A Portrait: Franz Pischinger "Most Important are One's Inner Values"

Engine researcher and developer Professor Franz Pischinger will receive the Aachen Engineering Award from the city of Aachen and RWTH honoring his life's work – he is very happy to receive the recognition.

Franz Pischinger is in a great mood this morning, as always according to him. Nowadays though, he has many reasons to smile. Construction is underway both at work for a seven-floor research and office building as well as headquarters for FEV outside of Aachen. “This field is of particular importance in Aachen,” says Pischinger, smiling.

Just a few days ago he learned he will have two reasons to celebrate on September 11. The first reason is his 85th birthday. “Such occasions happen without any help,” says Pischinger mildly. But the second reason, the Aachen Engineering Award, with which he is to be honored, was more of a surprise to him. The prize, which is being awarded for the second time and looks forward to a long tradition, is RWTH Aachen and the city’s bow of respect to a highly admired and appreciated engineering. It serves as a sign of thanks and great recognition and an incentive for the younger generation, demonstrating that success only comes to those who bring not only knowledge but also audacity and wit to the table.

The previous year, Berthold Leibinger (TRUMPF GmbH + Co. KG), a passionate engineer and visionary forward-thinker from Ditzingen, was the award’s first recipient. He significantly contributed to establishing and then further developing laser technology in Germany. This year, a worldwide renowned scientist, engineer, and businessman in the field of drive, automotive, and electrical engineering, will be honored. “I won’t protest,” says Pischinger with a chuckle. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

The professor happily submitted to a Q and A:

What does being an engineer mean to you?

Pischinger: It means being creative, doing something, creating something that’s not there that makes it easier for people to cope with life.

It begins in your mind and hopefully, in the end, you have something good in your hands. Is that also the incentive in research and development?

Pischinger: Yes, of course, but the path from idea to invention to innovation to a usable object can be long and difficult. But it is true that even as a child I was fascinated with turning ideas into something tangible.

Now you didn’t invent the gasoline or diesel engine…

Pischinger: That is true. The combustion engine has existed for a while now, but I wasn’t among those in the 50s, who thought it had reached its full potential and there was nothing else to research. In reality, they weren’t sufficiently developed, they hissed and were loud and poisonous.

In those times, a product could still be successful with a number of side effects.

Pischinger: And that’s exactly what I focused on my entire life – to improve efficiency, that is improve performance with less fuel. Then to reduce the noise and above all else, getting a handle on exhaust emissions.

Franz Pischinger outright admits to loving cars, but he quickly adds “I care most about what’s in the inside!” And he can judge what’s on the inside better than anyone. Pischinger pursued a straight path with brilliance. After studying engineering, he worked as a research assistant at the Chair of Combustion Engines and Thermodynamics at Graz University of Technology, where he then completed his doctorate in 1954. After his habilitation in the thermodynamics of combustion engines, he became the head of the research division of the AVL (Anstalt für Verbrennungskraftmaschinen List) in Graz in 1958. Between 1962 and 1970, he worked at Klöckner Humboldt Deutz AG, eventually serving as head of engine development.

The Aachen chapter of his life began in 1970. Pischinger accepted an appointment as professor of applied thermodynamics and the director of the Institute of Thermodynamics at RWTH Aachen. He shared his knowledge and experience in the field of combustion engines and applied thermodynamics with approximately 9,000 students till 1997. More than 200 engineers completed their doctorates in projects headed by him.

It is not a given, that a researcher also enjoys being a teacher, who shares what he knows.

Pischinger: That’s true, but I always enjoyed this part of the work. I wouldn’t have been able to produce and support so many outstanding young people otherwise. The doctoral candidates even founded an alumni association. I’d call it a type of bond, appreciation, and affection.

Did you achieve a balance between research and teaching? With so many students and doctoral candidates, not much time is left over.

Pischinger: Well, I was never able to keep to an 8-hour work day. (He laughs.) I did have time to research, which was and is important. The idea of being able to research and work at RWTH Aachen with its worldwide reputation, proved to be successful. In collaboration with other professors and their departments, we were also able to establish collaborative research centers on engine combustion, for example, which advanced us even further.

How important was your team?

Pischinger: Teamwork, including beyond our disciplinary boundaries, was always decisive. The younger team members were important to this goal; we usually succeeded in finding the good ones and keeping them. They were always there, at the institute and in the company.  

Do you still drop by the institute, which your son Stefan has now directed for almost 20 years?

Pischinger: Not very often. I try not to get involved in University affairs. But I am still active here at FEV. I am still very much interested in this vibrant company.

The FEV motor technology institution, which now has approximately 3,800 employees and is headquartered in Aachen, is involved in all significant innovations worldwide. Whether a high efficiency combustion system (HECS) or a diesel particle filter (DPF), whether a turbocharged Otto engine with direct fuel injection, two-step charging, or downsizing – FEV is there. From innovations like reduced fuel use to the reduction of emissions, Franz Pischinger was as interested as ever and was always familiar with innovative developments in electromagnetic valve trains, mechanically variable valve trains, different systems for variable compression ratios, fuel injection systems, hybrid drives, and battery and performance management systems for electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

He pauses and reflects at the mention of “electric:” “The electric motor always fascinated me,” he begins cautiously. “We can and must continue to work and research in this field. However, the core aspects are the performance, state, and charging time of the battery. It must be lighter weight and more affordable, and then a lot will be possible.” In 1978 Pischinger founded FEV in Aachen. A re-purposed apartment on Augustinersgasse served as the first office for the four-person crew. The company quickly turned into leading worldwide development partner for the engine and vehicle industry. In 2003, Fran Pischinger passed the torch to his son and co-partner Professor Stefan Pischinger, who assumed the operational management.

Being the director of the RWTH chair and having a passion for research would have been sufficient for a normal professional life. What was so interesting about entrepreneurship?

Pischinger: Back then the automotive industry was very interested in collaborating with the university. However, the aim was more focused on industrial reality beyond basic research. I understood that. In 1977/78, I had an excellent offer from industry but also had the idea to found the company.

Do you know that starting the company would be a success?

Pischinger: You can never predict such a thing. But it was clear that combustion engines posed great potential for the future for researchers and developers.

As a university professor founding a company, you were in uncharted waters, garnering fierce reactions.

Pischinger: You can say that. I was an ice-breaker at the time. The conflict of interest was discussed forwards and backwards. Nowadays it’s almost impossible to imagine, but at the time it wasn’t easy.

The senior Pischinger is still sought after as an expert worldwide. The press named him the “engine pope;” the professor cheerfully dismisses such appraisal. His dedication to technology and science also appears in other activities such as in the Association of German Engineers, the SAE in the US, and the foundation of the German Academy of Technical Sciencies acatech, which he serves as vice-president. His over 200 publications and many patents, his membership in prominent professional institutions, and numerous awards and honors are proof of his never ending accomplishments.

And now the Aachen Engineering Award. Aachen honors a great engineer for their lifework with an award created exactly for that purpose. RWTH and the city award the prize together. "This makes it a particular honor,“ says the native Austrian, “because it’s from my new home.” Aachen, which enjoys a "special location in Europe“and the internationality of which the professor values, has truly succeeded in becoming his new home. “A part of my family is here, RWTH and all its possibilities is here, the company is located here – that’s what you call home!”

Author and Interview: Bernd Büttgens