High-tech safari to 'hidden high-tech diamonds'

News | March 20, 2019

A day 'in the field' to experience in practice how technology and ethics come together. That is what 120 students and employees of the Faculty of Science & Engineering from the University of Groningen on Wednesday 20 March during one of the five high-tech safari routes. Looking for some of the 19 'hidden high-tech diamonds' from Innovatiecluster Drachten. After last year's success, this thematic tour of high-tech companies is a permanent part of the Technology and Ethics course.

In a full room with host Philips in Drachten, Joost Krebbekx, program manager of Innovatiecluster Drachten (ICD), leads the students through the development of the manufacturing industry in the region to the unique collaboration of 19 high-tech companies in the Northern Netherlands. He says that most of the headquarters of the ICD companies are located abroad or at least outside the region. "They determine our survival and therefore whether our work for the region is preserved." That is why the companies have to prove themselves every day. ,,By demonstrating the added value of our mutual cooperation'', explains Krebbekx. “By sharing knowledge, we develop innovative products and services and are attractive to technical talents. This way we keep work and knowledge in our region.”


If companies add something to each other, share common facilities and are willing to share their own diamonds, then innovation is successful. Remco Poelarends, system designer, keeps track of that FMI in Drachten and responsible for innovation, for the students. In a protected part of the production hall, he shows that FMI is a specialist in making precision parts smaller than 1 micron. "Mainly for use in medical applications, but also in production and process automation in the smart industry." Examples of customers are ASML, Philips, Volkswagen, DAF and Thalens. By working very closely with customers, according to Poelarends, they are able to introduce new products and improve production processes. ,,For example, we help with the personification of products or a shorter time between product development and sales. This allows our customers to continuously innovate and adapt products to changing market demands.” Does a customer never run off with a good idea after sharing knowledge? Poelarends finds the balance between what you share and what you keep to yourself interesting and sometimes exciting. “Sharing knowledge is necessary to achieve innovation, but if you give everything away, you no longer have a job. The trend is more open innovation in the preliminary phase, where there is no mutual competition. After that, each party can use the acquired knowledge for its own products or processes. This way you innovate together, without stealing each other's diamonds.


At high-tech partner ASTRON in Dwingeloo the balance between sharing knowledge and keeping it to yourself is different. "There isn't one," says Ramon Navarro, head of the optical infrared instruments department. “We do not shield intellectual property, as long as the knowledge and technology are used and astronomers benefit from it. What we do is science and has nothing to do with economics.” For some students, this is an eye opener. Others find it logical that you share knowledge to advance in research and thus know more about the universe and perhaps our origins. Some astronomy students have to deal with a small disappointment when Navarro announces that he will not talk about dark matter, cosmic storms and radiation and nebulae. ,,I will tell you everything about the instruments that we are developing, with which scientists are able to investigate these phenomena.'' Optics, mechanics, thermal technology, software and electronics come together in this. For the initiated: Navarro shows examples of instruments used in Sron, Alma, ESO, the James Webb Space Telescope, the William Herschel Telescope, the radio telescopes in Westerbork and Dwingeloo, SKA, LOFAR and JIVE. Instruments devised or optimized by ASTRON employees. According to Navarro, some instruments not only require cleverness in technology, but also in design. "The precision of the measurements demands the utmost of the design, which also has to take into account the limited space in the rocket with which the telescope is launched."

Sun or enemy

Colleague and software engineer Adriaan Renting uses observations from the radio telescope Dwingeloo to illustrate what innovation means for research. "The larger your telescope, the more detail you receive and the further away you can listen." He explains with enthusiasm how scientists are making new discoveries with LOFAR, the largest radio telescope in the world whose data is collected in Groningen. But before valuable information can be extracted from all that data, the captured signals must be made useful. “For example, by removing all interference from GSM, radio and television and all kinds of cosmic radiation and mechanical interference. And once you have done that, you have to calibrate, because no large image has been created, but a small piece each time. We calculate what a part of the picture should look like, put everything together and then get a usable whole.” This requires enormous computing power and storage capacity from computers. "You can't buy these kinds of computers, so we make them ourselves." Renting says that the military is extremely interested in all data that we call interference, because are the received signals from the sun or is it the enemy? He reassures the students: ,,We are very reluctant to share this kind of knowledge and information''.