Contributed by Silvia Mastellone, University of Northwestern Switzerland and Tariq Samad, University of Minnesota

Control technology has historically been a strong enabler for major technological achievements, from space exploration to nanotechnology. Traditionally the subject was driven from applications in various domains, electrical, mechanical and chemical. The development of the theory has been strongly linked to challenging problems present in various applications. When we look at control technology today we observe a substantial gap between the advances in control theory, typically achieved in academia, and the technology adopted in industry. Such a gap prevents control from being used to its full potential, and various industrial sectors from benefiting from new developments in control. Advanced control has the potential to push the boundary of the present technology in different industrial sectors. How can we transform this potential to the reality of the future?

A key enabler to this end is the fostering of collaboration between industry and academia; we can do more and we can do better if we join forces. As a result in 2014 IFAC formed a Pilot Industry Committee with the following goals:
• Strengthen the engagement of industry and industry representatives in IFAC activities;
• Enhance the value of IFAC to industry;
• Help control research realize its full potential for industry impact.

Among other activities over the past triennium, the committee has focused on analyzing the current situation in terms of control methodologies presently applied in industry and understanding what aspects limit the collaboration between researchers and practitioners. Work streams have been formed to address the challenges of deeper collaboration. Based on the outcome of the Pilot Industry Committee, at the IFAC 2017 World Congress in Toulouse, France, the General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment that established a permanent Industry Committee chaired by a new Technical Board Vice-Chair for Industry Activities, who will also be a nonvoting, ex officio member of the IFAC Council. The amendment states, “The objectives of the Industry Committee will include increasing industry participation in and impact from IFAC activities.”

During the 20th IFAC Word Congress the committee organized two panel sessions, the first one on enhancing academic/industrial collaboration and a second one on advanced control in industry more broadly. The discussions in these panel sessions are summarized below.

Readers of this post who are interested in actively participating in the work of the Industry Committee are encouraged to contact the author and/or the chair of the committee, Tariq Samad (

Panel Session 1: How to Enhance Industry/University Collaboration on Advanced Control

Panelists: Dr. Kevin Brooks (BLUESP, South Africa), Dr. Alex van Delft (DSM, Europe), Prof Sebastian Engell (TU Dortmund, Germany), Prof Thomas Jones (S-PLANE Automation, South Africa), Dr. Michael Lees (Carlton & United Breweries, Australia), Prof Silvia Mastellone (University of Applied Science Northwestern Switzerland, Switzerland), Dr. Takashi Yamaguchi (Ricoh, Japan)

The panelists, covering a broad range of industry sectors ranging from mineral process industry, brewery and aerospace, shared their experience in carrying on successful collaboration between academia and industry with the ultimate goal of rendering advanced control solutions available for the advancement of a product or process. It was recognized that control is not currently used to its full potential and specifically that not enough of the control crown jewels are actively realizing their full potential in industry.

The goal would be moving from the present finite-horizon game in which each institution attempts to follow intermediate goals (fast publications in academia and fast products to market in industry) to an infinite-horizon game where long-term collaboration and sustainable high performance results are achieved. A number of major factors, that limit stronger collaboration, have been identified including gaps in the intermediate goals that define the success for each institution and the specialized knowledge and consequently language. The problem has a high degree of complexity and must be addressed in all its different aspects, in particular three key aspects have been identified: people, processes and tools. For each category a set of solutions has been proposed:

  1. People: Can we invest time and effort in training people to embrace both theoretical and application knowledge or to cooperate in order to realize a product or process with advanced technological features enabled by control?

On the topic of people the need for mediators has been identified as a key point; training mediators from academia or industry is an important step in order to bridge the gaps. Education of people remains the fundamental goal for university, nevertheless a stronger bond between academia and industry can support the student to be better prepared for a future in industry and well equipped with broader understanding of the control potential. It has also been discussed how innovation springs from collaborative effort by merging the different know-hows within the different communities. Besides mediators, other practical solutions have been suggested such as having more PhDs in Industry, but also lecturers working on application challenges.

