To jointly set priorities for future research programmes
Interview with Dr Lars Sommerhäuser, Head of the Additive Manufacturing Expert Group of the SATW Advanced Manufacturing Research Alliance
Mr Sommerhäuser, you are Head of the Additive Manufacturing Expert Group within the SATW Advanced Manufacturing Research Alliance. How did you come to this position?
In the spring of 2016, I was asked by Empa to set up a centre for advanced manufacturing. The point was not to create new buildings and infrastructures for Empa at one site. My assignment is rather to establish the distributed competences and infrastructures needed to allow Switzerland to keep developing and using new and innovative manufacturing technologies. Empa has long been discussing this topic with the SATW and many other partners in research and in industry. The SATW Advanced Manufacturing Research Alliance brings together the leading Swiss research bodies in the field of advanced manufacturing. Teaming up with this group makes it possible to discuss and jointly advance the scheme Empa has in mind. It therefore seemed obvious for me to get involved in the SATW Research Alliance.
Your position is held on a voluntary basis. Can you tell us more about your motivation?
Beyond my assignment to set up a centre for advanced manufacturing, the topic of production and manufacturing is one I care deeply about, also at a societal level. I am firmly convinced that Switzerland’s and Europe’s prosperity is based to a large extent on the fact that we produce things, that we engage in value-creating activities. Deindustrialisation such as we have witnessed in parts of the US in the second half of the 20th century leads to high unemployment and lower paid jobs. The SATW Research Alliance provides help in developing new and innovative manufacturing technologies. The aim is to counter and prevent deindustrialisation in Switzerland, thereby securing value-creating and well-paid jobs. This vision is highly motivating to me.
The Research Alliance aims to foster autonomous collaboration among its member organisations. What is the thinking behind this?
Members of the Research Alliance are independent research bodies working in the field of advanced manufacturing. Over the years, each of these institutions has developed specific, oftentimes complementary competences. Developing new manufacturing technologies requires a variety of competences, some examples of which are product design, simulation, material and process development, mechanical engineering, measurement technology or quality control. As a rule, no single research facility brings together all the skills and competences that are necessary to develop a technology on its own. It therefore makes sense to collaborate with other research facilities and set up interdisciplinary teams.
Another reason to collaborate is that cutting-edge research often requires highly-specialised and expensive machines and facilities. Yet it makes no sense for each and every research body to be equipped with the latest and best machines and facilities in all areas of expertise. Such an approach would be expensive and the facilities would not be used to capacity. This is therefore another reason collaboration among research bodies with their specific competences and infrastructures makes a lot of sense.
However, it remains for the individual research bodies to assess when and with which partner collaboration makes sense. They are the experts, they usually have known each other for many years, and they are the ones to decide who should join a specific team. This is why we speak of autonomous collaboration, and this is what we aim to foster.
What role and what function does the SATW take up in such an alliance?
The SATW is a national and independent Swiss institution that aims to foster technology and innovation, and connect experts and organisations. Its role within the Research Alliance is to bring together the various research bodies and provide them with a framework within which to exchange views and initiate joint activities. At the same time, the Research Alliance is part of the SATW’s overall programme in the field of advanced manufacturing, which also encompasses events or topical platforms. Within the context of these SATW activities, the Research Alliance provides yet another way to address industry, politics and the general public in order to highlight the significance of advanced manufacturing for Switzerland and to push for improved support of research and technology development.
In recent years, major progress has been made in the field of additive manufacturing, and large international firms have invested vast sums of money. How is Switzerland positioned in this field?
Worldwide, additive production processes have been used by industry for many years or even decades for rapid prototyping. Today, the topic is meeting with great public interest under the heading “3D printing”. Being able to build three-dimensional objects layer by layer with quasi no geometrical restrictions while acting on material properties during the building process opens up wholly new possibilities. And we are only beginning to use these possibilities on an industrial scale. The potential of such technologies has been recognised worldwide in research and in industry, and these past years massive investments have been made in the further development of AM technologies. GE’s purchase of two European manufacturers of AM systems at the beginning of the year is a clear sign that the industrial use of AM technologies will grow strongly.
So far, Switzerland has taken no leading role in the development of AM technologies. This is despite the fact that all the necessary ingredients are there: outstanding research institutions, leading technology firms, and machine and plant manufacturers of worldwide repute. This is something we want to change. The SATW Research Alliance is only one step among many. Over the past twelve months, further AM initiatives have been launched in Switzerland and we are collaborating closely with one another. Moreover, pre-competitive technology development must be encouraged more strongly in Switzerland. The new Bridge Programme provides a framework within which to foster joint projects driven by research and industry. While this is positive, it is not enough. In their strategic planning for 2017-2020, the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology have set up a priority programme for advanced manufacturing in order to foster both research projects and the development of competences and infrastructures. While this is yet another step in the right direction, this programme is limited to the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. What we need is a national initiative to foster technology development in advanced manufacturing, which will also benefit other partners in research and industry. Together with the SATW and many other partners, we are trying to get such an initiative off the ground.
What can the Research Alliance achieve in this field and who will benefit from its activities?
The SATW Research Alliance brings together Swiss research bodies that are already working in the field of advanced manufacturing. Within this group, we define areas of activity that are of particular relevance for the further development and use of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies. We try to assess how much research is required in these areas and how relevant they are to industrial application. This allows us to jointly set priorities for future research programmes in advanced manufacturing, consider which members of the Research Alliance wish to collaborate on which topics, and identify skills gaps that must be addressed. In pre-competitive research and in partnership with Swiss industry, our goal is to advance cutting-edge manufacturing technologies to such a point that companies are able to use them successfully in their respective markets.
Are there already concrete projects? What are the next steps?
The SATW Research Alliance manages no funds of its own to support research projects. Such funding must occur via existing research support schemes initiated by the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI), the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) or other organisations. Members of the Research Alliance discuss ongoing projects – so far as confidentiality allows – as well as ideas for future projects for which collaboration appears advantageous. Joint research activities were already taking place before the launch of our Research Alliance. The Research Alliance seeks to further strengthen collaboration and foster the use of synergies.
What future do you see for the Research Alliance? Should its activities be expanded and more expert groups be set up? If so, in what fields?
Advanced manufacturing covers a wide range of topics. Additive manufacturing is one building block with great potential. But there are other building blocks and topics on the way to industry 4.0. These include other manufacturing technologies or the use of intelligent, self-learning systems along the value chain. Further expert groups have already been discussed by the Research Alliance’s coordination body. I therefore assume that new expert groups are likely to follow soon.