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Interview of Carles Domènech, deputy director of the Center for Industrial Equipment Design of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (CDEI), CTO of the spin off Steering Machines and adjunct professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the UPC

For some companies, CDEI has become an important part of their R&D department.”

“The future of mobile robotics involves the use of feet instead of wheels for movements”

“The transfer of knowledge to the production sector through industrial startups is still difficult.”

You work in the Center for Industrial Equipment Design. What does the centre offer companies in the area of technology transfer?

We are specialists in machine design. We provide services for capital goods companies, offering them consultancy, complex simulations, mechanical design, manufacturing design, synthesis of mechanisms and issues relating to intellectual property. Since 2017, we have been working on the development of robotic systems.

What kind of companies does CDEI provide a service for?

Basically, companies that design machinery, mainly in Catalonia. They tend to be medium-sized or large, such as Girbau, Giró, COMEXI, AUSA, although we also provide a service for SMEs such as Selmetron.

For technology-intensive companies working in 2022, what is the risk of not participating in innovation projects?

The companies that we work with consider that the most profitable investments they make are those that are dedicated to research and development, because they give the greatest returns. It is difficult for a technology company to function if it does not dedicate resources to innovation. For some companies, CDEI has become an important part of their R&D department.

You have collaborated with Girbau to improve some of their washing equipment. What was your contribution?

We have had a relationship with Girbau since before the creation of CDEI-UPC, for over 30 years. We help them to help develop new washing machines by participating in the conception of solutions, in the mechanical design, in the simulation and in testing new equipment.

Do companies that collaborate with CDEI come back?

We provide a quality service that is adapted to the companies’ needs in the time that the industry requires. For this reason, most companies come back over the years.

Companies that are not medium or large sized or those that are recently created may not consider collaborating with a technology centre due to a lack of knowledge or because they think that it is not the right moment. What would you say to them?

Uncertainty affects all companies, regardless of their size. When there is a crisis, we notice the retraction, but the area of product design maintains its activity, and the gap left by those that stop is occupied by others. For companies that start to collaborate with us, it is sometimes difficult to foresee what we can contribute, which is why we tend to start with small projects. This has happened with most of the companies with which we now have a solid relationship.

You are the technical manager of Steering Machines, a spin off that arose from CDEI research. What is the company’s area of work?

Since 2018, we have worked on omnidirectional movement solutions. The company manufactures traction units that can move other equipment and have a series of advantages including load capacity, noise reduction and easy maintenance. One major advantage is that the system can be scaled up and combined, for example to achieve a traction capacity of up to four tonnes by combining two units of two tonnes.

Is it still hard to convert a technological development into a business project?

Industrial spin offs are harder to develop than those that produce software, basically due to scalability, which is much more complex and expensive in the case of hardware. The transfer of knowledge to the production sector through industrial startups is still difficult.

Now in CDEI you are working to develop a quadruped robot. What is it for?

We have started to design a mobile robot for use in industrial processes that moves on feet instead of wheels. This gives it better capacity to move and adapt to complex spaces such as agricultural areas, forests or areas where a catastrophe has occurred. We are convinced that the future of mobile robotics involves the use of feet instead of wheels for movement, and we are working on this line in collaboration with two companies that are providing materials under good conditions: Infranor Spain and Tecnopower. We do not want to construct a toy, but equipment for industrial use.

What stage is the project in?

We have started work to design part of the robot with our own resources. The plan is in February to have finished this part and to start tests with the first prototype to improve the mechanics, the control and the feedback of the equipment depending on the terrain over which it moves. We are preparing proposals for calls for public grants to obtain funding, and in a couple of years we could have a solution close to launch on the market.

What functionalities could this robot have?

In the agricultural sector, it could be used to carry out inspection activities, with a minimum impact on the land. If we incorporate georadar antennae into the robot, we could measure parameters of the subsoil such as humidity, compaction, the state of the roots, etc. We are collaborating with other research groups at the UPC to develop these kinds of applications.

Linked to autonomous vehicles, how long will it be before we see robots distributing goods in the cities?

The technology is already in place. If you consider the benefits that it brings, its use will be imminent. The key is the legal issues that should be developed so that autonomous vehicles can move in the cities. This is a very important issue that affects the entire process of mobility. A few years ago, numerous electric mobility systems appeared (bicycles, electric skates, single-wheel scooters, scooters) in a very short time. This invasion needed to be regulated. At the CDEI, we are collaborating with Barcelona City Council to study the coexistence of these systems in the city. Today, they are increasingly regulated and their use is increasingly common. We hope that something similar will happen with autonomous vehicles.