In January 2021, am-LAB received the first prize of the 2020 DIHNET Champions Challenge. This initiative developed by DIHNET Network aims at identifying good practice cases of mature Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs).
We met with the enthusiast Balazs Barta, Founder and Managing Director of am-LAB who told us a little bit more about the story of am-LAB, the way they work and the services that they provide.
Watch the short interview and keep reading for a more in-depth interview!
Tell us a bit about the hub and how it started
am-LAB was established in January 2017, as a division of Pannon Business Network (PBN). The idea originated from over a decade of SME development, where the focus was always on innovation, competitiveness and added value of companies. We had the feedback and impression that customers want to have tangible services following the audits. Another learning was the transformative trend of digitalization. Interestingly, we learned all these insights from a Central European project, called 3DCentral. When the lead partner showed on the kick-off conference the application of 3Dprinters in the wood industry in 2016, and how transformative it is, we had the team decision to move into this direction. Than we could learn in Pamplona, Bologna, Stuttgart, how to manage transformation towards a digital innovation hub. All these know-how transfers facilitated via Interreg and Horizon projects. We cannot be grateful enough for the programmes and the great partners. In 4 years we managed to achieve 4 thematic pillars (robotics, 3Dtechnologies, extended reality and data science), with team of engineers trained, and over 50 customers serviced per year.
Could you describe your DIH ecosystem and its development policy?
Since the early phases we put large emphasis on integration and involvement of the relevant actors. We have a strategic partnership with the city of Szombathely and the
county Vas, formulated also in written format. We played active role in defining a territorial vision for 2030 with the participation of 3 universities, representatives of companies and the municipality. Our region is working on the structural reform and diversification of the industry, shifting from labour intensive automotive manufacturer to higher added value producer, also in the health-industry. The focus is on research-and-development reinforcement and new educational programs.
What specific services does your DIH offer?
am-LAB has two layers of services:
In case of the digitalization services the components are robotics (collaborative, industrial, aerial and mobile), 3Dtechnologies (3Dprinters and 3Dscanning), extended reality (augmented and virtual reality) and data science (segmentation, classification, NLP). Different courses are available to companies, to students and senior citizens. In 2020 over a dozen applied research-and-development projects were also started with the companies. With respect to strategic layer, am-LAB plays a central role in the re-structuring of the economy. It has to perform a catalysator role to generate mindset changes, making the environment aware how digitalization can be interpreted in a practical manner and how to transforms the way businesses and value will be created.
Can you provide some figures on the companies supported by your DIH? How many companies have been accompanied by the DIH, what companies do you usually support?
At am-LAB in 2020 over 3.000 citizens and companies participated at various digitalization events. Strong cooperation with business customers is a crucial pillar of the operation. 50 companies visit am-LAB annually – both online and physically. Before the pandemic 200-250 pupils visited the laboratory, we hope to get back to this number in 2021. The average customer is a manufacturing company, with over 75 employees.
Can you please provide a practical example of a case you supported?
Customer requests varies from 1-day digitalization trainings to tailormade developments. A multiple solution was provided to a company, which wanted to develop an oxygen inhaler mask. We received a hand-drawing, from which we prepared model, followed by 3Dprinted various versions. Than the final prototype was demonstrated by a CGI-movie, following that the samples and the image and assembly commercial were brought to multinational customers. Since one of them decided to purchase the product, we also had to prepare the tool for the mass production.
What is your vision of DIHs development in Europe?
The challenge of any DIH is its sustainability. The relatively easiest part is to manage the purchase of the digitalization equipment. However, they have extremely fast amortization, and skills have to be developed quickly to exploit these tools. Based on our experience 1 unit of investment requires 3-4 times more funding into the quality human resources. The key to sustainability is like the glocalization used to be for companies several years ago – to identify local specialization meanwhile providing the broad portfolio originating from the
What could be the added value of Pan-European collaboration?
As outlined above, the connectivity to provide broad portfolio, and direct access to local specializations of the individual DIHs. In this case one DIH does not need to invest into too diverse portfolio of devices, and can focus on few selected fields.
Did you receive any EU funds and, if so, how did you employ them?
It is vital for our operation since the beginning. We have zero normative public support, and we need to find the ways to manage liquidity and investment. It is partially originating from companies, partially from EU funds. EU funds are essential to certain type of activities, which are socially beneficial, yet the consumers do not pay market price for it. It is typically information sharing, education to the broader ecosystem, or basic digitalization courses. What in the range of market services is the tailormade developments to companies – like prototype design and printing, animated commercials, sensor technology-based applications. And it cannot be emphasized enough how important EU funds are for transnational collaborations, learning experiences, visiting fairs and study visits. In case of our Austrian-Hungarian border region we are managing currently a split of functionalities, 5 DIHs of us, and provide service to companies jointly.
Did COVID affect you? In which way?
Positive impact was that once we got used to online forums, we could reach far broader audience than before. Previously we had thematic international workshops with 15-20 participants, nowadays, they often run with 60 members. It was also positive impact that as we were ‘forced’ not to travel, we had time for more intensive specialization – by reading and studying more to gain more insights of existing areas -, and less of the extensive growth – like less new application fields. On the other hand, we miss the new impulses from partners and events, so, it is vital to return to normal with respect to target study tours.
Are you a candidate EDIH and if so, what are your expectations from the future EDIH?
We prepared a very detailed plan with healthcare and automotive focus, together with the best universities and companies. Even two dozens of international partners and European organizations provided us letter of support. Unfortunately, our government decided to compose three European Digital Innovation Hub candidates, each of them from Budapest. Hopefully, it will change in the future. We are working committedly, as we have been doing for for 1.5 decades.
Interview by Lucie Milcent, Funding Box