Industrial PhD’s: Local arrangements on a global arena

Ingemar Denbratt
Educator, Networker


Automotive exhaust emission has been an important research area at the Department of Applied Mechanics at Chalmers for a long time. Today, the emission levels are approaching what is considered sustainable and the research at the institution is now focusing on supporting the transition to a future sustainable transport system where fossil fuels have to be gradually replaced with alternative and renewable fuels.

I have set out to meet with Ingemar Denbratt, professor in combustion engineering at Chalmers, and with long term experiences of research in collaboration with industry. He is also on the board of Chalmers Centre for Combustion Engine Research (CERC), an interdisciplinary engineering research centre housing long term research needs that are delineated within road-maps developed by the centre’s industrial partners. 

“We have always had a good and close relation to the Swedish automotive industry – as long as I can remember”, Ingemar Denbratt says once we are installed in the sofa set in his office. 

We have made an appointment, specifically to discuss pros and cons of industrial PhD’s, something he knows a lot about as he has tutored and examined nine during his years at the department.

A large investment

Ingemar Denbratt tells me that he has always had at least two ongoing industrial PhD projects, one from Volvo AB and one from Volvo Cars. Sometimes even more, because when Saab Automobile was up and running in Trollhättan, one hour drive north of Gothenburg, they also used to have industrial PhD’s placed at the department at Chalmers. Scania in Södertälje on the other hand, has only had one industrial PhD student placed at Chalmers so far.

“I guess that the worst thing that could happen is that the company pays for the education of an Industry PhD and then, the student finds it so nice here on the west coast so that he or she wants to stay. It wouldn’t be hard for them to find a job here either. They certainly become coveted. But I understand Scania, I would probably have argued the same”, says Ingemar Denbratt.

I ask Ingemar Denbratt if the other industries are considering secrecy issues and therefore choose not to place their industry PhDs in the same environment as Volvo.

“Most of our projects are not related to a specific product, they rather focus on issues in the future which normally are problems many actors can work together on. They trust their staff in not talking too much about business confidentialities. I rather think they want to avoid the risk of a student finding another job at a company on the west coast. An industry PhD is a great investment for the company and nothing they want to lose to easily.” 

Perhaps Ingemar Denbratt is right. Distance may be an issue. Among the 25 industrial PhDs registered at Chalmers Energy Area of Advance in 2013, only three represented companies placed outside West Sweden. Ingemar Denbratt further tells me that despite a lot of international collaboration, they have never had an industry PhD originating from industry outside Sweden, but among the "normal" PhD students, it is the other way around; most of them are recruited from abroad.

Basic and exploratory research is the start for the new

The best thing with industrial PhDs is the great network, Ingemar Denbratt tells me. To all the Industry PhD projects at least one representative from industry participates in the tutoring committee, so this is a great forum that also facilitates discussions about future projects.

“When we have research projects together with industry, most of them engage ‘normal’ PhD students and a lot of times these students gets employed by that industry after dissertation”, says Ingemar Denbratt. 

We leave the pros and cons of industry PhDs and talk about ‘the usefulness of research’. Ingemar Denbratt tells me that when CERC was evaluated there was one thing that really surprised him; several of the industrial partners in the centre referred to how useful specific research results had been for them. Ingemar Denbratt would rather have guessed that educated people was the most important.

The usefulness of research results is confirmed by Anders Karlsson, researcher at Volvo Advanced Technology and Research and also adjunct professor at the Department of Applied Mechanics at Chalmers.

“The work I do at Chalmers is related to the work I do at Volvo, but the research question is more basic and explorative at Chalmers. At Volvo, we process the models further by applying them in our context and adding our information. Even though we do a lot of additional work, we have great use of what is produced at Chalmers”, he says. 

The product development process normally lies beyond Chalmers' work. Chalmers' participation is rather at the start of something new.

“One good example is Volvo’s development of DME (dimethylether) fuel. This was a project that we had at Applied Mechanics together with an Industrial PhD from Volvo Powertrain. Now, a few years later, that is about to become a product”, says Ingemar Denbratt.

 

Text: Niklas Fernqvist 

 

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Published: Tue 26 Aug 2014. Modified: Fri 15 Jan 2016