2.  Processes: Which additional processes can lead to stronger interaction?

Industry needs integrated solutions that are robust, reliable, and easy to understand and maintain. Accessibility of the results has been highlighted as a challenge: Align goals, outputs, timeline and projects. Consortia and “Knowledge brokerage” events can provide the frameworks for both parties to learn challenges and tools developed. We also see differences in government funding models to stimulate cooperation and can adopt best practices from where this is done well. Finally publishing problems and challenges and focusing part of the research on implementation aspects can lead to a significant step forward in aligning the intermediate goals.

3.  Tools: What are the necessary tools to enable stronger collaboration?

Effort should be placed in creating tools that would facilitate the adoption of advanced solutions. This includes developing frameworks for testing advanced algorithms. It is important to go beyond simulation possibly having as an end goal a realistic prototype but also creating platforms that would offer the possibility of testing algorithms on real problems. This would enable a smooth transition from academic research to useable applications.

Panel Session 2: Advanced Control in Industry: The Path Forward

Panelists: Dr. Kazuya Asano (JFE Steel, Japan), Dr. Philippe Goupil (Airbus, France), Dr. Benyamin Grosman (Medtronic, USA), Dr. Angeliki Pantazi (IBM, Switzerland), Dr. Jaroslav Pekar (Honeywell, Czech Republic), Dr. Tariq Samad (University of Minnesota, USA), Prof. Ricardo Sanchez Peña (Buenos Aires Inst. of Tech., Argentina).

The panelists presented examples of successful implementation of advanced control in various industry sectors and discussed key points to be considered in developing next generation of advanced control and enabling the use of existing control technologies in industrial applications.

The Pilot Industrial Committee assessed the impact of several advanced control technologies, and as expected PID came out as a strong winner across industrial sectors, due to its versatility and simplicity in the implementation. Model predictive control and system identification were also widely recognized for impact. However, the control crown jewels such as nonlinear control, adaptive control, hybrid dynamical systems and robust control were at the bottom of the list, not because they do not have the potential to bring value but because their accessibility is limited and their complexity can constitute a barrier for adoption in most industrial sectors.

With the general consensus that the true test of a technology is its real-world impact, it is left as a challenge to make sure that such advanced solutions can fully realize their potential.

An important point to test and evaluate a technology is to possibly quantify the benefit achieved by introducing a new technology, what in a company would be referred as Net Present Value (NPV). This benefit can be described in terms of higher production and performance, decreased cost and downtimes, and other factors. Ultimately a better solution should bring a quantifiable value. In other words, the goal is to create customer value by applying advanced control. Any new solution should demonstrate key indicators (e.g., recurring cost saving, weight saving, reduced development cycle).

The path forward has been identified in two key directions:

  1. First, in order to adopt the existing control technology in the various industrial sectors, an effort has to be made from both parts in order to identify the potential impact of the control technology and render it user friendly. Industrial effort could provide academia with representative benchmarks.

Simplicity and usability of the solution plays a major role in defining if the solution will in the long term be adopted. This does not necessary mean that advanced methodologies cannot be adopted, but an effort has to be made toward rendering the solution user friendly and intuitive.

The problems and foreseen benefits are industry specific, so the challenge is how to combine a cross-domain technology such as control with domain-specific industries? Control should be able to expand and evolve with much flexibility according to the different sectors’ needs. This would require a holistic perspective integrating our original background as control engineers and deeper domain knowledge on processes and products. More on this topic is covered on the other panel session (see above).

2.   A second point was discussed on how control should further evolve as a discipline to meet the future challenges in technology.

Initially, as most systems were analog, the field of control was developed to solve challenges for analog systems. In a second phase, as computer and digital system were developed control became digital. In the new era cognitive computing systems will be able to learn and interact naturally with people. Control will need to evolve in order to serve this new generation of systems.

Additionally the future sees more digitalization and interconnectivity of systems, where the challenge is to orchestrate digitalized plans and systems. The new technological era opens a challenge to develop the new generation of control. It is up to the research community and practitioners to work together to make this step possible—and IFAC, through its newly established Industry Committee, must facilitate the interaction.