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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Products & processes projects > Research clustering brings added dividends
Graphic element Research clustering brings added dividends
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Where areas of common interest clearly exist, consortia of individual GROWTH projects under FP5 are actively encouraged to co-operate in the formation of project clusters. Such groupings enable participants to exchange experiences and look for possible synergies in the research being undertaken. This avoids duplication of effort, aids development of Europe-wide standards, and promotes widespread adoption of best practices. In addition, it facilitates the broader dissemination of results and communication with a larger potential user base.

A typical example is the NANOTRIB cluster. Its initiation was encouraged by the Research DG itself in what will become one of the priority areas in FP6 (nanotechnologies and nano-sciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials, new production processes).

Exploring the nano-world in surface science

The cluster establishes synergies between the consortia of six funded GROWTH projects - HIDUR , LUBRICOAT , MICLUB , NANOCOMP , SMART QUASI CRYSTALS and TRIBO - working concurrently in the field of nano-scale protective and lubrication films and low-friction surfaces. The combined effort involves a total of 60 partners from 16 countries, including 24 SMEs. Backed by an investment of € 16 million, of which the Commission provides half, it conforms to the criterion of reaching a critical mass from which significant results with wide-ranging application can be expected.

A characteristic of nanotechnology research is that it embraces both 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' approaches - i.e. approaching the nano-world from the macro-scale or from the atomic scale.

NANOTRIB embraces these complementary methodologies, with implications that extend beyond the achievement of early commercialisable results, into the medium and longer term. It also involves multidisciplinary teams addressing multisectoral applications - from metal forming and machine tools, to automotive engines, wind turbines and satellite mechanics.

In addition, each of its constituents makes contributions in terms of sustainability: by minimising the use of materials through an enhancement of performance at the nano-scale; by optimising the use of renewable organic-based lubricants; and by seeking to extend product lifetimes and reduce energy consumption.

Mutually complementary research

Because the projects were separately conceived, their aims have been framed in accordance with the interests of the immediate partners and the scale of the initial funding. Together, they nevertheless form a mutually complementary body of research.

Following a preparatory discussion in May 2001, the kick-off meeting in Lyon in March 2002 defined the cluster activities and established a preliminary work programme. At the most basic level, the consortia will use the new relationship as a forum for wider exchange of non-confidential general information. Statements informing the science and engineering communities will also be designed to demonstrate efficient and co-ordinated use of public funding: A cluster website will be created, and jointly-approved progress reports presented at appropriate conferences.

These basic levels of collaboration are relatively simple to achieve. However, given progress and positive results, and assuming that issues of commercial confidentiality, research security, licenses, IPR and ownership can be accommodated, it is intended that the areas of co-operation should be scaled-up wherever mutual advantage is identified. It could thus lead to more networking for future co-operative action, and to the eventual initiation of joint activities supported by new instruments in the next framework programme.

Move to mass customisation

In contrast to NANOTRIB, EUROShoE was envisaged from the start as a large-scale unified project covering the development of the process and implementation of management tools for the extended user-oriented shoe enterprise. With 33 partners from nine countries - covering shoe makers, last makers, machinery companies, service centres, IT companies and research organisations - and a € 17 million budget, its ambitious aim is to revolutionise both the shoe as a product and the industry that provides it.

The concept is to move from mass production to a mass customisation model. This involves dramatic changes along the whole value-added chain, with the ultimate objective of creating a web-oriented business sector offering its customers the extra satisfaction of an unprecedented style choice and personalised fitting for optimal comfort.

This transformation requires action in a number of interlinked areas:

  • Definition of a 'reference model' of the business and its operational processes;

  • Development of a set of software tools and procedures to select, configure and integrate enterprise resource planning, product data management, and computer-aided design and manufacturing (ERP/PDM/CAD/CAM);

  • Implementation of the full ERP/PDM/CAD/CAM environment;

  • Design and development of a new generation of foot-feature capturing devices and camera-based foot scanners;

  • Creation of knowledge-based CAD/CAM software for the design of customised shoes;

  • Development of versatile, multi-purpose shoe machines and systems; and

  • Realisation of the components of physical and virtual (web-based) sales centres, where customers' foot measurements can be carried out, styles selected, data transmitted to the manufacturers and transactions conducted.

