From Barracks to AI Hotspot

The economy of Kaiserslautern, a former military base, slumped after the withdrawal of American and French troops in the nineties. However, the region in Rheinland-Pfalz has reinvented itself as an attractive location for information technology and science.

May 2020

Kaiserslautern in Rheinland-Pfalz has been an international city for a long time: Almost 25,000 U.S. and French soldiers were stationed there at the beginning of the 1990s. The military bases were the main economic driver in Kaiserslautern and the surrounding area – responsible for more than 40,000 jobs. In the last few decades, the United States has largely and France completely withdrawn their armed forces, while jobs have been lost with other major local employers, such as the sewing machine manufacturer Pfaff and the railway repairs depot. The unemployment rate rose to 17 percent in the late nineties.

Harnessing the digital transformation

Since 2000, however, Kaiserslautern has recovered. The Kaiserslautern University of Technology (TU) and the Kaiserslautern University of Applied Sciences (HS) were key drivers of that change. They ensured that renowned research institutes settled in the city – such as the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems and the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering IESE as well as the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics ITWM. “Over the past 10 to 15 years, Kaiserslautern has developed into one of the most agile and renowned science locations in terms of digital transformation,” says Dieter Rombach, founder and former director of the Fraunhofer IESE. There’s a dynamic ecosystem here that makes it easy for foreign companies and investors to network with scientists. The Science and Innovation Alliance Kaiserslautern (SIAK), for example, provides a forum for universities, 10 research institutions and 40 high-tech companies to exchange information with each other.

The VoloDrone is the first large drone for agricultural use, made as part of a joint venture between argicultural equipment manufacturer John Deere and Volocopter GmbH, based in Bruchsal. It is fully functional and ready for its first mission. The potential applications of the VoloDrone are manifold. © JohnDeere / Volocopter

This was a good enough reason for the U.S. tractor manufacturer John Deere to locate its European Technology Innovation Center (ETIC) in Kaiserslautern, and the French car manufacturer PSA also has a plant there. The “bloodletting” of traditional jobs has been compensated for by about the same number of jobs in high-tech industries, says Rombach. The high instance of spin-offs from academic research has contributed to this uplift, such as the international IT company Empolis, which has co-founded the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). Empolis’ director Stefan Wess came to Kaiserslautern in 1984 because “some of the world’s best minds were already teaching in the then still very young field of artificial intelligence,” he says.

“Kaiserslautern is also a very open and very international city,” Wess says, and it offers plenty of commercial space, such as the former 20ha site of Pfaff. The abandoned military bases also have great potential: A former French barracks site set over 65ha has been converted into the PRE-Park industrial estate, where 75 companies have already settled, creating around 2,350 jobs. Rombach is certain the trend is set to continue: “The planned foundation of a Rheinland-Pfalz innovation and foundation hub in Kaiserslautern will accelerate further foundation and settlement projects.”

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