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Future Perfect

Future Perfect

By TA News Bureau:

The vision of Dr. Ir. Dirk Torfs, CEO of Lommel (Belgium)-based industry research powerhouse Flanders Make, is to develop innovative industrial products and processes that will make manufacturing industry competitive. His institution’s reputation is based on its strategic research thrust through industry-academia collaboration. It focuses on development of machines and factories of the future under Industry 4.0. Its research thrust involves innovations in vehicle industry, mechanical engineering and production environments. The knowledge it creates is shared in a dynamic, collaborative ecosystem that strengthens competencies all around. Excerpts from the interview with Dr. Ir. Torfs

Flanders Make is certainly one of the world’s foremost centres for strategic research in manufacturing innovation, particularly vehicles. In this context please elaborate your work in the tyre and rubber industry.

Flanders Make supports manufacturing companies with pre-competitive, excellent research. Our research focuses on innovation of vehicle (sub) systems in order to improve their performance. For example, the drivetrain or energy efficiency. We possess and continuously develop competencies, technology and infrastructure to support innovation.
Specific for the tyre and rubber industry, it consists of: • Testing infrastructure for vehicles to ensure a minimum of defects and a maximum life time. Our tests are focused on NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), durability, reliability and squeak and rattle testing; both on component level as well as on (sub) system level. •Multi-material joining infrastructure. We test the feasibility, durability, consistency and manufacturability of joining techniques, both mechanical joining (e.g. riveting) and multi-component gluing. •Endurance testing of components through high frequency vibration. •We have access to the Ford Lommel Proving Ground to test vehicle dynamics on different road types for dynamic performance and ageing. •Hardware-in-the-loop systems allow us to test components separately, whilst taking the entire vehicle dynamics into account.
Our research in vehicle industry technology and competencies is broad based: for example electric vehicles, power- and drivetrains, lightweight materials, exhaust systems, functional safety and methodologies to consistently develop products and product families better and faster.
Our research can be categorized into three main competence domains: (1) Sensing, monitoring, control and decision-making (including modelling and virtualization), (2) Product and/or flexible assembly (co) design and optimization (including modelling and virtualization), and (3) Specification, architecture and validation of motion products (including modelling and virtualization).
We always consider the broader context, as in the end we want to create value for companies and society. For example, our research on battery management systems is related to mobility in urbanized settings. As such, we have developed technology for utility vehicles that are used for ‘last mile delivery’. Our research on autonomous driving focuses on buses, coaches and off-highway vehicles, as we have an ecosystem of OEMs that need to build competencies and technology for their positioning on a global market.
We believe technology is part of the solution but not the goal as such.

You have put into practice a system that encourages industry-academia collaboration with 10 research facilities at Flemish universities. What is the pragmatic vision that you have to further strengthen innovation through excellent research that other institutions and countries can emulate?

When we started Flanders Make, we created an ecosystem that focuses on collaboration and is based on the strengths of different actors. It consists of knowledge centres, research institutions, the industry and even the government.
However, we soon faced conflicts of interest. For example, as academic research groups belong to a specific university, they didn’t necessarily have the experience of working together. To some extend they were even competitors as available funding is distributed based on a competitive submission. In addition, researchers on the payroll of Flanders Make were also seen as competitors for valorization of research towards companies.
In order to avoid this, we focused on programming research. We adopted a thematically oriented approach based on industry needs and global trends, organized in eight different roadmaps: 1.Clean energy-efficient motion systems 2.Smart monitoring systems 3.High-performance autonomous mechatronic systems 4.Intelligent product design methods 5.Design and manufacturing of smart and lightweight structures 6.Additive manufacturing for serial production 7.Manufacturing of high-precision products 8.Agile and human-centred production and robotics systems.
That resulted in eight smaller ecosystems based on the specific expertise and competencies of the participants. The research roadmap for each ecosystem is executed through project ideation and definition. Instead of distributing money, we encourage the participants to work first on industry- relevant ideas which are developed, then the needed expertise is identified and finally project proposals are worked out, including the financial support. Together, we describe a plan for executing the project and we decide who is in charge of the different work packages. As such, companies are part of the whole process too, without getting into each other’s way.
We have noticed that this approach is very effective in creating the necessary speed for innovation that is needed for our industrial sector. Because of the industry involvement, we can adjust our strategy on theirs and constantly support them in their needs – with or without the support of the government. We support companies today via contract research, tomorrow via government supported projects and the day after via the technology of the knowledge centres and competence-based research projects.
The processes and instruments that we use to set up and manage these networks are independent of the region. They can be used elsewhere as their strength is that they cover the entire innovation value chain. We focus on value and translate that value into concrete roadmaps.
Knowledge is built within the network, and then transferred to the companies. In the end, they use the competences and the technology and that’s how their competitiveness grows. The best thing is that this model doesn’t only work for big companies. It is tailored to the innovation leaders– SME’s and big corporations alike. In practice we notice that companies learn from each other within our ecosystem as well as from the individual participants of the knowledge centres that are involved. This results in an accelerated and quadratic learning effect, which speeds up innovation. It is all about collaboration or team work. We define team as “together everyone achieves more”.

