How partnership drives innovation: university–industry interactions

With the growing interest in university–industry interactions, researches and papers are being published on the topic, proving that this type of collaborations often produces interesting outcomes. We spoke to Luca Landi, professor of Machine Design at the Engineering Department of Perugia University, about the collaboration the institution has with FAIST Controls and Propulsion Systems division, and about the role this type of collaborations have in shaping the minds of tomorrow’s industrial world.

Professor Landi (right) during a visit to a laboratory of a Norwegian University with Filippo Berto (left), a fellow Professor, and a PhD student.

First of all, present your academic role and the areas on which your research is focused.

I am currently an associate professor of Machine Design, teaching at both Perugia and Terni University courses on machine design, safety of machines, optimization of products and quality subjects.

My research is mainly focused on simulation and testing of mechanical systems, especially on the field of gears and machine tools design. In the last 10 years, I have been more and more involved in safety-related standardization of machine tools at ISO level. I am currently the “proud” president of the CT024- machine tools safety commission of UNI, the Italian National Standardization association.

From your perspective, what does interacting with private companies bring to university scientists?

I think that the interaction between scientists and industries, especially in the field of mechanical engineering, is crucial: engineering professors should have an intense and continuous collaboration with high-level industry actors. This collaboration helps professors to teach technical yet ready-to-be-used subjects to students, avoiding the tendency to focus only on very theoretical topics. I am convinced that, at any University, engineering professors are on one side scientists but also technicians, meaning that we should also know how to solve technical problems in the “real” world.

The collaboration between Perugia’s University (Uni PG) and FAIST has been going on for around twenty years. When have you been personally involved?

In my Engineering Department, there are more than 90 professors, researchers and grants owner, who have been collaborating with FAIST as the need and occasion arose. My collaboration with the company began about 6 years ago for matters related to FAIST’s new actuators and controls range of products. At the very beginning, I thought that the collaboration would have lasted a few months, but I have been proved wrong: I continue to be more and more involved in a lot of different activities, that are (I hope) successful and satisfying for both sides.

Tell us a little about the ways in which FAIST and the Perugia University interact.

Nowadays there is a widespread thought that collaborations between academia and industry are practically impossible in Italy. This is absolutely not true! If the collaboration is based on clearly stated research targets, it is not only possible but also of mutual satisfaction. We currently have a Framework Agreement between our Department and FAIST, so depending on the subject of the research, we have the ability to "switch on" the collaboration with different professors of the Department. FAIST has also granted research positions at the Department of Engineering on specific research objectives, assuring the continuity of the collaboration due to exploratory research activities coming, as an example, from Thesis.

All around the world, industry clusters near major research universities are now established – think about the Silicon Valley, with its proximity to Stanford and University of California, Berkeley, as an example of innovation ecosystems. What are the benefits of having the company’s R&D near the talent?

In my opinion, the R&D departments of really innovative companies need a collaborative University on their side. There is no other way to access such a wide body of knowledge. Moreover, especially in Italy, where the majority of universities are public and have a very good academic reputation worldwide, industries can use this research aid without any doubt on the confidentiality of information shared.

Public university, in my opinion, is still the best option for confidentiality of researches, and public founding of universities is the best evidence of a research focused on "non-indisputable results". Industries can benefit from this, through collaborations with multi-disciplinary departments where different aspects and subjects of knowledge can be accessed.

Thinking about collaborations between University and companies, one may think that monitoring early-stage research at universities and pouncing when something of interest happens to emerge is the way to go. Nevertheless, currently smart companies increasingly seed it in areas of interest to them, funding researchers studying difficult scientific problems or new technology areas of interest to them. How has this approach changed the level, scope or diffusion of these collaborations?

I think that this manner of approaching and focusing research is a great opportunity for all the actors involved, also for universities. Especially for scientific departments such co-funding and co-developing opportunities, if really used in an effective way, can push also public universities to focus not only on the theoretical, but also on the “real” problems of industries. Generally speaking, I think that Italy needs it: this way of collaborating should be used more and more if we want to remain a manufacturing industrial Country.

Do you believe that the difference between the values of corporate culture and university culture are diminishing, and that these institutions are meeting somewhere in the middle as their missions have evolved?

In the last 10 years in Italy, we have had too many “partial reforms” of University; with these, many different performance measures of the system at different levels were introduced. This approach has certainly brought industry and academia closer, but has some limits. Even if I personally completely agree on the necessity of a “performance level” measurement, I do not think that "the probe" can be almost the same for all the departments and knowledge subsets. Think about the name used in university jargon for an industrial collaboration: “third mission” – it is misleading. I personally think that, especially for the engineering culture of a manufacturing country, the third mission is crucial and we still have no way to measure it. From the academic point of view, as a starting point, we need a good balance of the different missions of the university. In this way, also collaborative culture approaches can be taken into account as an outcome of any good university.

What would you define as the main positive aspects of the collaboration with FAIST during these years?

There have been, and are, many positive aspects due to this continuous collaboration through the years. From the business point of view, the possibility of having experts and sources of information that are certain and available when the need arises. The resolution of problems that require a specific conceptual effort sometimes transcends the environmental resources or knowledge available at that given moment in the company. Nowadays problem solving needs to be very short-term, it is a matter of days. Thanks to this collaboration, FAIST can access specific bodies of knowledge quickly, through framework contracts consolidated over the years, which do not require long activation times. The physical proximity between the structures also significantly helps the exchange of knowledge and information. In other words, quick activation, strong support and, hopefully, a satisfactory solution for problems that arise are the main pros for FAIST.

From the academic point of view, the continuous challenge launched by such a multinational company is an incentive to compete globally on today’s important research topics. The funds raised from this collaboration can be invested on new talents, emerging technologies and surfacing engineering challenges. Even collaborative industries and universities born in a small region such as Umbria can compete globally together to overcome the challenges of innovation.