Interview with Joseba Quevedo, full professor of the Department of Automatic Control at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) and director of the Monitoring, Safety and Automatic Control Research Centre (CS2AC UPC)

“COVID has made us advance five years in the field of digital transformation.”

“The implementation of industry 4.0 is improving due to large companies, and smaller companies can benefit from this.”

“We have been collaborating with Aigües de Barcelona for 25 years. For them, working with the UPC is a guarantee.”

With a long career in the field of automatic control, Joseba Quevedo has published over 400 papers in scientific journals, using as a basis research on advanced control, parameter identification and estimation, fault detection and diagnosis, fault-tolerant control and its application in large-scale systems and industrial processes. He presided over the Spanish Automatic Control Committee (CEA) for four years, and for seven years he has directed the Monitoring, Safety and Automatic Control Research Centre (CS2AC UPC).

What level of implementation of industry 4.0 is found in service companies?

It is difficult to make a general analysis. Our centre tries to respond to the challenges that companies present to us, but it is true that we have seen an increase in interest in this type of technologies. In fact, Covid-19 has made us advance five years in the field of digital transformation, through teleworking and the automation of many tasks.

How does intelligent industry contribute to improving the competitiveness of companies?

In terms of security, there are various aspects that can be improved using advanced attack detection systems. Another application is the diagnosis of system faults in real time and the search for solutions. Intelligent systems are very important to achieve this.

One application is fault-tolerant control…

This is an important aspect. When something fails in a system (for example, a valve or a pump) an alternative must be found in real-time so that the process is not halted. In addition to knowing what happens, you have to offer a solution. If we think about a plane in flight, any major problem needs to be solved immediately. That is why fault-tolerant control exists.

And remote management?

It is fundamental. If you sell control systems on a large-scale, it is not feasible to have staff in each node to manage at local level. Industry 4.0 enables us to analyse and control the entire process, detect incidents and resolve them remotely.

How can SMEs benefit from this type of technological developments?

The methodologies for implementing industry 4.0 are improving due to the development of large companies, and smaller companies can benefit from this. This is one of the challenges of CS2AC UPC. We have spent three years working on a regional European project, in which we are collaborating with SMEs from the south of France, Aragon and Catalonia to apply this type of knowledge that is generated on a large scale.

How does CS2AC UPC collaborate with companies to develop technology solutions based on industry 4.0?

It may participate in competitive research projects, as in the case I just mentioned. Another formula is collaboration through the university, through an agreement. For example, we have spent 11 years providing technology solutions for Aigües Ter Llobregat (ATL) to help them to improve the efficiency of their management system: detect potential leaks, calibrate sensors and improve data quality by implementing industry 4.0 tools. This has led us to work for more companies in the sector, such as the Consorci d’Aigües de Tarragona (CAT) and the municipal company Aigua de Terrassa.

You use mathematical models to design information analysis, monitoring and control systems. What is the academic background of the centre’s researchers?

We have mathematicians, specialists in fluid mechanics, electrical engineers, computer scientists and experts in automatic control. Eighty per cent come from industrial informatics and automatic control, but really we are a multidisciplinary centre.

Does artificial intelligence play an important role?

We use artificial intelligence, but it is not our only tool. We also use statistics, automatic control… Ultimately, we use algorithms, which can work like humans and as tools to analyse and fuse heterogeneous data.

The increase in connectivity could also open the door to new hazards such as cyber-attacks. How can industry 4.0 be protected from these kinds of situations?

The digital transformation has many positive aspects, but also some negative ones. To avoid them, work is done in computing to protect data, for example through encryption. However, what we are experts in is the introduction of a very low level signal in the control system that is imperceptible and enables us to detect a cyber-attack. It is a solution that is more from the area of automatic control in which we are specialised than from computing, and it gives good results.

Is the work the centre carries out with Aigües de Barcelona (AGBAR) associated with this?

At the moment we are working on a project to detect cyber-attacks in water distribution networks. We have been collaborating over the last 25 years with Aigües de Barcelona and its technology centre CETAQUA, which is a great pleasure. For them, working with the UPC is a guarantee; for us working with a company that has their characteristics enables us to, for example, teach bachelor’s degree and postgraduate classes by explaining real cases.

Not long ago, you presented in an enerTIC webinar a predictive management system for remote natural gas stations. What does it consist of?

Three years ago, through the Research and Innovation Strategy for the Smart Specialisation of Catalonia (RIS3CAT) we collaborated with service companies that implement industry 4.0. One of these was Nedgia (Gas Natural Group) that has over 100 remote gas stations distributed throughout the territory that serve customers in their area. A sensor system can be used to determine the load level of each station and to manage optimum reloading. We can achieve this by making a forecast several days in advance to subsequently optimise the distribution system.

Does Catalonia have enough experts trained in industry 4.0 to enable its growth in coming years?

We are working on this. On the Terrassa Campus, we have a master’s degree in Automatic Control and Electronics in which we have incorporated aspects such as big data, data analysis, collaborative robotics and fault diagnosis, among others. We have changed the programmes to update course offerings. We are incorporating the concept of industry 4.0 in master’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. All of this is evolving at enormous speed, so that on the basis of what they learnt here, specialists should update their knowledge throughout their careers. We also offer training for companies through the Fundació Politècnica de Catalunya.

The creation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network (XaFIR) has just been announced, a network of 400 researchers who work in this area and of which the UPC forms part. Could it provide definitive support for the development of industry 4.0 in the next decade?

This new network is very good news, as it provides collaboration and coordination, if it is set up correctly, of all the Catalan research groups and technology centres that are expert in industry 4.0, which could provide solutions for companies to carry out their digital transformation.

Let’s go back to something that emerged in the first question. Could the situation caused by the pandemic and the restrictions to movement and working in enclosed spaces accelerate the implementation of industry 4.0?

Of course, we are already beginning to see this. In the last academic year, universities had to adapt to the health situation by working remotely, and that’s what we did. The same thing is happening with companies. Many of them are opting for telematic activity that requires remote management at all levels, which is why they are seeking industry 4.0 solutions. The pandemic is driving companies that have made a commitment to this type of technologies, and many opportunities are emerging. The same is happening with professionals at individual level.