The Slovenia Times

"We Want to Share our Scientific Research with the Industry"



Recently, the faculty officially opened the first smart factory in Slovenia. Why did you do it and what is the objective?

It is actually a smart factory demo center, which was established at our very own Laboratory for Handling, Assembly, and Pneumatics (LASIM). In fact, this is the first project of its kind in Slovenia. While most of the individual components of smart factories-such as sensors, machine vision, digitalization, increased intelligence, predictability and similarities-are not new, the integration is. My colleagues at the faculty are experts in these fields, so they established the demo center to prove to the industry and the students that productivity in manufacturing can be increased by using progressive technologies whose integration unlocks a new function in production. With this project, we wish to get closer to the industry, which is precisely what our faculty is all about. We develop and conduct research not only to contribute to the global accumulation of knowledge-we do it to transfer this knowledge to the industry. Smart factories allow for a significant increase in production relatively fast. We believe that Slovenia could be at the very top when it comes to smart factories, but we are still lagging behind the developed countries of Western Europe, Japan, and the USA.

What kind of resources does the faculty have to invest in research equipment?

The University of Ljubljana does not have an established system of funding research equipment. In humanities and social sciences, this problem is of lesser extent because the costs of so-called non-building infrastructure are different from the ones in technical subject fields, where we use various machines, measuring devices, and similar methods. This is why professors at our faculty also have to participate in various projects that provide funding for such equipment. Unfortunately, even when we are successful in getting a project, only a small portion of the funds can be allocated to the purchase of the equipment. So if we want to buy all the necessary equipment, we have to get many projects. According to data from recent years, we only acquire about 5 percent of funds in the projects that we apply for. And even though we invest in equipment every year by connecting the different departments at our faculty, we still cannot get all the equipment we need because certain fields require highly specific equipment. Last year, the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering invested approximately 1 million Euros in equipment, which was more than we normally do.

How do you cooperate with the industry?

Of all the institutions in Slovenia, the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering cooperates the most with the industry. Because mechanical engineering plays a role in practically any company, we work with a variety of different companies. It is true that Slovenia has very few big companies that could invest a lot in development on a global scale. Nevertheless, cooperation with companies has been increasing in recent years and is proving to be quite fruitful. Some of the larger companies we cooperate with include Gorenje, Kolektor, Domel, Hidria, Mahle, Jaskawa, Krka, Lek, Iskra Mehanizmi, TPV, and so on. With some of these companies, we cooperate on large-scale, long-term projects.

What kind of projects do you implement for companies?

For instance, we study the vibrations and noise emitted by devices, as well as energy efficiency. Then there are projects that involve the development of components in new constructions for different conditions and new devices. We are also working on certain development projects for laser technologies and photonics, as well as projects for reducing friction and wear, extending the lifespan of devices, improving various technology production processes, and [coordinating] logistics. Then there are also the aforementioned smart factories. And the list goes on. We also work with foreign companies. More and more of our research is focused on special constructions, numerical methods, simulations for foreseeing the behaviour of certain elements of machines and devices, implementation of green technologies, and the use of environment-friendly lubricants, production processes, progressive modelling of processing problems-for instance in aluminium casting-or modelling in the manufacture of polymer products, the implementation of new wear-resistant materials, and innovative processes for improving energy efficiency. We are working on at least one project from each market of the economy. 

Machine engineering is no longer what the majority may consider it to be-we are no longer preoccupied with gears and bearings. We work on high-tech technology, automatization, robotics, lasers, nanotechnologies, surface films, modern materials and more. The Faculty of Mechanical Engineering ranked between the 150th and 200th place in the Shanghai University Ranking. This is well above the average ranking of the already high-ranking University of Ljubljana. We are also working on prestigious ERC projects, which the European Research Council funds for breakthrough research. The value of each such project is approximately 2-2.5 million Euros. In more than 15 years, which is how long ERC projects have been around, Slovenia got 9 such projects-two of them by the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. The only other faculty operating under the University of Ljubljana to have achieved such success was the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics.

