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SKF: Academic collaborations help drive industry development

A joint project between SKF, Chalmers University and Ericsson will help to lay the practical foundations for ‘Industry 4.0’, while proving the importance of industry-academic collaboration. To outsiders, collaboration between industry and academia appears straightforward and one-dimensional: the company has a problem, and pays the university for its expertise in solving it. In reality, however, … Continued

A joint project between SKF, Chalmers University and Ericsson will help to lay the practical foundations for ‘Industry 4.0’, while proving the importance of industry-academic collaboration.

To outsiders, collaboration between industry and academia appears straightforward and one-dimensional: the company has a problem, and pays the university for its expertise in solving it. In reality, however, the interaction between the two goes far deeper than this – encompassing training, recruitment, branding and other shared benefits.

“By working with universities, we get access to their competence and knowledge, which we would otherwise have to spend lots of time acquiring,” says Martin Friis, project manager at SKF, with a special assignment to forge links with external partners through funded R&D projects.

While a university’s mission is to produce knowledge that is relevant to society, industry’s mission is to be competitive in its business. To create a rewarding collaboration, it is crucial to understand both worlds. Any collaboration must provide a win-win situation, or it will cease to exist.

SKF carries out R&D collaborations with universities around the world. These range from individual MSc and PhD projects through to larger projects involving more than one researcher. Some of the larger engagements address a programme or subject matter with larger resources.

Examples are the SKF University Technology Centers, where SKF has identified specific collaboration partners for specific core technologies. These include tribology (with Imperial College), steel (Cambridge University) and condition monitoring (Luleå University).

At the frontier
Production systems and products are getting ever more complex, and the pace at which knowledge and information are created makes it difficult to keep up with the latest developments. Universities work “at the frontier” of their subjects, says Friis, and tapping into this is a huge benefit to industrial companies.

However, useful information also flows in the reverse direction. While industry can access the fundamental research from universities, it can also provide feedback regarding its ongoing and future needs. This helps academia to target its research more precisely – and to design courses that more accurately fit industry’s needs by producing graduates who have the correct skills for modern industry.

This brings up the practical issue of recruitment. A large industrial company such as SKF employs many engineering graduates every year, and close academic links can help to ‘brand’ SKF in the minds of students. “They then know who we are – and that we would be an interesting company to work for,” says Friis.

The idea of branding – and identity – goes beyond that of direct recruitment into the SKF fold. Many engineering graduates will end up working for other industrial companies. But, being familiar with SKF and its products will help the company when these students – as full-time engineers – are in a position to specify components such as bearings or seals.

At the same time, SKF employees may take on the role of visiting professors – spending part of their time lecturing at the universities, and supervising PhD and MSc students. SKF can also influence educational development by giving guest lectures, providing case assignments to students or by participating in student union workshops and activities.

Industrial encouragement
Many governments are keen to foster links between industry and academia, and it’s no different in Sweden. “The government funds research programmes that strengthen academia while focusing on the needs of industry,” says Friis. “It needs to be done in the right areas, so they choose the projects carefully.”

On one level, government provides direct funding for education and basic research. On top of this, a funding system will promote industrial collaboration – in which research is further developed, such as by customising it for a real environment. This funding bridges the gap between academic research and industrial evaluation, and usually covers Technology Readiness Levels 3-7. Government funding typically covers the academic resources, while companies cover their own expenses.

For industry to work efficiently in this area, it is vital to participate in trade associations and organisations, in order to emphasise the future needs of industry. These organisations try to influence factors such as which areas are a priority, and how the research funding is to be distributed.

This lobbying helps to get the companies’ needs on the agenda, and facilitates the building of a network with academics, other potential industrial research partners and funding agencies. It is an efficient way to pinpoint relevant research areas, potential academic and industrial research partners and matching funding calls.

Collaboration network
Friis successfully proposed a project to Vinnova (part of Sweden’s Ministry of Enterprise) around the hot topic of ‘Industry 4.0’ – the futuristic vision to interconnect all parts of the modern factory. The two-year project, called 5GEM (5G Enabled Manufacturing), is a collaboration between SKF, Chalmers University and telecoms giant Ericsson. Combining Ericsson’s expertise in wireless technology, SKF’s knowledge of production systems and Chalmers’ scientific approach could help to lay the foundations of Industry 4.0.

“In the connected factory of the future, Wi-Fi will not live up to the new requirements on reliability, latency and data volumes,” says Friis. “The system will need to be ‘up’ all the time.”

The emerging 5G standard – including technologies such as infrastructure, cloud solutions and analytics – could be part of the practical solution that ‘enables’ Industry 4.0. “So far, Industry 4.0 has been talked about as a concept – but it’s this type of technology that will make it happen,” he says.

The advent of 5G will allow the use of higher frequencies, allowing large amounts of data to be transferred quickly and reliably. “Reliability and security are crucial,” says Friis. “Connectivity must be guaranteed at all time – otherwise the production will fail.”

Together, the project partners will develop a series of ‘demonstrators’ based on 5G, which will then be tested in SKF factories. These will be judged on four main criteria: production efficiency; production flexibility; traceability; and sustainability. The team is already close to deciding which demonstrators it will work on. The project will demonstrate how connectivity can enhance the production system performance.

The aim of the project is to use enhanced connectivity and analytics to give access to the correct data – exactly when and where it is needed. Tailoring this to the needs of a human (or a machine) will allow decisions to be taken – either manual, or automated – that will create value in the production system.

Delivering Industry 4.0
Interconnected data already plays an important role in industry, such as in predictive maintenance systems. Industry 4.0, if realised, would take this to a whole new level.
Johan Stahre, Chair of Production Systems at Chalmers University – who is also the Project Manager for 5GEM – says: “The project’s vision is to create a world-class manufacturing system that demonstrates enhanced performance – through improved efficiency, increased flexibility and traceability. A key component of the project is ensuring these technologies are easily transferable to other manufacturing industries.”

And he warns that industry needs to get it right this time – as the concept of universal interconnectivity has been tried once before. “Back in the 1990s we had something called Computer Integrated Manufacturing, which tried to connect everything together,” he says. “But the interoperability failed and we had ‘islands of automation’. It’s taken another 20 years to get to where we are now.”

Industry 4.0 still faces some hurdles – notably around standardisation and interoperability – but projects like 5GEM could help to push it closer to reality.

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