Collaboration at core of automotive innovation in West of Ireland
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The country may be small, but Ireland is showing huge potential in the automotive research and development (R&D) space, particularly in its western regions where collaborative initiatives thrive.
Best known for its lush landscapes, Saint Patrick’s Day, and a pint of Guinness, Ireland has a great deal to offer in terms of culture, creativity, and charming scenery. But what’s lesser known in the mainstream are the contributions local companies and institutions make in driving innovation in an array of sectors: from pharmaceuticals to the automotive industry.
E&T made its way to Ireland to learn more about its R&D initiatives happening in the country’s western regions within the automotive sector. And here, we found a common theme trickling throughout all the companies and institutions we had come across which makes the West of Ireland a worthy competitor in pushing innovation: strong collaborative efforts.
“A vibrant ecosystem has been growing in the West of Ireland over the last 25 years,” says Ian O’Hora, head of Green Economy and Engineering at IDA Ireland, an agency founded in 1949 that handles the attraction and retention of inward foreign direct investment into Ireland.
O’Hora tells E&T that its western region is a place where partnerships between various stakeholders, including academic institutions, research centres, and industry players, are commonplace and routine. “These collaborations have created a rich environment of knowledge exchange, idea sharing, and a great quality of life, which has propelled innovation and growth in the region.”
In Ireland, we first met with a team from the research institute Lero. The Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software brings together expert software teams from universities and institutes of technology across the country.
Its research spans a wide range of subjects including software engineering and human-computer interaction in areas such as driverless cars and artificial intelligence.
The team at Lero said the institute “acts as a bridge between academia and research” and takes expertise from multinational corporations (MNCs) and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as academic institutions such as the University of Limerick (where the centre is based), Trinity College Dublin and the University of Galway.
Lero highlighted how software innovation is of significant importance within the automotive industry, and that many OEMs still find the adoption of software into their businesses a challenge. “Software is everywhere.”
The Lero team also emphasised the importance of supplying quality graduates and emerging talent to develop new innovations and technologies within the automotive sector.
O’Hora agrees, stating there is an abundant pool of skilled talent in the West of Ireland. “The region has a highly educated workforce with a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines,” he adds.
Lero’s base, the University of Limerick (UL), also showcases a wider array of R&D projects within the automotive world. It is an on-campus test bed for autonomous technologies and focuses on the AI aspects of the sensors on the cars.
Many of the University of Limerick’s projects focus on AI and machine learning (ML)- based approaches, extending existing frameworks to make the AI work. E&T observes that the institution also strives to look for more opportunities to leverage techniques and technologies from other industries such as agriculture.
O’Hora says: “Academic institutions such as the University of Limerick and the National University of Ireland Galway are renowned among international companies for their research and innovation activities and for producing a steady stream of 3rd and 4th-level graduates in areas of high demand in the innovation economy, such as software engineering and data analytics.”
Also, on the UL campus lies the home of the Bernal Institute, a multi-disciplinary team of world-leading materials scientists and engineers whose research focuses on the synthesis (making), characterisation (measuring), and design (inventing) of nano-, meso- and macro-structured materials.
They too are utilising the talent at UL and have established partnerships with manufacturing companies within the region. For example, the institute is collaborating with semiconductor manufacturing company Analog Devices to develop digital-twin technology for lithium-ion batteries. Analog Devices recently announced a €630m investment into a semiconductor R&D and manufacturing facility in Limerick.
E&T also visited the Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) Software Engineering Centre in Shannon. Here, they focus on the data science and software frameworks within vehicles, an element critical in cars. “Software is the glue, it’s the magic that brings them to life,” the team at the Shannon centre said.
The JLR centre staff work in an agile operating environment and have a strong relationship with institutions in Galway, Limerick, and Dublin, stating that they are lucky to draw from that. They are also open to the idea of partnerships: “we can’t do anything ourselves”.
The JLR team added that with recruiting, they hire from technology and software companies, not just those from automotive companies. “A lot of these skills are transferable, so we just apply those skills to what we’re doing,” they say.
E&T asked the team why the West of Ireland has such a strong ecosystem. “It’s the people, talent, and skills,” they say. “For a small country, we’re punching well above our weight.”
Once again, E&T observes the strong culture of collaboration across the west of the country through the overall business model at JLR.
Another example of a collaborative initiative seen in the West of Ireland is a project focused on developing new and innovative sensor technologies for autonomous vehicles, run at the National University of Ireland (NUI) campus in Galway in partnership with a team from French company Valeo.
The researchers on the project which started in 2018 are from Lero and led by Professor Martin Glavin and Professor Edward Jones at NUI Galway. The project involves testing new and emerging sensor technologies, mixes of different sensor technologies and signal processing algorithms, including ML and AI.
The team has set up a test car on the NUI Galway campus equipped with many sensor mixes to determine how well the sensors work in different scenarios and in different weather conditions.
Meanwhile, down the road in Limerick, Irish start-up Provizio has built a five-dimensional accident prevention technology platform with a view to radically transforming vehicle safety.
The platform combines proprietary vision sensors and machine learning to see further, wider and through obstacles: detecting danger in all-weather and applying predictive analytics in real time to prevent accidents.
Provizio is one of the first Irish start-ups to test its proof of concept at Future Mobility Campus Ireland (FMCI) in the Shannon Free Zone in Co Clare, the brainchild of former Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) employees Russell Vickers and Wassim Derguech.
The FMCI comprises a 12km road network that is retro-fitted with interconnected, state-of-the-art sensing and telecommunications technologies and control centre building.
Not only does tapping into rich, diverse, talent and expertise, sharing knowledge and ambition save time and money, it builds powerful and resilient cross-sector synergies, O’Hora tells E&T.
He gives one great example of how different automotive, software, and automotive companies across the West of Ireland come together to develop new innovations for the sector: the Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) steering group.
CAV brings together government agencies (including IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland), research centres (including Lero and Insight), and leading automotive companies (including Valeo, Jaguar Land Rover, and Analog Devices).
“By combining all the skills, backgrounds, and perspectives, the CAV forum is working to strengthen the ecosystem so that the full benefits of autonomous driving can be achieved,” O’Hora explains.
This perfectly sums up the West of Ireland’s goal to build a strong ecosystem, producing good quality research and developing an array of new technologies to push forward the next generation of vehicles on our roads.
Overall, E&T observes that the collaborations seen throughout the West of Ireland come in full circle. All institutions and companies across the region are fully utilising their contacts, sharing the knowledge and expertise needed to further develop and drive innovation within the automotive sector.
“Collaboration and talent are crucial to building a thriving ecosystem and driving innovation,” O’Hora tells E&T. “There are case studies and experiences everywhere in the West of Ireland, of global companies, homegrown Irish firms, and academia coming together and the results are key industry challenges being solved and shared with the world.”
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