Scientific excellence combined with industrial benefits

​How do you succeed in running a successful research centre for 20 years? According to Rikard Söderberg the formula is commitment, business drive, patience and a focus on the end user.
The Wingquist Laboratory is a centre for digital product realisation. Its research has led to software that can perform all types of calculations, from the magnitude of the deviation that can be accepted during mass production of a product or how to design a component so that it is easy to replace from a purely ergonomic perspective, through to how to improve the factory environment where cars are built. 

Success factors
One of the success factors is its close collaboration with industry, which involves the joint identification of new problems and the formulation of research topics – for the benefit of many. Research is conducted in four areas: Systems Engineering Design, Geometry Assurance & Robust Design, Geometry & Motion Planning and Automation.
“Since our inception 20 years ago, we have produced 770 scientific publications, carried out 150 research projects and taken research out to Sweden’s shop floor, through the 56 doctoral students who have passed via us out into industry,” says Rikard Söderberg, Director of the Wingquist Laboratory. “In addition, some 180 companies have adopted our research into their daily operations in various ways, via our software, methods and other results.”

The anniversary celebrations will begin on 2 December through a digital campaign which includes technology videos, case studies, interviews and discussions. But first let’s take a look back – how and why was the Wingquist Laboratory founded?


Challenges of globalisation
In the 1990s Sweden was strongly impacted by its accession to the EU, the new competitive conditions of globalisation and the fact that digitalisation took off. 
“This really shook up Swedish industry, especially the motor industry. Ford’s acquisition of Volvo Cars and GM’s acquisition of Saab caused great concern that product development and production would disappear from the country,” says Söderberg.
In order to meet the challenges, Nutek (Vinnova’s predecessor) launched a multidisciplinary IT project in the engineering industry. The aim was to investigate how the engineering industry could benefit from academic research into IT and production. Söderberg ran one of the subprojects:
“In my ‘3D tolerance management’ projects, we thought a lot about how we in the academic world could support industry. We focused on how we could retain the areas we were good at in Sweden whilst also increasing the use of IT in industry.”
Above photo: The then Dean of the Mechanical Engineering Section, Göran Gerbert, came up with the idea of starting a product and production development centre focusing on computer-aided simulation and launched an initial preparatory steering group with Hans Johannesson, Anders Kinnander and Rikard Söderberg. 

Inspired by a Swedish industrialist 
Söderberg, who had recently returned to Chalmers after a spell in industry, was asked if he would like to head up a new centre. The aim was to support product realisation, product development and manufacturing. In addition, industry’s need for production systems with shorter lead times, a faster time-to-market and a high level of preparedness for integrated development should be met. 
“We agreed to focus on virtual development for manufacturing industry,” Söderberg explains.
The centre was named the Wingquist Laboratory after the man who discovered the spherical roller bearing and founded SKF, Sven Wingquist. 


Close collaboration with industry
The essence of the Wingquist Laboratory’s research is close collaboration with industry. Today the laboratory has nine industrial partners. Volvo Cars, AB Volvo and GKN (previously Volvo Aero) have been involved from the outset. Other industrial partners are Scania, Sandvik, Ikea, Saab, IPS and RD&T Technology. Initially Söderberg and his colleagues put a lot of work into talking to industry about their needs.
“They thought it was hard to grasp what Chalmers could offer. They got a bit here and there from various departments but there was no single entry point to Chalmers,” he says. “Today the Wingquist Laboratory is an arena where Swedish industry can collaborate with Chalmers in strategic areas for product realisation.”

VINN Excellence Centre
At about the same time as the Wingquist Laboratory was founded, a rumour went round about a future call for proposals via SSF (the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research). Söderberg and his team, Johan S Carlson, Bengt Lennartson and Hans Johannesson, did some thorough preparatory work.
“The call for proposals was for a total of SEK 70 million,” he says. “We succeeded in getting all three projects approved and managed to secure SEK 28 million, despite stiff competition.”
Then, in 2004, when the first call for proposals came for Vinnova’s competence centre, the Wingquist Laboratory could showcase the successful strategy used on the projects and the benefits the centre provided. Out of 160 applicants, the Wingquist Laboratory was selected as one of 15 VINN Excellence Centres and an important milestone had been attained.
The Wingquist Laboratory’s time in VINN Excellence (Vinnova’s research programme) extended over a ten-year period with steady funding and recurring evaluations. Research was conducted on three themes: Platform-based Development, Smart Assembly and Perceived Quality. 
“The evaluations were quite tough, but it strengthened us both scientifically and industrially,” Söderberg says. 

