Two Funding Projects, One Focus: Supporting SMEs With Digitalisation and Skills Shortages

The Stuttgart and Neckar-Alb regions are considered hotspots for the automotive and mechanical engineering industries, employing over 200,000 individuals ranging from startups and SMEs to major players. The project “CARS 2.0” (Cluster Automotive Region Stuttgart 2.0), launched in July 2022 and funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK), provides a platform for players to network as part of a transformation network. Gerhard Ebert, an advisor in the technology transfer department of the Stuttgart Chamber of Skilled Crafts (HWK Stuttgart), presents the joint project involving various partners from business, research, associations and educational institutions. In an interview, he explains how the network supports companies in the digital transformation, the shortage of skilled workers and electromobility. He also looks at the similarities with the Car Repair 4.0 project.tehen.

Zwei Förderprojekte, eine Ausrichtung: CARS 2.0 und Autowerkstatt 4.0 unterstützen bei Digitalisierung und Fachkräftemangel
Photo by on Freepik / HWK Stuttgart

Car Repair 4.0: Mr Ebert, what was the motivation for founding the CARS 2.0 cluster?
Gerhard Ebert: The automotive and mechanical engineering sectors have always played a major role in the Stuttgart and Neckar-Alb regions, serving as essential economic drivers. Since digitalisation with increasing online sales and electromobility is a particular challenge for smaller car repair shops, the idea of founding a network to support businesses in the transformation emerged some time ago. Our aim is to sustainably secure regional performance and a high level of employment.

Car Repair 4.0: Did the desire for a platform come from the industry?
Ebert: We have received feedback from the companies concerned that their turnover figures are stagnating and, in some cases, declining. In addition, it was foreseeable that areas of activity would disappear as e-mobility took off. Our approach, therefore, refers to the expansion of business areas and new business models to compensate for the drop in turnover.

Car Repair 4.0: What are the specific goals of the project?
Ebert: One goal is to raise awareness of the many services already available through our partners. We also intend to create our own information and awareness-raising offers for digital transformation and its opportunities for businesses.

Car Repair 4.0: What other topics and measures do you support businesses with?
Our events deal with digital payment options, planning systems, social media and cybersecurity, among other things. In car repair shops, we help businesses develop new business ideas and models and give tips on how to approach them strategically.

Car Repair 4.0: How do you manage to match the different interests of startups and large corporations?
Ebert: A separate sub-project deals with startups to enable them to exchange ideas with the industry through network meetings. The startups have an offer that is interesting for larger companies. We create the stage for them to be able to present it. Because it is often through bilateral talks that interests, needs and opportunities for cooperation first become clear. For example, we organise speed date events to which different SMEs are invited. Startups can present their products in a pitch and then intensify business relationships and court potential business.

Car Repair 4.0: Who is involved in the project and what role does the HWK Stuttgart play within the network?
Ebert: The cooperation project CARS 2.0 is under the leadership of Wirtschaftsförderung Region Stuttgart GmbH. Other project partners are the Stuttgart Region Chamber of Industry and Commerce , the Bildungswerk der Baden-Württembergischen Wirtschaft e.V. (the education unit of the Baden-Württemberg Business Association), IG-Metall and the Stuttgart Region Chamber of Skilled Crafts (HWK). In addition, several associated partners are involved in the initiative. As the Chamber of Skilled Crafts, we represent the interests of the approximately 1,600 skilled crafts enterprises from the above-mentioned sectors and bring their views and needs into the project.

Car Repair 4.0: What is the importance of the project participants for networking and exchange?
Ebert: They are important in two respects. On the one hand, the project participants create transparency about state-of-the-art technology. This eliminates information deficits. Secondly, cross-industry cooperation opportunities arise between companies of different sizes and between companies and research institutions.

Car Repair 4.0: What content-related, conceptual and strategic approaches do CARS 2.0 and CR 4.0 have in common?
Ebert: In terms of content, what the two BMWK-funded projects have in common is that they use modern technologies to cope with the increasing complexity in the automotive sector. Increasingly sophisticated vehicles and systems go hand in hand with a major shortage of skilled workers. Digital technologies – such as artificial intelligence in CR 4.0 – are intended to empower employees to evaluate information and data in order to better deal with complexity and to organise processes and the use of resources more efficiently. Like CR 4.0, CARS 2.0 aims to counter the shortage of skilled workers.

Car Repair 4.0: There are also similarities when it comes to training. To what extent can training offers help SMEs with the challenges?
Ebert: Training and ongoing education are very central topics in CARS 2.0. We are registering the needs in companies and vocational schools in order to close gaps in learning opportunities. To this end, we are conducting a survey until the end of September and developing new concepts together with training providers. It is already apparent that there is a need for action in sensor technology and agile working methods.

For maintenance and repair, we are developing curricula and further training courses as part of the project in order to be able to offer extended training for motor vehicle technicians. They will thus be able to further qualify as “specialists for alternative drives”. 

Car Reoair 4.0: E-mobility is closely related to the sharing and common use of data. How do you assess the situation for independent car repair shops?
Ebert: In my opinion, sharing data among car repair shops still plays a minor role. What’s of greater importance is access to vehicle data. Many repairs are only feasible with extended access to the vehicle’s internal systems. Independent car repair shops, in particular, voice concerns about a competitive disadvantage. Car repair shops that service different makes are particularly affected because they are dependent on the provision of data from several manufacturers simultaneously. The Data Act, currently in preparation, could bring about a change in the law that might address this situation.   

Car Repair 4.0: How do you rate a secure infrastructure in this context?
Ebert: A secure and trustworthy infrastructure is substantial for businesses, whereby you have to differentiate between a two-person business and an SME with several hundred employees. Because the smaller the company is, the less time the owner has to deal with questions of a data infrastructure. They needs plug-and-play solutions that are easy to handle and yet reliable. This user does not have much time to familiarise themselves with the system in their day-to-day business.

All the more essential is a low-threshold entry with a transparent presentation – also of the data transfer. If the technology of Car Repair 4.0  becomes part of the training of future master craftspeople and mechatronics engineers, the acceptance and willingness to use artificial intelligence will also change.

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About Ralf Schädel
Ralf Schädel is an IT editor, speaker, and project manager at eco - Verband der Internetwirtschaft e.V. in the field of cloud services and Gaia-X. For more than 20 years, the publishing editor has been publishing and speaking in the area of editorial communication of daily newspapers such as the Bonner Rundschau and the Kölner Stadtanzeiger, publishing houses such as Medienhaus, where he was the content-responsible editor for the trade magazine IT-Mittelstand and to whose sister publication IT-Director he contributed. He also handled editorial topics at agencies such as Kernpunkt, the digital agency i22 and PR Partner (now Palmer Hargreaves) as well as in corporate communications at Deutsche Telekom. At eco, Ralf is responsible in particular for the communication of the projects Autowerkstatt 4.0 and Service-Meister. His professional profile: LinkedIn, Xing.