innovation

Cross-fertilization between complex systems

22 December 2017 • 4 min reading time

Ever more complex high-tech systems are increasingly having to cooperate with one another. How can you ensure that they make the right decisions, consistently and securely? According to TNO’s Embedded Systems Innovation (ESI) research group, the key lies in on-site research, making new knowledge available to other companies, and getting to know the customers and their markets.

Machines are becoming increasingly digital. The trend towards connecting them together, via the internet for example, to create ‘systems of systems’, pushes the complexity involved to a much higher level. Moreover, these systems are regularly upgraded or, in some cases, they can even evolve into self-learning systems. “In the past, surgeons used X-ray machines, these days, however, they are directed by ‘image-guided therapy’ systems”, explains TNO-ESI’s Frans Beenker. “Physicians are being increasingly supported by medical devices, and widespread machine integration is fast becoming a reality. Operating theatres are evolving into integrated high-tech systems.”

“Every one of these top companies acknowledges that keeping a grip on complexity and doing so more effectively than their competitors is what makes the difference”

Improving complex systems

In the Netherlands, there are many companies producing high-tech systems that rank among the best in the world. TNO-ESI’s Wouter Leibbrandt explains that “These include lithography machines from ASML, medical imaging machines from Philips, electron microscopes from Thermo Fisher Scientific, industrial printing machines from Océ Technologies, defence equipment from Thales Nederland and trucks from DAF. Then there are distributed systems, such as Philips Lighting’s smart lighting systems for living rooms, offices or public spaces. We are keen to engage with all these companies and to help them improve their complex systems still further, so that they can continue to operate at a global level.”

Working on-site for four out of five days

Each company has its own specific product and its own specific technique, working processes and organization. Dr Beenker adds that “So before we get started, we take the time to familiarize ourselves with the company and the market, to explore the company’s reasoning, to find out how it operates and how it develops those complex systems, and to identify any potential improvements to the methods used. We then write a joint plan to achieve the required improvements. We want to waste no time in putting the results to use. The specific nature of this approach requires us to work on-site, at the company’s premises, for four out of every five working days.”

“Physicians are being increasingly supported by medical devices, and widespread machine integration is fast becoming a reality. Operating theatres are evolving into integrated high-tech systems”

Flywheel of knowledge

“Every one of these top companies acknowledges that keeping a grip on complexity and doing so more effectively than their competitors is what makes the difference”, says Dr Leibbrandt. “Yet, at the same time, the methods used are largely the same. So they tend to say ‘we must avoid reinventing the wheel’. What is needed is a place where one company can take another company’s invention and turn it into an application. That is why ESI – in its role as a flywheel of knowledge – is happy to take the methodological research that was performed in one place and which delivered results, and to validate it elsewhere, develop it further, and to apply it once again.”

Staying smarter than the competition

The ESI Symposium, which takes place every eighteen months, is a prime example of knowledge sharing. “Together with companies we have worked with for many years, we present the results of the latest innovative steps”, Frans Beenker explains. “Last November, more than 400 interested parties registered for the symposium. In his keynote speech, Paul Hilkens of Océ Technologies talked about the approach used to model and analyse Océ printer components. Océ considers continuous and effective innovation to be enormously important, as this enables it to be smarter than its competitors and to stay that way.”

The ESI Symposium in 2017.

The system decides when to brake

Truck platooning, in which lorries follow each other at a distance of just eight metres, is another example, albeit a very different one. Here too it is important to have an overview, to be able to use reasoning throughout the chain, and to find a path through the tangled web of individual disciplines. Dr Beenker points out that “NXP Semiconductors, Ricardo, TNO Helmond, DAF and ESI have jointly worked on this application. One of the targets is to cut CO2 emissions. In truck platooning, the decision to brake is no longer taken by the driver, but by the system itself. Without the fall-back option of the human factor, the combined technologies must always work. The project resulted in pilot programmes in which trucks converged on the Maasvlakte (a new harbour and industrial area of Rotterdam) from all over Europe.”

“In truck platooning, the decision to brake is no longer taken by the driver, but by the system itself”

On a global scale

“To monitor developments on a global scale, we cooperate with the Fraunhofer-Institut für Experimentelles Software Engineering at Kaiserslautern and with the Systems Engineering Research Center (a collaborative centre for 22 US universities)”, Wouter Leibbrandt concludes. I will be very pleased to hear from any companies who are interested in finding out more about our method of cooperation, about the architecture programme or about the courses we offer. We would be happy to help them deal with the challenge of the future – achieving efficient product development.”

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