After 25 years at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), industrial engineer José María Cabrera Marrero takes over the general management of the CIM UPC center. Among his objectives: to promote research and development and internationalize the center’s activity to meet the challenge of continuing to help. In this interview with Fulls d’Enginyeria, Cabrera details the role he believes the technology center should play in the industrial environment and defends a better relationship between the university ecosystem and companies to always improve their competitiveness.
How do you face the task of directing the CIM UPC Foundation?
I face it with great enthusiasm. It is a very exciting challenge, especially considering the activities to which the CIM center is currently dedicated and the human and professional capacity and quality of the professionals we have.
What goals have you set for yourself?
The objectives are to give more emphasis to the research and development area. The CIM center is very good at training, but we want the R&D part to be the fundamental core, and all the actions we will undertake are in this direction: to give the center greater scientific and technological importance, if possible.
Is that what you need more budget for?
Indeed, we will need to bring in more money in this area. It does not mean that we expect them to give it to us, but that we will have to go and look for more cooperative projects with industry, which is where we are oriented, to work with industry.
Like the agreement with Ricoh?
This type of project or research projects. We can look for strategic alliances like the ones we have with Ricoh, or look for collaboration and research projects from the environment or from abroad. In the end, knowledge does not take up space and we can apply it to any company that may be interested.
What role does additive manufacturing have to play in today’s industry?
What additive manufacturing offers is a new possibility, an alternative, a new capability that we cannot forget. You don’t have to think that it will solve everything. Not everything will be transformed into additive manufacturing, because it also has its limitations. But it is a new player in the world of manufacturing. And here the CIM center, a leader in this sector, has a fundamental role to play. We will try to accompany companies that want to incorporate this line of work into their production processes. Not only in prototyping, which is how it started, but in making real parts, real parts with real applications.
Could it help to make Catalan industry more competitive?
Indeed. Like everything else, when you manufacture a part you have to think about how to make it more profitable. When you have a new process, a new way of manufacturing, you have to be aware of whether it is profitable or not. And if it is, you have to incorporate it. Otherwise, you will not be competitive.
Although it has been around for a long time, additive manufacturing has become very popular as a result of COVID-19…
Yes, it has had a very strong boom, but it still has a long way to go. So far it has been very much oriented to making parts or prototypes. But when I say making parts, I think more of demonstrator parts, where we don’t think about the microstructure of the material or the mechanical properties. And this is the next step we have to do. It’s not about making geometries, very nice or with a lot of dimensional tolerance, but to provide structural functionality to the part so that we can put it inside a component and it fulfills its function. Additive manufacturing processes in metallic materials also have some drawbacks. The mechanical properties are not the best. There are processes that offer good properties, but they are expensive and require a lot of investment, and others that are more economical, with properties that are not so good. We have to find the balance where we want to stay.
With COVID-19 3D printing provided the answer. Now we are back to being with a raw material supply crisis affecting the industry, could it also be part of the solution?
In this case, in terms of raw materials, we cannot be any solution. The current problem is more a lack of chips and components, and of those who supply silicon to manufacture them. We do not have much to say here, but with what has happened with COVID-19, accelerating prototype stages to be able to bring the product to market faster, here we do have to say: shortening all the development phases and if we are also able to ensure that the part has the mechanical properties to provide the correct functionality, then yes, it would make us very competitive.
I understand that it also boosts production closer to home, right?
The idea, obviously, is that the first point of action is the local environment, but we cannot forget that we are in a competitive and globalized world. And if we are good at something, I have no problem selling it in India, Australia or wherever we may be in demand. But yes, first and foremost, we will always be looking for answers in the immediate environment.
And are there any plans to sell far away?
This is also one of our objectives; to internationalize and go beyond our natural borders. Without abandoning or neglecting our immediate surroundings, of course. And this involves looking for international financing projects, participating in international fairs and congresses where we are known and where we are considered as technological partners.
When I asked you about zero-kilometer production, I was referring more to in-house manufacturing…
This is complicated, because the world is so interrelated that we cannot think of going backwards or of autarkic management. That would be a step backwards. We also do not have much raw material and, therefore, we need to be connected to the world. Japan is the paradigmatic example. It has virtually no raw materials but is one of the world’s major producers. This is rather the direction in which we need to work. Obviously, this may happen from time to time, but these are global tensions that we cannot solve locally. As far as possible, we can bet on local production, as in food products. But this should not be the case for industrial products; global agreements and solutions should be sought.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a lot of talk about the need to reindustrialize Catalonia. What do you think?
The industrial countries are the ones that have withstood the crisis the best. If we have to continue betting on tourism, beach and sangria, we are going badly. Because something like this can happen again and we will have to close everything again. And if the biggest industry in the country is tourism, it will collapse. The industrial sector, although it is secondary, ends up resisting more, it is the most stable in the face of crises. And it is very clear to me that either we bet on industry, or we will have these problems cyclically. I am not saying either that we have to forget about tourism. It is also important, although we should surely bet on another type of tourism. But it is essential that industry becomes the backbone of economic activity, because otherwise we will always be subject to the vicissitudes of crises and sooner or later we will repeat them.
And now that the restrictions seem to be coming to an end, do you think we are moving in this direction?
I believe that there is still a lot to be done and that all the actors have to participate: universities, companies, technology centers… The traditional divorce between universities and centers and companies has to be resolved in some way. We have to go together and we have to understand each other. And I am not saying that it is the fault of the universities and technology centers. Sometimes it is the fault of the companies. Universities and centers have improved a lot in the last years and companies do not understand that we are here to help them and collaborate with them. It’s like a marriage. We both need each other, if we only think in one direction it doesn’t work. We have modernized and we are here ready and crazy to help and it is our vocation: we are engineers and we are clear that the focus has to be with the industry.