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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 16, 2009
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Blazing the Trail
September 16, 2009   
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Krzysztof Pietrusewicz, PhD Eng., from the Electrical Engineering Department of the Control Engineering Institute at the West Pomeranian University of Technology in the northwestern city of Szczecin, talks to Piotr Bartosz.

You won a gold medal at the Innovations-Technologies-Machines Poland 2009 trade fair. Could you explain the name of the prize-winning device: "control system for CNC machine tools?"
Put simply, numerically controlled machine tools are machines that make parts for other machines. They operate in many industrial sectors and without them it would be impossible to make parts for cars, components for machines, or components for robots. We decided to make these machine tools work better; to make them more accurate, faster, more precise, less energy-consuming. This research goal yielded several patent applications, a prototype system for controlling an intelligent machine tool, and finally the OCEAN (Open modular Control system for linEAr motioN driver) implementation. It's one of those projects that has only advantages. It allows scientists to develop their careers for decent remuneration while offering the economy answers that the world has not yet heard of.

The intelligence of these machines means that the machine tool diagnoses its own dynamic status and launches appropriate corrective procedures to work more efficiently and accurately-such adjustments are necessary because the machine works on different tasks and in different environments. The machine tool can also eliminate unfavorable processes.

Of course we are very pleased with the gold medal. It's a reward for the research work of the team headed by Stefan Domek (PhD hab. Eng.). I am part of the team, next to Prof. Mirosław Pajor, Paweł Dworak (PhD Eng.), Łukasz Urbański (MSc Eng.), Tomasz Okólik (MSc Eng.), Marcin Hoffman (MSc Eng.) as well as Marcin Choćko (PhD Eng.) and Arkadiusz Parus (PhD Eng.) who are responsible for the measuring part of the machines and for checking whether the engineers' suggestions cause changes for the better or for the worse. We are working on a control system for machine tools that is open in terms of both hardware and software, so that machines from different manufacturers and different software packages can be joined together.

The OCEAN system is a project leading to work on the prototype of an intelligent machine tool in which all the control system parameters could be controlled, so as to incorporate successive advanced components into the machine.

The system has been singled out for praise because of its innovative design. Is it worth developing original projects instead of taking advantage of the best models from other technologically advanced countries?
There wasn't anything to copy. The global market does have a few really technologically advanced control systems, but our solutions are of the kind that won't appear in typical projects until a few years from now. The results of our work are the property of the West Pomeranian University of Technology (ZUT)-the former Szczecin University of Technology merged with the Agricultural University of Szczecin. Companies in Poland, Germany, and the United States started working just a year ago on control system components that we had been working on for almost three years. We hope that in the future our research will define the directions of global development and that thanks to projects like OCEAN we will determine market needs, show the possibilities, and blaze the trail for new research important to the machine market.

Aren't you afraid that you won't find buyers entering the market with a ready-made design? Some say the best way to commercial success is solving specific problems reported by companies and industry. Aren't you doing things the other way round?
Running a research and development project financed from funds provided by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education means that it's we who really decide about the innovation involved. University workers aren't restricted by closed budgets, only by their imagination. Nobody tells us: do it now, today, on time. The extent to which we have to adapt our activity to the project financing schedule is limited. This means that many innovative technologies are born in the course of fulfilling research tasks.

In the OCEAN project's case, this involved an innovative method of linear motor installation, which compensates for loads occurring on the machine tool's guide carriages. The project ends in April 2010, but additional projects have grown from it-both research and applications.

One of them is aimed at developing a servo drive technology for electric motor control for this system (a three-year research project has just begun); another is related to studying the impact of temperature changes in a machine controlled by the system and the problem of vibroacoustics in the machine. All these projects involve the application of research results in industry.

How can you be so sure?
As the dean's representative for contacts with industry, I have already held talks with companies that are interested, from Poland, Germany and the United States. They are encouraged by the fact that this technology is not expensive to implement. They also understand that it is a combination of technologies already present on the market but in a configuration that no one has applied in the machine tool industry before we used it in our project.

The OCEAN open modular control system for CNC machine tools is a prototype device. Who owns it?
The intellectual property rights to the project belong to the university, while in a broader sense the research results are the property of society. The project promises further development and is the basis for three patent applications. According to the rules that apply to patent applications, we are not allowed to publish the technological details. Thanks to this it will be possible in the future to carry out special projects to implement the prototypes at manufacturing plants.

What's it like when you can't boast about your research results in publications and you're not even the owner of your own invention? Is it worth the effort?
My perverse answer: Nothing could be more worthwhile. We can boast about the results; it's how we achieved them that's secret. We receive extra remuneration for our work, on top of our university salary. This is steady money and the terms seem to be much better than they are in business relations. We're doing something useful that develops us scientifically. The experience we gain during work on this project is unique, and something we can use in our future activities.

