The Interreg project HIT is the largest transfer project in the history of the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences. What is it all about and what are the goals of the project?
In short, it is about developing market-ready surface products – whether paint, coatings, adhesives or even 3D printing materials – combining modern methods of high-throughput automation, data science, and innovative modelling. We started with the idea of a high-throughput system, with which a large number of formulas and recipes can be systematically and comprehensively produced, tested and optimized into mature products. Meanwhile, innovative machine learning algorithms that, together with powerful computer hardware and software, provide chemists with effective tools for their work and support them in developing a digital model – the digital twin – of the formulation task. With this model, the desired product properties are virtually optimized and only need to be tested randomly. With this, surface chemistry has arrived in the digital age.
Tell us about the “iHIT Solution Engine”. What makes this virtual engine so special and who can benefit from it?
The iHIT Solution Engine is a process that very efficiently transforms the requirements of a formulation into a recipe to make real products. The process starts with an intensive expert discussion of the task. This result in preconditions for the formulation, for example, the number of additives and pigments, the amount of binder, or the selection of different indicator systems, and a specification of how everything is mixed, applied, cured, and finally tested. Our machine-learning algorithm translates this information into concrete experiments that can be carried out automatically with the high-throughput system, or manually in a conventional laboratory. Based on the data obtained during the process, the algorithm proposes new experiments and interactively starts a new set of experiments. The interesting and new aspect of this approach is that even with a modest number of experiments (typically 50-100), the algorithm can optimize up to 10 input variables simultaneously, i.e. the raw materials of the formulation, different properties such as color, gloss, hardness, abrasion resistance or adhesion, and predict these with its model, the digital twin. This not only drastically shortens the development process, but also reduces costs, as up to five times fewer experiments need to be carried out. Moreover, using the digital twin, it is now possible to study properties of other formulations from the same raw materials in a virtual experiment and then only the best formulations need to be tested. As a result, a considerable amount of research and development is shifting to the digital world.
What do the D-NL-HIT project and the “iHIT Solution Engine” contribute to the Cleverland knowledge region? Do they lead to a competitive advantage for the region?
The interest of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from the Netherlands and Germany in a previous project, D-NL Technologie Kompetenzverbund funktionale Oberfläche (TKV FO), into the leading high-throughput technology and digitization in this field was quite high. For us at HIT, the Hochschule Niederrhein Institute for Surface Technology, but also for our project partners, this is the beginning of digital surface chemistry. This development process brings about important changes both within the University of Applied Sciences and in joint projects with affiliated partner companies. For example, it now obvious that interdisciplinary research teams with experts in chemistry, electrical engineering, automation technology and data sciences work together with business experts to research innovative products and then bring them to market in time with our industrial partners. This process is not self-managing, but requires openness to innovation, the ability to work in a team, digital competences, and the willingness to test new ideas in ‘fast agile sprints’, to throw them away quickly if necessary, or to develop them into products in further sprints. This already has a lasting effect on our education and further training. As a region close to the border, we need these things in order to survive in the technological competition on regional, national, international levels – the foundation is laid down, and we are ready for tomorrow’s competition.
How important is cross-border cooperation in the research into functional surfaces?
Both regional cooperation and joint cross-border cooperation with partners in the German-Dutch border region are prerequisites for being prepared for and succeeding in international competition. I have already mentioned the interdisciplinary team aspect of solving the technical challenges. By working together in the border region, we also strengthen the regional benefits and make use of the additional opportunities and capacities of the partners. With the D-NL-HIT project, the HIT Institute, the iHIT Solution Engine, and the partner network, we are creating a common, modern, digital basis to develop innovative and sustainable functional surface solutions. Only together, we find solutions for the most diverse applications and bring them to the regional and world markets as innovative products from Cleverland.