Reinhart Poprawe is distinguished by the fact that he knows both theory and practice: The graduate physicist gained his first experience with laser-specific process developments as department head at Fraunhofer ILT as early as the mid-1980s – in the pioneering days of the then still very young laser technology. As Managing Director of Thyssen Laser-Technik GmbH in Aachen, he subsequently put this knowledge into industrial practice. With this solid, industrially mature know-how in his luggage, he returned to the world of teaching and applied research in 1996 and became head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT and the Chair for Laser Technology LLT at RWTH Aachen University. Thanks to his great commitment, the Fraunhofer ILT, with its associated chairs, is regarded as Europe's largest institute for applied laser research and contract development for industry. Indeed, the Munich scholar Joseph von Fraunhofer would certainly be proud of this creative power. “Our namesake has not only always been active in optical technologies, but has also seen innovations with a focus to applying them«, Professor Reimund Neugebauer, President of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, explains in his video message and turns directly to Poprawe: “The possibilities of laser technology have grown massively during your working life, and you and your team in Aachen have played a significant role in this”.
Networking science and research in a new dimension
High-ranking representatives from science and industry, including Dr. e. h. Peter Leibinger, Vice Chairman of the Management Board of the TRUMPF Group, Dr. Reinhard Pfeiffer, Vice Chairman of the Management Board of Messe München, former Fraunhofer CFO Prof. Alfred Gossner, former RWTH Rector Prof. Burkhard Rauhut and current RWTH Rector Prof. Ulrich Rüdiger all agree: Poprawe has set standards in photonics thanks to his consistent and visionary work. As Vice-Rector for Research, Structure and Young Scientists at RWTH Aachen University, Prof. Poprawe is co-initiator of the RWTH Aachen Campus, which is now growing into one of the world's most important technology landscapes and brings together innovative minds from industry and science under one roof. Under Poprawe’s leadership, the Photonics Cluster has been working on new ways of generating, shaping and using light, especially as a tool for industrial production, since 2010. Around 30 companies and their laser experts have already established themselves in this environment and use the short distances for new ideas and creative solutions to upcoming technological problems. Private investors created the building conditions for this on the campus. With the Digital Photonic Production research campus funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), new forms of long-term and systematic cooperation between RWTH Aachen University, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and industry are being established in this environment – a result of the personal commitment of Prof. Poprawe and his Aachen team.
Innovative, interdisciplinary, international
The spectrum of Fraunhofer ILT innovations in the Poprawe era ranges from the development of the Innoslab lasers and the first diode-pumped multi-kW solid-state lasers for industrial applications to the development and use of high-power ultrafast lasers all the way to process and system development for laser powder bed fusion LPBF and extreme high-speed laser material deposition EHLA. All of these award-winning innovations have been developed by highly motivated engineers and scientists, to whom Reinhart Poprawe offered extremely creative freedom along with an outstanding infrastructure and a conducive institute culture. On average, a patent was filed at Fraunhofer ILT every three to four weeks during the decades of his work. Over the course of 20 years, around 30 companies were founded in this environment, which Prof. Poprawe actively supported with his networks during the critical initial phase.
However, as a person Poprawe cannot simply be reduced to this innovative dimension. Much more, he thinks and acts across borders. For this reason, interdisciplinarity was always at the center of his work. The cooperation between the additive manufacturing experts at Fraunhofer ILT and innovative physicians led to the first printed hip implants used clinically in Germany, for example. Within the Photonics Cluster of RWTH Aachen University, Reinhart Poprawe and the Digital Photonic Production Research Center have initiated a strategic network of institutes in which 16 institutes from six faculties of RWTH Aachen University cooperate in the field of basic research of photonic technologies. The composition of the scientists and engineers at Fraunhofer ILT and the associated chairs is also characterized by an interdisciplinary approach. During his tenure, the number of employees at Fraunhofer ILT, the associated chairs and the photonics cluster grew from 250 to a total of around 800 laser experts and prospective scientists. In the meantime, an area of around 30,000 square meters is available for R&D activities.
Excellent global innovative strength
Prof. Poprawe's numerous awards include the Arthur L. Schawlow Award of the Laser Institute of America (LIA) in 2014 and the honorary professorship of Tshingua University in Beijing in the same year. They stand for his international commitment, which spanned all continents. The physicist, who already lived abroad during his studies, was particularly active in the USA, China and Japan. At the European level, Prof. Poprawe was also intensively involved in establishing research programs with international implications through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) institution Photonics21. His work has often been honored, for example, with the Joseph von Fraunhofer Prize in 1987, the Innovation Prize of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2011, and recently with the Fraunhofer coin.
Education as a matter close to the heart – for the benefit of society
Poprawe took on a role model in teaching his subject matter: laser technology. Furthermore, he was happy to introduce new teaching formats such as “Flipped Classrooms”. It was not for nothing that the students awarded him the teaching prize of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of RWTH Aachen University four times. In his time as professor, he was also the first assessor of over 200 doctorates. That is reason enough for 60 of his former doctoral students to present him with a mortarboard “made by RWTH Chair LLT” during the honorary symposium in Munich. A matter close to his heart now and then – he not only passed on knowledge, but also saw to the professional and personal growth of young scientists: “In addition to learning the essential specialist knowledge, the students must also develop an early awareness of their importance for the photonics industry. In this way, they can be motivated to use their creativity later on for socially relevant topics”. That is Poprawe's credo.