Setting the course for tomorrow
What do today’s solutions for safe, reliable rail automation have to do with earlier technologies? How can digital add-ons enhance product hardware – and with what benefits to customers? These are the questions that Thomas Prinz engages with every day in his role at Siemens Mobility. In a recent interview, the 42-year-old talked about how his grandmother’s job as a railway signaler impacted his career choice, what has changed since then, and the current role of data in the industry.
One of Siemens Mobility’s Berlin locations is tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood in the eastern part of the city – but the charm of the German capital is still palpable. Thomas Prinz likes to spend his lunch breaks at a small café across the street. Sipping his coffee, he looks out onto the grounds and explains what happens behind the factory gates. Around 900 people are employed at this location: developers, engineers, product managers and production workers. They are all busy making things that support operational safety on the rails: signals, points, level crossings, and a lot more.
Thomas Prinz also works at this site in the area of product management. Although it might sound like a boring office job, it’s actually a role geared for the future. Together with other product and project managers, he helps to design products for rail automation that deliver tangible value to the customer – e.g. via digital add-ons for the mere product hardware that help enhance customer operations or improve safety.
From heavy levers to digital connectivity
“Someone probably could have predicted that I would work in rail automation,” says Thomas Prinz.
“I have so many childhood memories of the interlocking where my grandmother used to work. The interlocking was located at the end of a village called Thießen near Dessau in the former East Germany; it was about 50 meters from our home. Even then, the interlocking was full of technical things – everywhere you looked, you could see cranks and levers. People basically operated the rails by hand. For example, when the level crossings – they used to be made of wood – needed to be opened, my grandma would turn a crank. The points, too, were moved by hand.”
Although much has changed, some of those same safety principles are still valid. Only now, instead of operating a lever like Thomas’ grandmother did to clear a track section, everything runs automatically.
While buttons replaced heavy mechanical levers at first – today, almost everything is done digitally with sensors on the tracks communicating with the products.
“We are in the midst of a major transformation,” explains the 42-year-old, and quickly fills in the details: “For some time now, we have been providing products for rail automation that are much more than just hardware. They generate a constant stream of data. To benefit from that data, we use digital add-ons that not only support visualization but also help us derive actionable insights.”
Thomas even goes one step further, “There are already some use cases where new technologies or digital solutions have completely replaced conventional products. On the high-speed railway line between Berlin and Munich, for example, there are entire sections without a single signal – and I think we’ll see more of that in the future.”
Interlocking in Thiessen – a journey in pictures
Digitalization enables intelligent infrastructure
Looking at the evolution of the industry, Thomas Prinz can connect the dots between past and present: “Then, as now, the aim is to make infrastructure more intelligent. This helps make rail traffic safer, more efficient, and ultimately, more comfortable for passengers. Just think back to how long it used to take to open or close level crossings – this is much faster today. Which in turn increases the number of trains which can run during any given time.”
When asked about his job, Thomas draws a clear picture: “My job revolves around producing a clear visualization of the entire product lifecycle. This begins with a customer request and ends with the delivery. For example: How many products have we sold to which customers and where? That might seem to be a trivial question at first but it is important for us and for our customers who buy railway automation products.
“And it’s important for us to pair our rail automation products with a sense of proximity. For us to be close to the market, to the customer, and to the future. For us, proximity means listening and understanding, analyzing and developing. Above all, this means staying up to date on current trends while remaining firmly rooted in the market. That’s how we manage to continuously improve our products with and for our customers,” he continues.
Thomas elaborates on how this works in practice: “All our products generate huge amounts of data. With our digital add-ons – in most cases, apps that run on a smartphone or tablet – we create real added value for our customers who are able to better schedule maintenance work, gather information on track utilization, or receive notifications on potential malfunctions. And the whole thing is clearly visualized on a dashboard without anyone having to be on site. And by determining which customers are requesting for which functions for which products or routes, we can also improve our digital product range.”
Ultimately, Thomas Prinz’s job illustrates the opportunities that come with digitalization. In the long term, it enables a demand-oriented value chain with benefits for everyone: customers can move their business forward with the help of smart digital add-ons for rail automation products. And Thomas and his colleagues are in a better position to respond to new demands, operational issues, or product launch challenges – and collaborate effectively with the customer to find a solution.
Optimistic about what the future holds
Thomas is passionate about all aspects of data and data analytics: “Today it’s all about data. Everything is connected in networks – and that’s also the case for mobility. At Siemens Mobility, we are collaborating more closely in our different units than ever before. By bringing together different topics and skillsets, we can work together to shape the mobility of the future, address global challenges like climate change, and ultimately respond to the needs of the railway industry.”
Without a doubt, the near future will bring significant changes to the world of mobility and Thomas is not afraid of what the future holds.
“When you think about it, we’ve already seen so many changes in the way we work, even in my grandmother’s day. Now, things are changing more quickly and on a larger scale. But I am convinced that these changes are helping us move forward as a society. Back then, it was a new level crossing that opened at the push of a button. Tomorrow, it might be an app that uses multiple parameters to calculate the useful life of our products – right down to the minute. Or maybe it will be something that we can’t even imagine yet. Either way, I look forward to being there.”
Picture credits: Tobi Bohn – photographer, Berlin and Thomas Prinz – Siemens Mobility GmbH
Siemens products for Rail Automation offer more than just functionality
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