High-tech safari to ‘hidden high-tech diamonds’

20 maart 2019 | On March 20, 120 students and employees of the Faculty Science & Engineering of the University of Groningen spent a day in the field to experience how technology and ethics come together. 

They could take part in one of the five high-tech safaris organized that day to enable them to explore a few ‘hidden high-tech diamonds’ of the Innovation Cluster Drachten. After last year’s success, this thematic tour along high-tech companies has become a fixed item of the Technology and Ethics course.

In a packed auditorium on the site of Philips Drachten, Joost Krebbekx, program manager of Innovation Cluster Drachten (ICD), told students about the manufacturing industry in the region and the unique partnership of 19 high-tech companies in the Northern Netherlands. He explained that most of the ICD companies report to headquarters outside the region or even abroad. “These headquarters determine our future and whether or not we keep these jobs in our region.” This means that these companies have to prove themselves every day. “We do so by demonstrating the added value of our collaboration,” said Krebbekx. “We develop innovative products and services by sharing knowledge and work together to attract technology talents. That is how we keep work and knowledge in our region.’’


If companies add value to each other, share facilities and are prepared to share their own diamonds, this leads to success in innovation. This is the message Remco Poelarends, system designer at FMI in Drachten and responsible for innovation, has for the students. In a separate part of a production hall, he showed that FMI is a specialist in making precision parts smaller than 1 micron. “Mainly for medical products, but also for the production and process automation in smart industry.” FMI’s customers include ASML, Philips, Volkswagen, DAF and Thalens. By working closely together with its customers, Poelarends says that FMI is able to introduce new products and improve production processes. “For instance, we help to personalize products or to shorten the lead time between product development and sale. This enables customers to innovate continuously and adapt products to changing market demands.” Do customers ever steal a good idea after knowledge sharing? “You need to share knowledge to realize innovation, but if you give away too much, you lose your job. The trend is towards open innovation in the preliminary phase where competition does not play a role. After this phase, each party uses the knowledge obtained for its own products or processes. This is how we innovate without stealing each other’s diamonds.


At high-tech partner ASTRON in Dwingeloo, the balance between sharing knowledge and keeping it to yourself is different. “We don’t have to worry about this balance, “said Ramon Navarro, head of the optical infrared instruments department. “We do not protect our intellectual property. Others may use our knowledge and technology, as long as this benefits the astronomers. We are active in science and that has nothing to do with economy.” This was a revelation to some students. Others thought it only logical to share knowledge to make progress in research and to increase knowledge about the universe and perhaps the origins of life on earth. Astronomy students were disappointed when Navarro told his audience that he was not going to speak about dark matter, cosmic storms, radiation and cosmic nebulae. “I am going to tell you about the instruments we develop to enable scientific research into these phenomena.” Optics, mechanics, thermal technology, software and electronics come together in this development. Navarro showed examples of instruments used in Sron, Alma, ESO, the James Webb Space Telescope, the William Herschel Telescope, the radio telescopes in Westerbork and Dwingeloo, SKA, LOFAR and JIVE. Astron employees invent or optimize all these instruments. Some instruments not only require smart technology but also clever design. “High-precision measurements require a top design that takes account of the small amount of space available in the rockets used to launch the telescopes.”’

Sun or enemy

His colleague, software engineer Adriaan Renting, used observations made with the Dwingeloo radio telescope to illustrate what innovation means to their research. “The larger the telescope, the more details you receive and the greater the distance you can listen.’’ He enthusiastically explained to the students how scientists use LOFAR, the largest radio telescope in the world, to discover things and collect data that are processed in Groningen. Before valuable information can be extracted from the signals picked up from the universe, these signals must be processed. “We have to remove all interference caused by mobile phones, radio, TV and cosmic radiation and mechanical interference. Next, data needs to be calibrated because not one big image was made, but many small ones. We calculate what a part of the image should look like, combine data and so end up with a complete usable image.” This calls for enormous calculation power. “Computers this powerful are not for sale and we therefore make them ourselves.” According to Renting, the Ministry of Defense is highly interested in the data they call interference, as these signals may not come from the sun but from the enemy. He reassured his audience by saying: “We are very reluctant to share this type of information.”

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