In the High Tech Systems Center newsletter in May last year (Getting new technologies into a mechatronics toolbox - a national Growth Fund project (tue.nl)), TNO’s Gregor van Baars outlined some of the challenges posed to writing the proposal for the Mechatronic Systems Architectures project of the Next Generation High Tech Equipment program (NXTGEN HIGHTECH). Now, with most obstacles having been overcome, he brings us up to date on the current situation.
“After submission of the proposal in October 2021 it was approved by the government in April last year, but with a reduced overall support budget (€450 m rather than €632 m). It took some time for the NXTGEN HIGHTECH coordinators to sort out how to handle the budget in this light. Would each project have to cut a percentage or would specific projects have to be cut completely from the program? Long story short, it needed everybody to accommodate the new financial conditions. For the Mechatronics System Architectures project this implied that our Growth Fund support was reduced from 9 million to 7.65 million. The first question to all project was: Are you still in?” In Gregor’s case, the response was positive. “I approached the project partners with the good and the bad news and planned several sessions, both physical and via Teams to get everybody updated.”
And other questions were asked. What are we expected now to submit as a final project proposal? When are we going to start? “Right after the summer holidays we received the project plan templates to work out the plans in more detail and financial budget spreadsheets, and get clarity on the contribution per partner,” Gregor continues. “I made an inventory to find out for each partner which topic they would be interested to really go after in the project, and came up with an overview of the groups of topics that attracted interest. While there was some initial perspective for having a start in the last quarter of last year in terms of procedure and timing, that later appeared not feasible. The current outlook is that the project start can be March this year.”
The work packages that emerged from the process focus on next generation system architectures, controlling environmental aspects like thermal stability and contamination control as well as new technologies like topology optimization and meta materials. “But,” as Gregor suggests, “we have to pull those kinds of technologies towards our applications, and collectively develop ways to do that, develop new design principles, such that they will pay off at system level.” Finally, there is a smaller work package that is geared to the process of System Engineering. How do we work, can we sustain this way of working in a world that demands more speed, or in a context of increasing complexity that no longer fits in the head of a system architect? Should we apply artificial intelligence to speed that up and take work out of our hands so that we can be more efficient in terms of time or use AI to guide us through complexity and still find new solutions? “That is a small but important work package that might have impact in many high tech equipment application domains,” Gregor explains.
Homework paying off
All the homework paid off. There is now a nice spread of partners among the work packages, and plenty of enthusiasm. There is a good balance between contributions from companies and also a budget for knowledge institutes. Gregor: “Of course, we're also looking for partners that are prepared to bring in their contribution but also allow the knowledge institutes to develop new knowledge and add value. This has resulted in PhD positions at TU/e, TU Delft and Twente University, which is great news and in line with the letters of intent for participation. TNO is also contributing as a knowledge institute with applied knowledge development into topology optimization and meta materials with the aim to really bring these topics into the engineering toolkit in close cooperation with industry partners towards their specific challenges.”
Ready to go
Having managed to complete the puzzle of administrative work, the final proposal was submitted to the Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate Policy and RVO (Netherlands Enterprise Agency) in mid-October and just before Christmas the green light to push ahead was received. “So that's where we stand now,” says Gregor. “We can begin discussing with the partners about detailed content and the operational plans to start. We expect to actually start the first activities around March, which is driven by finalizing the last steps, such as getting consortium and project agreements signed off by the partners. I’m looking forward to putting to the test our claim of being a really great ecosystem. The coming months will provide the opportunity for us to show that we really can work collectively and share the things we want to share. To be able to develop the foundation for building systems for the future, you have to upgrade your toolkit – this was the motivation behind this proposal. Now all the administrative ‘fuss’ is behind us, we have the chance to show that we can do what we have set out to do. Not just talk the talk but walk the walk!”