Dirk Torfs of Flanders Make: 'Developing and sharing new technologies with other companies'
Flanders Make has recently become an Innovation Partner of Log!Ville. The strategic research centre for the manufacturing industry provides support to both Flemish SMEs and large manufacturing companies to ensure they are more competitive on the global stage. 'Our focus is on research and innovation for accelerating the move to Industry 4.0, which sees the various players working together within a single ecosystem,' says CEO Dirk Torfs. 'Many of those innovations are also important for the logistics sector, which is why it was a logical move to become a partner of Log!Ville.'
Flanders Make was launched in 2014 out of a merger of the Flanders Drive (auto industry) and Flanders Mechatronics Technology Centre (machinery) clusters, working together with a number of departments in all the Flemish universities. The centre uses high-tech research and innovation to support companies in manufacturing and other industries as they develop and optimise their products and production processes.
Dirk Torfs: We bring together researchers, companies and public agencies in an ecosystem that enables the acceleration of research and development and creates added value for all the parties. Flanders Make acts like the conductor of an orchestra, getting parties to work together on innovation in order to bolster the competitiveness of companies and lead them towards Industry 4.0. We have a stable of around 800 experts, a quarter of whom are researchers working for us and the rest being university-affiliated. The research and the projects that we helm are based on long-term insights, and we adopt a broad perspective of technology. Industry 4.0 is a transversal technology that is relevant in every sphere, which is why we pool together researchers with expertise in a range of fields – both academics and specialists in applications – while future trends determine our strategy. But the environment we offer remains low-threshold, and because the public authorities fund our research it must be of use to the companies.
Flanders Make was born out of the manufacturing industry… how did logistics become part of the picture?
DT: Industry 4.0 does not start and end with the manufacturing industry – the focus is not only on improving machinery, but also on introducing new technology such as fault detection, artificial intelligence, digital twins, vision technology and other innovations. This tech can also demonstrate its usefulness in other industries, including logistics. That's why we work closely with the Flanders innovation cluster for logistics, VIL, which is familiar with the needs of the logistics industry. And those needs are very diverse indeed, given that basically every sector and branch of industry requires logistics.
An extremely wide array of technologies can be used in logistics, and they correspond closely to our original areas of focus – vehicles and machinery. AMRs (autonomous mobile robots), for example, are vehicles that require accurate localisation and positioning, which are two fields in which we have a great deal of knowledge. We are likewise home to a large amount of knowhow when it comes to vision technology and drones, which we have combined so that drones can be used in a logistical or industrial environment for inventorying.
Is Flanders Make launching these innovations on the market itself?
DT: That is not our intention. We bring numerous skills together in order to arrive at a working prototype, using the specific needs of companies as a starting point. Depending on technology readiness levels (TRLs), the developing technology can be adopted by a company and either implemented or, where necessary, developed further until it can be brought to market. Put differently, we bring researchers and developers together so that they can create a workable concept for a company. Once we have demonstrated that the concept works, they can take it further or another company can use the technology that has been developed to create its own applications.
Can you provide an example?
Flanders Make researcher Ellen Van Nunen: Flemish companies generate around 16 million tons of primary industrial waste a year, all of which is collected in containers onsite that in turn have to be collected. After brainstorming with a number of its members, VIL identified a need for the process to be automated. Waste processor Indaver was meanwhile also looking at automation applications for optimising waste collection from industrial sites.
Working together with VIL and Indaver, we brought together different parties to create a proof of concept for a system that could autonomously move waste containers – the FT Group, which specialises in automating internal transport, vision technology expert Pixelvision and the University of Antwerp, which is home to sonar technology experts.
Creating such a concept is no simple task. Aside from the fact that different types of containers have to be autonomously lifted, lowered and moved, the solution also has to work both indoors and outdoors, given that full containers must frequently be placed outdoors on a worksite.
We decided to use artificial intelligence to tackle the challenge, as AI algorithms can be used to identify containers even in difficult weather, such as rain, mist and snow. This is a task that Pixelvision is accustomed to taking on, while Flanders Make is working on data augmentation for training these types of AI networks. Using these images, an AI network can learn what a container looks like when it is raining. That, together with new ultrasonic technology created by the University of Antwerp, meant we were able to produce a very solid solution.
The autonomous mobile platform that moves the containers must also fulfil other requirements. For example, it must also be able to negotiate paths that are rougher or be able to place lids on containers. Together with the FT Group, we analysed which design was expected to be most favourable in terms of both cost and robustness.
Once the foundations are determined in a proof of concept, further applications can be developed. For example, the Audi factory in Vorst enquired about AMRs that could be used both inside the plant and outside. We can use the technology that was developed for the waste container project, including tech related to vision, localisation, driving ability and others, for Audi.
Who is the owner of the technology that is developed?
DT: If it is one-to-one – if we create something for a specific company – then they hold the intellectual property rights. But if it is a one-to-many generic project, then the IP is held by the participating companies and frequently also by us. In that event, other companies can use the technology under licence.
Why has Flanders Make become an Innovation Partner of Log!Ville?
DT: Firstly, so that we can demonstrate what we can do for the logistics industry, and secondly so that we can develop closer ties with the industry – in a broad sense and not just with one company. Thirdly, at Log!Ville we can demonstrate the technology that is already available. And fourthly, for the networking opportunities. We are familiar with just a small slice of the logistics industry, while VIL has intimate knowledge of the entire field, giving us a much greater outreach and allowing us to both inspire other companies and show them which potential applications are available.
Meanwhile, we also have the right connections with other technology providers and OEMs. It is wonderful when you can get those different parties together and are able to spot the gaps and determine how they can be filled. And so our partnership is bidirectional – Flanders Make can add value for Log!Ville and Log!Ville can be meaningful for us.
Could the partnership lead to cocreation?
EVN: Certainly, and that is also our objective: developing technological innovations with companies and sharing the technology already available with others, so that we can have an impact and Flanders remains competitive in terms of technology and innovation.
Many people are unfamiliar with research and innovation, and we are consistently focusing on demonstrations so that companies can see that the innovation not only equates to potential in a specific industry, but in other areas too. Once they see our technology in action here, we hope they might approach us and say: "if you can create that, maybe you could achieve this for us". Such a broader outlook can thus lead to new partnerships.
What is Flanders Make exhibiting at Log!Ville?
EVN: Our booth features two of those logistical demos: our inventory drone, which can count boxes on racks in a warehouse and locate products, and a robotic arm with a Pickit camera, which is extremely effective at recording products. The robot is equipped with a vision system that can be trained quickly and efficiently using AI algorithms, allowing it to identify products even in an unstructured environment.
That robotic arm is also a proof of concept, and by exhibiting it at Log!Ville we can target companies – both those visiting Log!Ville and other partners – that wish to employ or further develop this technology in their own field, whether under licence or otherwise.
For that matter, the vision technology that was created for the drone can also be used in different ways, such as on the mast of an AMR or forklift.
Our aim is to use those two exhibits to demonstrate that the technology we are developing can be reused and can serve as the building blocks for other applications.