doctor of Philosophy ©Elroy van Slooten

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