You break all stereotypes. Is it really possible to make more money at a Polish university than in the private sector?
Working on large research projects, you can satisfy your financial requirements. If a team is working on technologically advanced projects, the researchers can earn more than they would at a private company. That's why I encourage young scientists to stay at the university and establish cooperation with industry from here. This will be the nest of their development, and not companies that will mold them according to set patterns.

Why do they need encouragement? As a teacher, you observe what happens to students. The most talented graduates seem to choose laboratories less often than jobs at large corporations.
It's not true that the most talented of them work for large corporations, but it's true that we see companies fishing avidly for the university's best people. Unpleasantly surprised by the initial salary level at university, young people decide to go to industry. However, advancement at university and becoming a member of research teams leads to a substantial disproportion of earnings to the advantage of research institutions.

You are a university teacher, a researcher taking part in a huge project, and the Electrical Engineering Department's dean representative for cooperation with industry. How do you reconcile so many duties?
These activities are intertwined. University workers can have incomplete knowledge as to the new technologies that industry needs. That's why it's worth having selected researchers deal with contacts with industry. Their knowledge, experience, contacts and efforts benefit the whole team. I undertook exactly such a task. This supplements not only my research work but also my teaching. During classes I try to teach my students how to implement and also protect their research results. The university where I work doesn't yet organize specialist courses on intellectual property protection, protection of knowledge and its application, but it's possible that such courses will appear in the future because thanks to such knowledge engineers will not be in danger of unfair conduct from companies.

Do companies treat scientists unfairly?
It happens. Recently one company came to us with a proposal to develop control system software for construction. The project included the renovation of a machine. Our researchers spent several weeks on the work, after which the partner said we were a public-utility unit so he had no intention of paying for our software. I told the company's representative that if he brought his son to us and he passed the entrance exam, he could then expect to receive free educational assistance, and we would make sure it was of the highest quality; he would be able to take advantage completely free of charge of our work involving his son's educational development and scientific potential. However, there is no such thing as free services from universities for industry.

Perhaps he did have a point there. After all, boosting innovation in the economy should be our common goal. Don't you agree?
Yes, but the way towards it should lead through the principles that are binding in the civilized world. Today, having learned from our mistake, before we start working on a problem we calculate the cost according to the university's rates. We understand that these rates could be excessive for some companies. In such cases, with the help of regional technology transfer centers, international program offices and framework program contact points, we look for sources of funding. The company only covers the actual costs of the implementation itself, while the research is paid for from project budgets, regional and national.

Does collaboration between the university and industry bring tangible benefits?
Employees at the ZUT Control Engineering Institute have a broad collaboration with industry with regard to equipping laboratories, joint teaching, lectures by company employees, joint seminars, practical training, traineeships, graduation projects, and consulted research projects. Thanks to these contacts, companies offer the university supplementary equipment or software. This cooperation is of measurable importance also for the other side: employers want engineers joining the market after graduation to be familiar with the best, most advanced equipment currently used in industry. Such investments allow them to save on training later, because prospective employees come fully prepared for the job and not just filled with theoretical knowledge. It would be highly irresponsible of us not to take advantage of such an opportunity, especially when we are offered significant discounts or are given equipment for free.

How do entrepreneurs know who to go to?
We are not only open to cooperation but also promote our services. The university has published a brochure with technological proposals from individual units from all the departments, to give to prospective partners. The brochure lists the names of contact persons and the technologies in which each team specializes. We also have specialists who can help scientists put a price on their skills. An original idea emerged at the Electrical Engineering Department to expand the information base by having the website include an electronic database of the skills of individual students, of course if they are interested.

Do students want to combine learning with work to gain professional experience?
Increasingly often. This isn't about drawing them away from studying. Collaboration with the private sector isn't the only form of maintaining contacts with business. We are also taking part in a project involving orders being placed for university courses. Support under the Human Capital Operational Program is available for automatic control engineering and robotics as well as electrical engineering. We have obtained funding for the project for 2009-2013, when scholarships of zl.1,000 per month will be granted to 45 students of the bachelor's level course in automatic control engineering and robotics, and 15 master's level students. Apart from these 60 students, scholarships will be offered to 150 students of mechatronics, materials engineering as well as mechanical engineering and machine building at the bachelor's and master's level at the ZUT Mechanical Engineering and Mechatronics Department. This is substantial assistance for these young people, who can focus on studying without having to look for extra income. This large project will allow us to offer many more attractive classes in the four courses in question, resulting in the market receiving new generations of-I am firmly convinced-some of the best-educated graduates in the country, well prepared for coping on the labor market.
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