Researchers are passionate people. With a job based around asking questions and then trying and often failing to find an answer, you have to be driven by the pursuit and love of knowledge.
But some researchers are keen to go one step further, and see how their work can truly be applied outside of the lab and influence the world around them. The task of getting scientific papers translated into working technologies is no mean feat, so we talk to Juan Aparicio, Head of Research Group, Advanced Manufacturing Automation at Siemens Corporate Technology, whose job is to do exactly that.
If there was a scale from one to ten on how market-ready a technology is, in the best case, what comes out of universities might be around a four. And with businesses looking to take something that already looks like a product, with only a few features missing, there’s always lots to be done to get from theory to reality. “This gap is called the ‘Valley of Death’, so we work with universities to bridge this gulf and bring into businesses something more usable to them,” Juan explains.
Transforming ideas and information into impact
Juan focuses on robotics, AI and automation, and leads a team of people who search for, build relationships with and work alongside various university researchers creating the future of these technologies. The key is transforming the information into impact: “One of our recent collaborations with the University of California, Berkeley, was featured in The New York Times. It wasn’t featured because it was traditional research proving a new algorithm was better than all the rest, and that’s the end of the story; it was because our methods and approach are 99% precise — which is close to what you can actually use in manufacturing, and can really have an impact.”
But sometimes it can be hard to convince academics to work with Siemens in this space. Many people are drawn to the young tech companies such as Google or Amazon, or even brand new startups: The misconception is that these businesses are where they can do the most with their work, but it simply isn’t the case: “We’re at the forefront of technology, working with the best professors and teams in the world,” explains Juan. “We don’t just focus on a small problem linked to an urgent business need. We look into the future to scout, evaluate and drive the new trends that affect the future of automation.”
One of his team’s unique selling points is that they work on topics that really change people’s lives, so appeal to a sense of meaning. “Siemens technology has been used to design the Mars Rover,” he says, citing just one of many examples. “It’s used for manufacturing around the world, for example at Maserati and BMW. You can find Siemens technology in Buildings, Traffic Intersections, Power plants, etc.”
Juan had the same realization about Siemens when he was a researcher. After studying Telecommunications Engineering in Spain, and Information and Communications Technologies Engineering in Sweden, he noticed an advert for a Siemens job in Princeton, New Jersey, on campus. Not knowing much about what Siemens did — and assuming it still made phones and fridges — Juan applied for the job thinking maybe something from his Telecoms background might fit. “My thesis was in car-to-car communications, though I was willing to work on any telecommunications topic, but when I arrived to the job I realized it was exactly what I did for my thesis! It was random luck, but I was so happy about it.”
Getting academic teams creating in the real-world
Juan’s story is not unique — there are many researchers keen to get academic work out into the real world. And Juan has found that actually, it’s some of the “softer” skills built up in academia — as opposed to simply the science papers themselves — which can be crucial in making this happen.
“Nowadays, this grit is very important to succeed, particularly in research. My team spends a lot of time separating the signal from the noise by going to universities, attending lectures with professors, talking to students, discussing elbow-to-elbow and eye-to-eye what the technology is really capable of. It’s not just making Powerpoints and selling this tech into Siemens, but also getting their hands dirty, and coding, and making prototypes, and using complex research mostly developed in universities in our set up.”
For Juan, the breadth of the work, as well as the opportunity to go deep into problems, is what is so unique and appealing for those who want to see the big picture.
“Robotics is a science and to me it is also an art. Roboticists are like Renaissance engineers, we need to know many different types of skills, such as perception, control, systems engineering, and machine learning. When all these come together, they can be very powerful.” Juan’s passion for his work is infectious. “Physics and math is the language we use to describe the world, but I always had the love for them not just from a pure theoretical standpoint, but also from thinking about how you can master them to improve and control the world around you.”
It seems this wave of passion-driven researchers is key to bridging the gap over the so-called Valley of Death. If we want to make best use of the research coming out of universities — and get those concepts from a four to a 10 — it’s a strong partnerships between corporate researchers and the academics themselves that will help traverse the gorge.
“Being determined to really make an impact, and adventurous enough to take any kind of challenge that pushes me, while working with a great team that shares my vision — that is what keeps me engaged.”
Born in Madrid, Spain, Juan Aparicio is Head of Research Group Advanced Manufacturing Automation at Siemens Corporate Technology, now based in Berkeley, California. Find out more about working at Siemens.