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Digitization on Windesheim university’s research agenda

    Wednesday 19 May 2021
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Over two years ago, Windesheim University of Applied Sciences launched its professorship of Industrial Automation & Robotics. But in a world in which we are connected 24/7 - and a field in which we are constantly breaking new ground in the areas of production, learning and working due to the advent of smart technologies - developments in this field are constantly evolving. What's more: they are happening at lightning speed and are interrelated. After all, how future-proof are you if you use a robot to optimize production processes, without really thinking about digital data management? That's why Windesheim has decided to broaden its focus. And a pioneering professor is going to explore the possibilities for a new professorship of Digital Business & Society, which will incorporate Industrial Automation & Robotics as a research line.

The question of whether developments in the field of industrial automation and robotics and (broader) issues in the field of digitization can and should be tackled in conjunction is now in the hands of pioneering professor Erik Fledderus, who started in his position early this year. Fledderus about his assignment: "You can consider digitization as a kind of engine under the bonnet which other sectors or disciplines must use. After all, you need to be able to control a smart machine or robot intelligently (digitally) and you need to be able to measure continuously what’s happening in and with all your smart processes - in the manufacturing industry, but also beyond. Think about throughput speed or precision. The question is then what you do with all that measurement data. That's what digitization is all about: doing smart things with your data and seeing if you can use it to improve processes."

From industrial automation to robots

Within the new professorship of Digital Business & Society, Fledderus sees room for three research perspectives. Firstly, research into industrial automation and robotics will have its own place under the broader umbrella of the new professorship. After all, it’s impossible to imagine our society without automation and if you talk about industrial automation, then robotization soon comes into the picture. However, the purchase and installation of robots is only one of the steps, because automation requires an integral approach. In short, there is no change in the course of current research projects and activities: they will simply continue. And the current associate professor, Aart Schoonderbeek, remains active in and responsible for this research line.

SMEs in higher professional education

Industrial automation and robotics is not the only research line within the new professorship: to strengthen the connection between SMEs and the higher professional education sector, Fledderus wants to explore a new research line with this connection as its starting point. One of the research projects that will soon be part of this is SME Digital Workshop, also known as MoveDigi, in which MBO and HBO students from the HBO-ICT Bachelor's programme, among others, carry out assignments for SMEs. The research will deal with broad(er) digitization issues that are currently relevant to SMEs, or as Fledderus puts it: "What works and what doesn't with early adopters and how can we use that knowledge to get others to join us as 'not too late adopters'. In other words: how do you involve people with knowledge in the field of logistics and supply chain management and an affinity with digitization in this theme?"

Digital society

While the first two research perspectives mainly deal with machines, robots and business - in short, digital business - the last research line focuses on data science and artificial intelligence affecting many aspects of life and thus society at large - hence the last part of the new professorship's name: digital society. Within this perspective, Fledderus also sees a task to include the ethical aspects of digitization and data: "Because you see that technology also has other sides than just a functional one, and digitization is no exception. Think of themes such as privacy, security and the way in which digitization creates a kind of parallel reality alongside the physical reality. You can nicely call it a digital twin, but the question is what you do with those social aspects and concerns."

Connecting research, the regional area and education

As previously mentioned, digitization affects almost everyone. Connecting is therefore a key word for the new professorship. For example, when it comes to the interaction between research and the regional area. Fledderus is already talking a lot about new research themes with companies and institutions such as the Zwolle Area Economic Board. "This concerns issues they have in the area of cyber security and digitization in general, for example. And with Perron038, Zwolle's innovation hub for the manufacturing industry, Windesheim already has a good base from which to make its research (more) visible in the city and regional area." But the link with education is also important to the pioneering professor: "That's why I really want to invest in collaboration with education, for example with the successful HBO-ICT programme here at Windesheim."

Erik Fledderus at Perron038, photo Arjan Reef

Erik Fledderus studied applied mathematics in Twente, obtained his doctorate there and in 1997 he joined KPN Research, which later became part of TNO. He was also Managing Director of SURF and is Professor of Wireless Communication at Eindhoven University of Technology. He gained technical and management experience in positions at the Joint Institute for Innovation Policy and the European Commission, as well as other organizations.

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