Given its complex nature, EUROShoE is structured in a format that mirrors the key stages of the process life cycle. Each of its individual work packages addresses a specific phase, and all of the resultant tools and technologies will be tested and validated in a pilot plant already built-up through the financial support of a national research initiative funded by the Italian Ministry of Scientific Research.

Critical mass

As with NANOTRIB, the work is multidisciplinary, has long-term implications and carries sufficient weight to be regarded as a critical mass project. It is predicted that customised products could account for around 30% of total shoe consumption, with an initial price premium of some 20 to 30%.

A successful conclusion would give European industry a significant technological edge in competing with the low-wage economies. It would also reduce the environmental impact, since production would precisely match demand, and no raw materials would be wasted on unsold stocks.

Cost-effective project co-ordination

Each work package (WP) in EUROShoE is equivalent to a conventional project, so the WP leaders retain a good deal of autonomy. A Technical Co-ordination Committee (TCC) meeting every three months brings the work package leaders together with technical co-ordinator Ing. Sergio Dulio, project leader Prof. Dr. Ing. Claudio Boër, and other ad hoc contributors, as needed.

Commenting on this arrangement, Prof. Boër observes: "My own background in international projects (European Commission, EUREKA and IMS ) complements that of a technical co-ordinator who has large experience in the footwear sector. We work very closely together, have known each other for a long time and have collaborated on a previous Italian national project that can be considered the preparation and the set-up for EUROShoE. Of course, funding is necessary for these activities - but if we consider that EUROShoE is an integration of six 'normal' projects, the cost is no greater than that of running them separately.

"In fact, the paperwork is much simplified for all partners and for the Commission, because there was only one proposal to evaluate and only one contract - albeit with 33 partners! And there is only one mid-term review, one final review, one integrated cost statement, and so on.

"Intellectual property questions were resolved at the outset, with the signature of a consortium agreement by all parties. There is also a movement of researchers between partners and a building-up of trust and confidence, but I would say that this is what happens in 'normal and healthy' projects. While we have not attempted to address the full FP6 vision of integration, I must say that having such a large number of partners from all the process phases of the footwear life-cycle creates much more synergy than in any projects with which I have previously been involved."

Challenges for the future

The aims of FP6 from 2002 to 2006 are to give increased impetus to the Community's sustainable competitiveness, and to address major societal needs and concerns by mobilising a critical mass of resources and competence in research and technological development. Among the measures proposed to meet these goals are the introduction of funding based on new instruments such as 'integrated projects' and 'networks of excellence'.

The challenge for the next generation of integrated projects will be to achieve even more ambitious goals in terms of information dissemination, researcher mobility, education and training, and take-up measures for SMEs. Although details of the new tools have yet to be finalised - clusters such as NANOTRIB and large projects such as EUROShoE are already providing valuable lessons to guide their eventual realisation in the context of the European Research Area (ERA) and FP6.

Exploring the nano-world in surface science
Mutually complementary research
Move to mass customisation
Critical mass
Cost-effective project co-ordination
Challenges for the future

Key data

Clustering of related research projects to achieve synergy and avoid duplication has been an important initiative of the research actions for industrial production in the FP5 GROWTH programme as two examples illustrate. This experience is setting the way for new instruments being developed under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

In the generic action on New materials and production technologies in the steel industry, the NANOTRIB (sustainable tribological coatings through nanonscale surface engineering) cluster includes:

- HIDUR: Improving competitiveness and conserving the environment through high durability nanocomposite coatings (G5RD-2000-00430)

- LUBRICOAT: Environmentally friendly lubricants and low friction coatings. A route towards sustainable products and production processes (G5RD-2000-00410)

- MICLUB: In-process structured hard coatings for microlubrication (G5RD-2001-00570)

- NANOCOMP: New nanocomposite-based wear-resistant and self-lubricating PVD-coatings for future applications in tools and components (G5RD-2001-00578)

- SMART QUASICRYSTALS: Tailored quasicrystalline surface layers for reduced friction and wear (G5RD-2001-00584)

- TRIBO: Nanostructured coatings for engineering tribological applications (G5RD-2001-00465)

And in the key action on Innovative Products, Processes and Organisation:
EUROShoE: Development of the process and implementation of management tools for the extended user-oriented shoe enterprise (G1RD-2000-00343)


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