Brussels, 22 Sep 2003
Researchers and engineers with multidisciplinary skills are essential to keep Europe at the forefront of manufacturing innovation. VISIONONLINE set out to provide online learning and a virtual laboratory to help overcome barriers.
Precision engineering, micro-engineering and nanotechnologies offer routes to the creation of products that are more efficient, environment-friendly, reliable, safe – and ultimately more profitable to their manufacturers.
Large-scale markets for simple devices are increasingly emerging from the development of relatively complex micro-engineered products. These include:
Micro-structured pyroelectric arrays and precision-machined optics, devised originally for missile guidance and enemy detection by the armed forces. They are now used in everyday applications such as factory surveillance and fire detection;
Minimally invasive surgical tools and lab-on-a-chip diagnostic systems, which are beginning to revolutionise healthcare practices – coupling improved patient treatment with reduced costs; and
Micro-devices to detect dangerous conditions and trigger precisely gauged counter-measures and thus improve safety in transport.
To maintain the pace of innovation and invention in these fields, there is an unprecedented demand for highly educated and commercially aware engineers with the knowledge and flexibility to adapt to more multidisciplinary modes of working.
As a result of past educational approaches, many of today's scientists and engineers are highly specialised. This can inhibit the development of breakthrough designs based on hybrid technologies, which could in fact prove particularly economical and practical in terms of manufacturing.
Broad collaboration between European industry and the academic establishment is now essential to provide new students with the appropriate learning tools, information sources and stimulating ideas.
The European society for precision engineering and nanotechnology (euspen) was established in 1998 and initiated the VISIONONLINE project with funding from the FP5 GROWTH programme to expand on its early work in this area. Now set up as a non-profit organisation with global links, euspen aims to provide awareness and opportunities for industries, universities and research institutes to meet, network and benefit mutually from the promotion of ultra-precision technologies.
Media match audiences
Prime targets for VISIONONLINE are the high-growth micro-electromechanical systems (MEMs) and nanotechnology communities, which have an important population of small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs). For smaller companies, especially, it is difficult to devote time or to release staff for conventional education programmes. The four-year initiative, started in June 2001, is therefore placing a priority on the use of remote e-learning and part-time online tuition as a means of improving the dissemination of new knowledge.
Eight different week-long multidisciplinary awareness-training events are being prepared at post-graduate level. These will cover nanotechnology and MEMs, microelectronics and micro engineering, precision and nano metrology, and precision engineering.
While training can be undertaken on the premises of the various participating institutions, the modules are also being adapted into an online format. This includes the required lectures, notes and problems, and tuition provided via the Internet. Canadian partner, the University of Calgary, will also provide access to a virtual institute laboratory in the future. This would allow students to remotely control MEMs sensors and collect data via the Internet, with live cameras transmitting realtime views of the instruments being used.
"By the half-way stage of the project, two of the courses have been running," reports euspen's European Liaison Officer Emmanuelle Clement. "While we aim to attract greater numbers of students in the future, the formula is evidently successful. We are also hoping that the virtual laboratory experience will lead to the creation of such a facility for shared equipment use in Europe."
Problem sharing by Internet
A dedicated website linked directly to an external expertise database set up by euspen has been put in place as a centre for networking and industrial problem solving. In a community composed significantly of SMEs, it is known that the same technological difficulties often recur. To prevent the duplication of work and waste of industrial man-hours, informal discussion sites enable users to post technical questions for other browsers to view.
An online patent library was introduced as a further aid to technology transfer. However, experience has shown that commercial sensitivities make some patent-holders reluctant to divulge their findings. Consequently, the library is being extended to include scientific papers and other published works, with notable contributions in the medical field from the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy.
Annual seminars provide forums for discussion of industry's future needs and desires. Other sources include company visits and outline feasibility studies or technical projects that are required by specific organisations that do not have plans or resources to carry them themselves. This leads to the compilation of 'wish' lists that are distributed throughout Europe.
Together with its partners, euspen is actively promoting the outcomes of VISIONONLINE through press advertising, publications and presentations at conferences and exhibitions. The intention is that the products should evolve into commercial services that will enable the project to continue in a self-sustaining form beyond the end of the funded period.
The network of excellence in multifunctional microsystems (NEXUS) predicts that, from a baseline of € 30 billion in 2000, the world demand for existing and emerging micro- and nano-based systems will grow to € 68 billion by 2005.
Taking advantage of the educational and knowledge-sharing opportunities offered by the present project will help Europe to gain a substantial slice of the additional business and its attendant employment openings. As a route to more sustainable production, micro-technologies will bring important environmental benefits. And, with IT, biomedical, automotive and household appliance applications identified as major markets, they will improve the quality of life for all EU citizens.