In the last couple of years, the number of students at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering has dropped steadily. Why is that so?

In the past, the Slovenian system of state funding was not logically motivating, which meant it was better to enroll as many students as possible regardless of how many of them would actually complete their studies. This encouraged an uncontrolled admission of students. We decided to gradually limit the number of students we would enroll, which is why the overall number of students dropped while the number of graduates did not. We have improved our efficiency, progression rates, and quality [of education.] As they reach their final year of studies, all students have a job guaranteed because companies enquire about human resources on a weekly or monthly basis. The industry needs are therefore increasing, but we are highly limited in terms of funding, the number of professors, teaching assistants, space potential, and equipment. Of course, we would like to have more students, especially good ones. Many people have an outdated perception of what mechanical engineering is all about, so we are exerting our efforts in promoting our profession, showing the public how modern it is, and demonstrating the progressive, highly specialized and interdisciplinary knowledge it has to offer. But explaining this, of course, will be a lengthy process.

How is global digitalization reshaping the pedagogical program of mechanical engineering and the profile of a mechanical engineer?

Just these days, we are discussing a new study program. We are updating it, basing it on entirely different concepts, and placing it on different structural foundations by significantly improving its individuality, interdisciplinary, selectivity, and connectedness. This is an imperative. We are implementing new, more contemporary contents. With the new program, we will make it possible for professors to implement an individual approach in the final years of studies-enabling them to satisfy practical needs or specializations for whichever company or specialized scientific and professional work in our subject field. We will ensure this with in-depth research activities organized within the framework of certain courses. At the same time, we are increasing the extent of project work, which will allow us to increase the focus on independent development, linking it to industry-related problems. 

The students at your faculty are successful in international competitions. How do you support such endeavours and what does this mean for the faculty?

We have a few successful student projects. The last such project was Design/Build/Fight (DBF). It is an annual competition held in the United States, which our students attend yearly. A new team is put together each year, the project demands a whole spectrum of skills and knowledge-from mechatronics, electronics, management, control, aeromechanics, strength structures as well as manufacture and production. In the past five years our students placed first two times, third one time, and fourth one time. Seeing how only students from the best faculties in the world participate in the competition, our success proves that we rank among the very best. We support such efforts by students to the largest extent possible. Not just with funding but especially by means of mentoring, laboratories, as well as professors and teaching assistants, who provide the students with their knowledge, experience and advice. However, the students must know how to get by themselves and find extra sponsors, which is one of the interdisciplinary objectives of such student projects. Aside from the airplane team, we also have another one called Formula Student, where the input is even greater. The team brings together students from different faculties, even non-technical ones. Each year, they design a formula which successfully competes across the entire Europe. In certain competition categories, such as acceleration, they have ranked among the best. Students learn a great deal in such projects. They gain experience in project work and learn how to see and understand a problem from perspectives other than their own expertise. In the end, they get results and see how they compare to their competition. 

You have mentioned room shortage. What are the solutions for that?

If there are no complications, we will have all required documentation for the new building next year. In best-case scenario, we should move to the new premises in 2023, but the prerequisite to that is funding, which is currently not guaranteed. We will invest around 2.5 million Euros of our own project development resources, as we cannot apply for any other funds. We decided to invest in the new building and not in the development and equipment because we find it more pressing at the moment-even though it might not yet be apparent and the majority of Slovenia might not see it as such, this is the only way of ensuring that the faculty survives years to come. We have the full support of our Strategic Council, which is composed of the leading representatives and directors of successful Slovenian companies who understand the need for development and the conditions for progress. I am truly grateful for this. We are also backed by leading representatives of the Slovenian Chamber of Commerce. We hope that we will also be heard by the broader society and finally get a chance to build the new faculty. I believe this is the only way for us to continue supporting Slovenian economy.


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