Interlinked methodology
A successful model based on some key interlinked aspects was used from the outset (below):
In order to launch a project in Wingquist there had to be a scientific challenge and an industrial need. “If these match up, we launch a project,” Söderberg says. “A project is normally concluded with a demonstrator, in other words a form of prototype, modified working method or industrial evaluation. In the Product and Use phase the results are implemented in industry, for instance through customer-specific solutions and training.
“The fact that we as researchers see industry’s needs and develop constructive solutions together with the companies is only one of the strengths we can demonstrate. But we learn a great deal though collaboration and ensuring that our expertise and industry’s needs are matched up.” 


Competing companies share knowledge
The fact that they compete in their everyday operations is not something that has prevented Scania and AB Volvo from participating in the centre.
“AB Volvo has its headquarters in Gothenburg and is a very obvious partner. Being able to include Scania later on, is something we are proud of. We see it as proof that we are developing things that are of great benefit to both of them. Both companies now use the RD&T and IPS software which we commercialised.” 
The research has primarily benefited the motor industry, but more recently several companies have joined the centre, including IKEA. Söderberg explains: 
“We have a joint project on geometry assurance, in other words getting all the parts to fit together. Regardless of whether it’s an aircraft engine or a Billy bookcase to be assembled, the parts must fit together.
“You come across these problems everywhere and the technology can be applied to many different types of products. Since the motor industry is highly competitive, it has been quicker to take interest in this research area. But we’re seeing increased interest from more sectors now,” he says.

Global breakthrough
Over the years several software applications have been further developed in the Wingquist Laboratory. Two of them have been commercialised. Since Chalmers does not develop and sell commercial software, a company, RD&T Technology (simulation for geometry assurance) was founded, which sold its first licence to Volvo Cars back in 1998. IPS (Industrial Path Solutions) is another software application that was commercialised in 2004.

“Work done in the spin-off companies falls outside the Wingquist Laboratory and does not directly provide scientific added value. However, the software takes the research out to the factory floor where it provides benefits and is utilised by thousands of users globally in large companies. This is also an important mechanism for finding out what works and what is needed next.”

Satisfaction from running a centre
The Wingquist Laboratory has delivered research of a recognised high quality and has produced 770 scientific publications since its inception. But Söderberg is most proud of the fact that the research is put to use in industry. 
“I’m motivated by developing something that is ‘for real’ and used industrially – by putting an idea into practice! My personal objective has always been to ensure that there’s ultimately a customer that wants what we offer.” 
“I wanted to create diversity when I built our team: to find people who complemented one another and could work together. Essentially you have to have similar core values. But you have to give everyone the chance to shine in their own area, while ensuring they contribute to the project as a whole,” he says.  

Industrial needs keep evolving
Platform technology, systems, product development, geometry assurance, motion planning for robots and automation are such key areas for industry that they are still relevant research areas. But companies are now asking for more and more automation and for the support of digital tools for various types of optimisation, analysis and visualisation. 
Söderberg says: “They also want digital information flows, brought from earlier development phases, to be taken throughout the entire chain. They are also asking for the aftermarket, maintenance and so on to be taken care of in the future.” He continues:
“Many are also looking for the real-time adjustment and optimisation of production. It can be compared to a control system in which digital twins deal with the different mechanical and physical phenomena and variations that arise in real life.” 

Smart and environmentally sustainable factories
There is an example of this in the SSF project Smart Assembly 4.0 which has a vision of the self-compensating factory.
“This may involve matching up the right bits, adjusting fixtures and equipment and choosing the right sequence in spot welding, for example,” he explains. “Our methods can already reduce variation by an additional 50%. Apart from the financial return, it’s also more environmentally sustainable, since it reduces both waste and the use of materials.”

Continued contribution to digitalisation
Söderberg thinks that this is only the start and that the Wingquist Laboratory will continue to contribute to industry’s digitalisation, both in terms of the flow of information and the relevant engineering activities, towards a more or less automated process.
“Over our 20 years of existence we have continuously evaluated ourselves to ensure that our research is relevant and is at the cutting edge. This is crucial in order to deliver peak performance academically while continuing to be relevant to industry,” he says. “And, hopefully we can continue to do so for at least another 20 years,” concludes Söderberg with a smile.





Published: Fri 20 Nov 2020.