Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited representatives from politics, science and industry – including more than a hundred top managers of German companies – to come together on 10 and 11 December 1982 for the 3rd Berlin Economic Summit, whose crucial discussions unfolded in Berlin’s Reichstag building. With the conferences, the Federal Government sought to strengthen Germany’s position as research and industrial centre, and particularly that of Berlin.
Enterprises in the former federal territory were encouraged to change their mindset with regard to Berlin, and to initiate further decisions for the benefit of the former capital. The conference was also intended to trigger a certain optimism about the future, an aim which was also supported by the unions and the former SPD chancellor candidate Hans-Jochen Vogel; it kept out of the Bundestag election, albeit not of the East-West conflict: The former Soviet news agency TASS described the conference as a „provocation”. Helmut Kohl said (quoted in Berliner Morgenpost, 12 December 1983): „We came here to help Berlin and advance peace.”
The conferences also sought to highlight Berlin’s status as a strong science location. Its „intellectual capital“ should be used more intensively to ensure Berlin had an advantage in the qualification of its talent. Berlin’s research findings should be implemented in technology transfer to high-end industrial products. The declared aim was to establish innovative industries and seed „germ cells“ for more high-quality jobs. The results of the third Business Conference exceeded expectations: over a thousand potential new jobs were projected. At the time, Volkswagen even considered shifting the in-house production of robots – then sometimes still called „manipulators“ – to Berlin. The conference produced not only positive intent declarations but also concrete decisions and the announcement of new business start-ups. One of them was the foundation of inpro. Daimler-Benz, BMW, VW and Siemens expressed their interest in a company tasked with performing joint research and developing future-oriented production processes. At the conference, the chairmen Dr. Carl H. Hahn (Volkswagen AG), Dr. Karlheinz Kaske (Siemens AG), Dr. Eberhard von Kuenheim (BMW AG) and Dr. Gerhard Prinz (Daimler-Benz AG) solemnly declared before the Chancellor their intention to jointly work in the field of innovative production technology, and that they would be setting up an innovative company in Berlin to that end.
Professor Günter Spur and representatives of the participating companies continued subsequently with the project. In a founding meeting held on January 20, 1983, the term „Innovation Company for Machine Intelligence“, IMI for short, was proposed as a company name. Eventually, however, they decided on the company name „inpro.” Comparable institutions throughout the world, such as the Robot Institute of America, Hudson Institute (New York, USA), RAND Corporation (USA) or MITI (Tokyo, Japan), were mentioned. It was emphasised that the German automotive industry could only survive in a competitive market if it had technological excellence. Innovations in production technology were deemed to be key to the „automobile factory of tomorrow.” The „development of modern production systems“ was considered a joint task, with aspects that would be solved by each automotive company individually and aspects that would be developed jointly.
Japan’s example was crucial in this respect. In the Japan of those days, technology development was implemented by private companies, but these could rely on state support to set high quality standards and provide industry-related basic research. In the handout detailing how technologically oriented „think-tank companies“ in the US operate, it describes them as „having taken a highly industrialised, intellectual thinking approach to focus on models of the future.” Using the latest computer technology, these companies would also work on optimizations and simulations for complex problems. In Germany, these aspects had been neglected. The first name proposal, i.e. „Innovation Society for Machine Intelligence“, indicates the emerging potential of microelectronics in industrial production, with the opportunity to build new and prospective factories using „machine intelligence as the element that define the structure of advanced production technology.” Further to process automation, decentralised information processing for planning or new applications for industrial robots were discussed. The aim was to achieve „systematic troubleshooting with complex technology“ through the combined efforts of manufacturers, users, research institutions and government agencies.
In spring 1983, it was again pointed out that the emphasis should be on the technical production sector, as „radiations from the product area“ were to some extent inevitable. In addition, ensuring the competitiveness of the automotive companies involved was stressed as a key objective. On June 15, 1983, in a meeting attended by mayor Richard von Weizsäcker and senators Elmar Pieroth (Economy) and Gerhard Kunz (Finance), representatives of Daimler-Benz, BMW, VW and Siemens announced the foundation of the „Innovation Company for Advanced Production Systems in the Automotive Industry mbH.” The importance of the company’s foundation for its partners became clear in the appointment of the first Supervisory Board. As reported in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of June 16, 1983, the automobile companies sent their „Heads of Production“: Daimler-Benz AG board member Prof. Werner Niefer, Volkswagen AG board member Dr. Günter Hartwich, BMW AG board member Hans Koch, and Siemens AG plenipotentiary Dr. Siegfried Waller. Professor Günter Spur, a renowned university professor, production specialist at the TU Berlin and director of the Fraunhofer Institute IPK, was appointed as founding managing director.
The new company officially started operating on 1 July 1983. inpro was one of the „key projects“ of the 3rd Berlin Business Summit held at the end of 1982, which also triggered further activities in Berlin. The mainly „think-tank“ approach, instead of that of a development laboratory, was unprecedented, at least in Germany. The company was to provide research and engineering work, albeit operate as a manufacturing company itself. Company partners expected a boost to their own R&D, which would otherwise be unable to make significant breakthroughs otherwise for numerous reasons. From this cooperation, inpro was to create technical expertise that would be impossible or very difficult to generate otherwise. The company’s main task or focus was to be on the development of production technology and systems for „the automobile factories of the 90s.” The headline of Berliner Morgenpost on 16 June 1983 stated: „Research company established: Innovations from Berlin for the automotive industry.”
In 1983, the initial work focus was on sensor technology, robot programming, production system simulation and the development of expert systems. In accordance with the zeitgeist, a number of industry publications understood expert systems as „an interoperable summary of existing knowledge in the field of automotive engineering inside a computer.” The partner companies decided to jointly concentrate on these four priority areas in the near future. Further to these areas, the first minutes of the project committee dated March 2, 1983, mentioned system reliability, integration systems for production control, assembly automation and computer aided design, and scheduling.
In addition to work on cross-divisional issues in production technology, the swift, qualified transfer of research results was noted as a practical principle. The company’s work with the private sector was to involve intensive cooperation with universities and other research institutions, albeit no integration with existing institutions. At that time, however, the public sphere and certain partners highlighted a different operational focus: as well as providing „systems of artificial intelligence (AI) for complex manufacturing processes“, the „shortened planning period in the automobile manufacturing“, which determined the „competitiveness of companies“, was often mentioned in the press. Moreover, the „focus on the development of advanced assembly systems“ was noted. On the other hand, inpro was described as „thinking about the factory of the future“, and aiming to „promote new, creative ideas.”
The new company grew progressively, starting with about 25 employees. Project managers for the priority areas above were technical specialists from the companies involved in order to establish a strong reference to automobile manufacturing. From the beginning, there were close relations with the nearby Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK), which was led by Professor Günter Spur, and which also dealt with expert systems for production engineering tasks, as well as the Fraunhofer Institute for Automation and Organisation (ILO), headed at the time by Professor Hans-Jörg Bullinger. Initial links to other research institutions were established. The actual work commenced at the beginning of 1984.