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Manuela Azevedo  

Tell us about the journey that brought you to Produtech and DIH²?
I’ve always loved the interaction between people and machines and how this comes together in an industrial setting, and that’s reflected in both my educational and work backgrounds. I initially graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Minho here in Portugal where I focused on production engineering, and from there I went into industry for the next 10 years, which enabled me to develop a lot of experience in production management. But I also believe strongly that we should never stop learning, either at a professional or a personal level, so in 2009 I started my journey to a PhD in Leaders for Technological Industry at Engineering Design and Advanced Manufacturing through the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Porto. This programme was in conjunction with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the experience of taking classes with others in this field, not only from other universities in Portugal, but also - through MIT - from all around the world, was incredibly enriching. In my PhD research I looked at how to solve challenges for Portuguese companies in the automotive sector – things like how they could reconfigure their factories, or how they could move machines from one country to another. Real problems that needed real solutions. The PhD inevitably opened up new opportunities for me and I started working with INESC TEC, a research centre connected with the University of Porto. We conducted a lot of research on how best we could optimise production facilities – for example in terms of layout and configuration – and once more this brought me into contact with companies across a wide range of sectors. Again, dealing with real problems and how we can provide appropriate solutions to those problems. Throughout all of this, automation and robotization has become a big part of my life. Which brings us to now: I joined Produtech at the end of 2019 and my role here is to provide operational support and execution to R&D+I projects, the first of which was DIH².

I imagine that the connection between robots and people isn’t always smooth sailing.
I actually think that people are more open to robots today than they have ever been, but the real issue here isn’t the robot, rather it’s a fear of change. I’m still a production engineer at heart so I’m often advising companies on how to improve their processes. In doing this, we analyse how it functions today and then look at how we can improve it. So, for example, we might experiment by changing the sequence of tasks or simplifying work orders. Inevitably I meet a lot of resistance and often the response from the workforce is “It works just fine as it is” or “We don’t need to change it”. So, we see that introducing change is not easy. But gradually as we start to introduce that change, people start to see the benefits in the production process and perhaps more importantly, for them personally. This last bit is critical: automation and robotization are forces for good when it comes to occupational health – we can replace many manual tasks that are not optimal for human wellbeing and grow those former manual production-line employees into skilled robot operators who have a better work-life quality.

The DIH² network is about agile production in manufacturing. What sort of challenges do you see that SMEs face when it comes to agile production?
At Produtech I talk to a lot of companies, and when it comes to the SMEs, I see that they often struggle to understand how to match available solutions to their own specific problems. They know that they need to change, and they are mostly open to change but they don’t always know where to start. They know that new technology exists, but they don’t always have the time or resources to conduct a full analysis to see if it is the right fit for them. I also see that from the technology provider perspective, they struggle to understand how they can make the relationship with a smaller manufacturer work financially. The best way of making a solution affordable is for it to be standardized rather than customized, however manufacturers are looking for something that gives them a point of differential. Our role as a DIH is to see how we can bring them together and align each party’s interests. It’s not an easy task, but it is a vital one.

One of the key goals of DIH² was to fund Transfer Technology Experiments in agile production. With us funding two projects in Portugal, you were a pretty busy LER so what can you tell us about FEATS and FIREFIT?
Firstly, I really wasn’t surprised that we had two projects chosen – I knew that these were two great teams that would demonstrate strong results. FIREFIT came about through an idea that the technology provider Introsys had. Introsys already had extensive experience working in the automotive sector and they wanted to see if they could apply that knowledge to the food sector. They could see that as the market for ready-to-eat foods continues to grow that there are ever-increasing challenges around food safety and supply logistics that need to be addressed. So, they partnered with A.Pires Lourenço, a ham producer, to see how they could effectively automate some of the tasks that were being done by hand. The experiment focused on the packaging-line for sliced ham products. They firstly used a hyperspectral camera to analyse salt and humidity content in the ham to identity defects in product quality. They then used machine-vision tools to find any tears or rips in the packaging at which point a robot would reject the defective packages before they could enter the supply chain. FEATS meanwhile was an experiment using Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). The technology provider – Dalma Systems – was again the one with the idea, but unlike Introsys, Dalma was a start-up that literally got off the ground thanks to DIH². They partnered with a metal parts manufacturer called Durit with the aim of improving efficiency on the shopfloor by connecting the AMRs to the ERP in the warehouse that would then allow raw materials to be delivered by the AMRs to the right part of the factory at the right time.

What was Produtech’s role in bringing the two consortia together?
Produtech is a production technology cluster, with a mission to promote the sustainable development and internationalization of the Portuguese manufacturing technologies sector. Our eco-system is quite extensive, and when we started in DIH² we decided to organize an info day to explain the aims of the Transfer Technology Experiments to interested parties. Both the technology partners – Introsys and Dalma – attended the info day and, as I mentioned already, both had ideas that needed a manufacturing partner onboard. We then worked to help them each find a suitable SME partner from both within and out with our network.

Were there any specific challenges that each of them had to overcome?
Honestly, both projects ran incredibly smoothly. Dalma had no previous experience with FiWare, but whenever they had issues, we had Francisco Melendez at FiWare on-hand to help, and there were times when Introsys were able to share their experience with Dalma. Sometimes I felt like we had one really large, combined Portuguese project!

What is the future for FEATS and FIREFIT?
Both experiments produced good results and in each case the solution is continuing to be used by the manufacturing partner in the experiment. FIREFIT focused on the later stages of the production process at A.Pires Lourenço, but they are now looking to see if they can use the hyper-spectral cameras in the initial phase before salt is added to the ham and to control water content and other parameters. As well as that, Introsys is looking at the potential for the solution in other parts of the food production sector. Dalma and Durit are also exploring whether the FEATS solution can be expanded to different parts of the factory. The TTE transported raw materials but there is the potential to adapt it to move other components as well. And other companies have shown interest in the FEATS solution as well.

We have a wide-ranging membership both geographically and in terms of the sectors that the partners operate in. How has your experience of the DIH² Network been?
I’m involved with other international projects and the key difference with DIH² is that we have visibility across the entire ecosystem. In some of the other projects I’m involved in, each individual works solely within their own work package silo so they can’t really see how the whole thing comes together. In DIH² we meet frequently (even if it has not been as possible to do so physically over the last two years) and we all have full transparency, so I know what the aims are for the network and how we are progressing towards achieving them. As a problem solver, it’s great – I get to see the problems, the proposed solutions, and then the outcome.

Why should other DIHs join the DIH² network?
We are already a reasonably big group, and we have a deep sense of community. And that gives us strength. Our network connections are good today, but as more members join, we will all continue to grow and continue to get stronger.

You’ve spoken here about the connection between people and robots, and this lies at the heart of Industry 5.0. Industry 5.0 is obviously a huge topic, but is there one specific thing that it means to you?
We’re still mostly focused today on Industry 4.0 and as I’ve already mentioned, I have first-hand experience of the difficulties in making changes in the workforce. For me Industry 5.0 is a better future that will improve the social fabric of the workplace. I think it’s important to understand that Industry 5.0 is inevitable - we are going to automate more tasks, but we need to focus on people and how we can improve the work experience by enabling those people to work with robotics and automation smartly. We’re then going to have greater access to data that will in turn allow us to better control processes and make them work quicker and more reliably. And if we get that right, we can create more free time which has the potential to make us all happier.


See LER's profile: Maria Manuela Azevedo