Innovative materials and remarkable people

Paolo Ermanni has been doing his research at ETH for over a quarter of a century
Paolo Ermanni has been doing his research at ETH for over a quarter of a century. Now he is retiring. (Photograph: ETH Zurich)
Paolo Ermanni researched novel composite materials at ETH for over a quarter of a century. His enthusiasm for materials was rivalled only by his passion for teaching. He will also go down in ETH history as the first Vice Rector for Continuing Education. To mark his retirement, we take a look back at his storied career.

"In life, one must decide whether to conjugate the verb ’to have’ or ’to be’," says Paolo Ermanni, citing a quote from the pianist Franz Liszt. Ermanni says he is glad to have decided on the latter.

Technology meets the human factor

Ermanni’s statement when looking back at his career on the occasion of his retirement might come as a surprise to some, seeing as how a professorship comes with a certain level of status and a comfortable salary. However, as an internationally recognised structural technology specialist, he had more lucrative options available to him over the course of his career. Ermanni dealt with innovative composite materials - materials that are lightweight yet stable and that can take on various forms depending on their environment. These materials are in high demand in numerous fields from medicine to space travel.

It was not only materials that defined Ermanni’s career, but also the people. "Research alone wouldn’t have motivated me to take on a professorship 26 years ago," he says. "Working with young people, teaching them how to ask the right questions and find answers to them, tackling new research questions alongside students - this was the appeal of the position."

A love for technical objects

Ermanni ended up in his field mostly by happenstance. However, his fascination with technical objects dates back to his childhood. "I built a lot of models - of cars, airplanes, rockets - and enjoyed tinkering with my moped as a teenager," recalls Ermanni. He was born into a family of academics in Ticino - his father was a doctor, one uncle was a civil engineer, another a chemical engineer - and the idea of attending ETH or the polytechnic university in Ticino was always a point of discussion. "As a secondary school student, I already knew I wanted to study at this unique university," he says. Mechnical engineering would have been the obvious choice given his passion for technical systems.

Materials were not yet a topic during his time at university. He delved into mathematics and control engineering and wrote his Master’s thesis at the Institute for Biomedical Engineering. He also wanted to do his doctorate there, but then a colleague approached him about Manfred Flemming, an expert in the field of construction technologies who had been appointed to ETH by the aerospace company Dornier. "1 April 1985 was his first day of work at the university, the same day I started my doctoral studies," says Ermanni. He began exploring composite materials and aircraft construction: "For me it all made sense. It was a childhood dream come true."

Aircraft developer and consultant

Thanks to the support of his doctoral supervisor, Ermanni was able to join Airbus in Hamburg after receiving his doctorate in 1990. He first worked in pre-development, the preparatory stage for series and market-oriented product development. He later worked in future development and dealt with questions about how to build a second-generation civil supersonic aircraft.

At the same time, he was feeling the need to expand his horizons. "Considering the great work we were doing as engineers, I increasingly wondered why it took years for anything to be implemented," he recalls. Ermanni wanted to understand the overarching strategic processes within large corporations and the aspects relating to production, marketing, competition and business risks. This led him to join the management consultancy firm A.T. Kearney in Milan in 1997.

Leveraging the professorship

One year later, he got a call from Zurich, prompting him to return to his alma mater in 1998. As Professor of Structural Technologies, he and his research group have developed modern material systems for adaptive structures over the last quarter of a century. "On a systems level, we can provide materials with a kind of intelligence so that they react to different operating conditions by changing their shape, for example," he explains. "This allows us to influence aspects like aerodynamics." According to Ermanni, these are issues that have increased in importance - for instance, when it comes to aerospace structures. His group has also successfully used structures of this kind in the field of medical technology, developing self-expanding stents.

Higher quality, less waste, longer-lived products that can be recycled at the end of their lifespan: new materials are closely connected to issues of sustainability. "I’ve always been fascinated by just how much this field of research can be leveraged," he says.

Ermanni also enjoyed having a leveraging effect as a member of teaching staff. Over the past 26 years, he has supervised 67 dissertations, with another six still in progress. Some of these graduates have gone on to follow in his footsteps as consultants or professors.

First Vice Rector for Continuing Education

As the first Vice Rector for Continuing Education, Ermanni was responsible for the establishment of the School for Continuing Education. "Continuing education is a special way of packaging excellence in research so that people can deploy ’ready-to-use’ knowledge and expertise for companies or social purposes," he says.

Ermanni created a new foundation for continuing education and training at ETH. Working alongside his team and passionate ETH instructors, he grouped numerous courses together to promote dialogue and exchange between the different programmes. Course offerings also grew markedly under his tenure.

Embracing entrepreneurship

Ermanni’s professorship gave rise to several spin-offs. Some, like 9T-Labs, became independent companies, while others were acquired by existing firms. One of these spin-offs will keep Ermanni busy in retirement:

Antefil Composite Tech AG has developed a new method for producing fibre-reinforced composite materials. These materials are recyclable, and the new production method marks the first time they can be considered a cost-efficient solution. Because of their resilience, they are particularly well-suited for large components such as rotor blades on wind farms. The founders of Antefil Composite Tech AG received the ETH Zurich Spark Award in 2021 in recognition of the most innovative and economically promising invention to come out of the university that year.

"I’ve been involved in Antefil Composite Tech from the initial idea to real-world implementation, and I also hold a financial stake in the company," says Ermanni. Starting in August, he wants to commit 100% of his time to Antefil as a member of the board of directors and as Chief Technology Officer. "We’ve raised over three million francs and are planning to move out of ETH premises into our own space in Binz this summer," he explains. The professor-turned-entrepreneur says that the task at hand is now to implement concrete customer projects and work on scaling the company’s processes. "And then we have to face the market," he says.
Roland Baumann