A Portrait: Manfred Weck "In the World of Machines"

The long-standing director of the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering at RWTH Aachen, Professor Dr.-Ing. Dr. Ing. E. h. Manfred Weck, to be honored with the Aachen Engineering Award. A Portrait.

While his classmates jumped in the pool on hot summer days, Manfred Weck dove into the world of machines. In his parents’ 30-person operation, which produced surgical tools such as forceps, scalpels, and clamps, he became familiar with mechanical engineering as a young man. The topic never lost its grip on him: Over many decades he shaped the research and development of machines to produce workpieces – as head of the Chair of Machine Tools and one of the directors of the RWTH Aachen Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering. “Manfred Weck has significantly contributed to the understanding and improvement of machine tools which form the heart of industrial production. He investigated the mechanisms and functions of the machine tool down to its finest details,” says RWTH Rector Ernst Schmachtenberg. “Engineers from Aachen have an excellent reputation worldwide, and Manfred Weck is one of the renowned Aachen engineers,” emphasizes Marcel Phillip, lord mayor of Aachen. On September 8, 2017, to honor his life’s work, Manfred Weck will be presented with the Aachen Engineering Award in a celebration event in the Coronation Hall of Aachen City Hall. A week later, on September 16, at the RWTH Aachen Graduation Celebration, he has the honor of talking about his life’s work to graduates in the key-note speech.

The engineering award is presented annually to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the positive perception and further development of engineering with his or her life’s work. The Association of German Engineers VDI endows the sculpture “Intersecting Ellipses” by artist Mariana Castillo Deball, which is awarded to the recipient. A selection criterion that is as equally important as the technical achievements is the award winner’s function as a role model for the younger generation. Past award recipients include influential, high-profile personalities in engineering, such as Berthold Leibinger, Partner at Trumpf GmbH + Co. KG; Franz Pischinger, Founder of FEV GmbH; and the scientist and astronaut Thomas Reiter.

Not a Straight Path

Manfred Weck’s path from his parents’ business in Solingen to the RWTH Aachen Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering was not a straight line. He was supposed to join his parents after completing his ordinary level school-leaving certificate, commercial college, and an apprenticeship as a toolmaker. Against his parents’ wishes he attended the engineering school in Iserlohn. With the moral support of his wife, he pursued studies at the Technical University in Aachen: he enrolled in mechanical engineering with a specialization in production engineering. After three years he earned his Diplom in 1966 – despite having continued to work in his parents’ business, to provide for his family.

The Solinger completed his doctorate at WZL and worked as a senior engineer under Herwart Opitz. Weck still considers it an honor to have worked for Opitz. He then entered industry taking up the managing director of technology position at Wolf-Geräte in Beztdorf in 1971. While working as a senior engineer he earned his Habilitation and gave lectures, as he didn’t want to sever his ties to RWTH. In 1973 Weck succeeded Opitz at RWTH: 238 young engineers completed their doctorate over the 31 years of his professorship, many of whom became chairs of respected companies or professors at other universities. Weck was head of the Chair of Machine Tools until his retirement in 2004. During this time he and the other WZL directors Walter Eversheim, Wilfried König, and Tilo Pfeifer not only expanded the WZL but also the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology, founded in 1980. Weck particularly promoted lightweight construction for highly dynamic moving machine structures and ultraprecision production at the Fraunhofer Institute. In 1988 he founded the “Forschungsgemeinschaft Ultrapräzisionstechnik” or “ultra-precision engineering research association.”

More Tinkerer than Mechanical Engineer

He had a memorable career – from the first steps in digitalization using punch cards to machines powered by micro-process computers. The first numerically controlled machine in Europe based on a process computer stood in Aachen at WZL. “Today, the machine tool is a highly precise high-tech device. Thanks to comprehensive calculation and simulation techniques we can now describe the production time and quality of workpieces to be produced by the machines, even though the machines do not yet even exist,” explains Weck. In the past detailed models of the planned machines had to be designed, tested, and optimized before the first prototype could be created, which then often went through many further optimization rounds. “I experienced this at the beginning of my professional career. Back then we were more tinkerers than engineers.”

Weck says this without melancholy; he still clearly sees – always looking ahead – the advantages of digitalization. At the same time he believes creativity and an engineer’s knowledge remain the most important assets: “One still has to have a defining idea.” But today other aspects have become important that make one a good engineer: “For example responsibility regarding the environmental sustainability for the later use of one’s work. Furthermore good cost and time management skills, knowledge of standards and legal requirements, personnel management, and teamwork are important prerequisites for successful work.”

Weck fulfilled these requirements throughout his life, according to his colleagues: “He is one of the most brilliant machine engineers. Acquiring industry projects with him was always a joy and challenge. When he heard about a new need for a machine function, he would send for the technical drawing, bend over it and sketch a constructive solution,” reported Professor Günther Schuh, current director of WZL. Manfred Weck contributed to the continuous improvement and growth of the metal processing industry and productivity of German mechanical engineering. He created approaches, for example, with which the static, dynamic, and thermal behavior of machine tools could be simulated, visualized, and optimized. These achievements were the foundation of his acceptance into the Hall of Fame of German Engineering in 2015.

An Office in a Building with His Name

Every week the designated Engineering Award winner can still be found in his office, located in a building named after him. However, he doesn’t like to use the name “Manfred-Weck-Haus,” as he finds so much fuss about him embarrassing. He doesn’t like to be at the center of attention. Yes, he may have driven construction forward. However, his successors should also be housed in a modern building where they can conduct research. He was surprised when he learned t the current WZL board of directors named the new building after him in 2007.

From here Manfred Weck observes how the next generation of WZL directors is pushing for topics such as Industry 4.0. “I would never tell my successor what to do. Herward Opitz never did either. He just always said: Guys, you know where I live.” Out of personal interest, he is still involved with an automobile supplier and contributes to development. “I really enjoy that.”

Weck understood throughout his life how to separate himself from the task at hand. He was always able to switch off, he says, talking about his large garden with a koi pond. In his younger years he was active in artistic gymnastics; nowadays he relaxes by playing tennis, hiking, and playing piano. In addition to his passion for technology he was also a constant observer and humble admirer of nature in all its forms, leading him to become a hobby photographer. His favorite activity though, is sailing of any form – from surfboards to dinghies to large ships. It’s good being pushed around by the wind, he says. But even here, there is always something to be optimized on the ship and sails.