At a time when autonomous vehicle research is picking pace, what are your views on the future potential growth in this field?

Today, a lot of effort is spent on autonomous driving as it is very complex. No single OEM can develop reliable and integrated technology on its own. Therefore, collaborations between brands are set up to develop and test the technology. Suppliers join in as they have crucial technology that can accelerate the development. Tier 3s become Tier 2s and Tier 2s become Tier 1s.
A good example is NVIDIA, a world leader in visual computing technologies that contributes strongly to pattern recognition integrated on a single hardware platform: a combination of hardware and software that is difficult to beat. But I hardly see any effort being made to develop business models for using the technology for autonomous driving. A solid business model is needed to ensure a fast pick-up and broad utilization of the technology.
We need a holistic approach towards mobility such that technology is converted into value. Autonomous driving isn’t a goal on itself. All too often, we want autonomous driving because of the autonomous driving, and that is why the technology is delayed. The real question is why we want autonomous driving. Because of mobility or improved road safety? Such goals raise important questions.
• Is our (road) infrastructure adapted for autonomous cars? •How about the rest of the environment (traffic lights, mobility monitoring systems, parking lots for entrance without human inference)? •Can we cope with self-driving cars? Do we accept the technology usage? The psychological aspects are strongly understated. How do we react, not having control of a car that might jeopardize our future existence? •How about liability, legislation, or insurance? • What is our approach to (old/older) vehicles that are to be adapted for accommodating autonomous driving technology?
All these questions need to be addressed on a local and global level, beyond country borders. Different actors in the industry will need to collaborate to face these complex issues and speed up the introduction of the technology. Both cars and infrastructure need to become smarter. We should not underestimate the impact of those (new) mobility business models. When shared mobility becomes very popular, will it mean that fewer cars are needed, leading to an overcapacity of production? Are brands still important as mobility from A to B becomes the driver of the capital asset decision? Finally, the road quality will also play a role in the introduction and the usage of autonomous cars.
I foresee a different timeline for passenger vehicles, transport and off-highway vehicles. It will take a while before passenger driving will be fully automated. We will probably see fully autonomous vehicles first on highways (2020), then intercity (2025). Local driving will not be before 2030.

What is your take on electric powertrains? What are the prospects of hydrogen fuel cells in the light of most countries planning to phase out diesel and petroleum driven vehicles by 2020-2040?

There are two prerequisites for electric drivetrains to be broadly implemented: the battery cost needs to go down significantly and the driving autonomy needs to go up (to tackle range anxiety). Today, fossil fuel based drivelines are replaced more and more by hybrid and fully electric ones, as more and more governments are encouraging them for environmental reasons/climate goals. However, the question remains if the transition goes fast enough and therefore hydrogen fuel cells (HFC) are likely to play a major role in the future. I expect HFC technology to mature by 2020-2025. At that moment, it is likely that the final conversion of fossil fuel is done by HFC, making hybrid and fully electric drivetrains less interesting. Traditional oil companies will need to make the switch so that there is a realistic consumer alternative by 2040.
However, we need to understand that in the equation between the environment and the economy, the price is always decisive. So if we want to stimulate the take-up of this new technologies, we need to incentivize both the industry and the consumer – financially and concretely, for example by allowing electric vehicles to use bus lanes. And that is where there is a concrete role for the government.

What are the specific manufacturing innovations that you think would be realized into practical projects by 2020?

In general, we need more innovations. Manufacturing is nowadays perceived as a cost. But in order to produce better, faster, cheaper and on demand (customization), we need to innovate. The optimal production environment anticipates on those needs and can adapt to them; it is an agile production environment.
Automation plays an important part. First of all, those viable environments need digital instructions. This allows workers to pick up new directions better and faster. Secondly, there is a need for humans and robots collaborate. The type of collaboration and the definition of each role are driven by the product to be made, as the economy becomes the driver of the final set-up. Humans are strong and flexible, able to constantly change operations, while robots are good at repetitive operations. Production runs are likely to be lower in size. One-piece-production can be realized at the cost of series production.
Humans in an agile production environment require a change in the workforce. For example, humans will no longer do the heavy lifting. They will programme and supervise. We will see a shift from execution/operational tasks to supervision/more intellectual tasks.
Next to local agile production, local or global contract manufacturing will be more and more embedded as part of the production. Such full flexibility gives rise to increased competitiveness, where pre- and post- assembly can be split up over different production sites, with the client closer to the manufacturer. And that is where innovation makes the difference as it will help tailor business models to customer service and client requests.

What are your plans for international cooperation in the field of innovation and joint participation in global research projects? You have any plans for China and India?

Flanders Make does not operate in a vacuum: our work takes place in collaboration with European partners and in a European context. On the one hand, our contract research and the use of our infrastructure is really an international activity as our underlying competencies are relevant for many industries. On the other hand, we are involved in a number of European research projects.
Because of these international contacts, we know that we all struggle with the same issues and work around the same challenges. We are very much open for this kind of cross-border collaborations. They create added value for all parties involved: we exchange knowledge and key excellence.
We already collaborate with US companies. We have now laid the first stones for future partnerships in China and our doors are open to all, including India.

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