December 14 2021
In November of 2021, five of our PhD students here at AAPS embarked on a trip to Graz in Austria, where their sponsor company AVL is based. While there, they spent time working alongside other PhD and research students in the SE-Lab, which is a new concept from AVL to promote systems level thinking from students. This will be invaluable in the future when they have to apply their often very specific technical knowledge to the system of the product or case in question, which in the case of AVL is automotive applications. This is something that resonates with our PhD students as the centre is inherently interdisciplinary which fuses together experts from different fields to achieve better solutions to problems. Below is an account from each of them on their thoughts and feelings from the trip and what they’ve taken away most from their time with AVL.
Having embarked on my PhD with AVL as an industrial partner, visiting the AVL headquarters in Graz, Austria was an invaluable experience. Starting a PhD can be very daunting, especially in the early stages, however the backing of an industrial partner can provide precious support, expertise, and guidance.
Upon arriving at the AVL headquarters in November, I was located in the SE Lab, with fellow AAPS CDT students, where we would be able to work alongside other students studying with AVL. I would also meet my industrial supervisor for the first time in person and quickly be introduced to other members of the team.
Initial meetings included a recap over the current context of the field in which my project is based and a brainstorming session of ideas and avenues in which the PhD project could take. Following that, I was given a presentation based on a recent conference report covering a potentially useful methodology, as well as an introduction to some of the tools and functions which have been used in previous research. These sessions provided me with very helpful context and insight, giving me more direction and confidence in these early stages of my PhD. During the initial weeks of the project, I spent a lot of time reading while feeling quite lost and daunted, however I came away from my meetings at AVL feeling more informed and with a clearer understanding of my goals. Furthermore, new opportunities to align my PhD with other projects were identified by my industrial supervisor who quickly arranged meetings with other relevant teams to get the ball rolling.
My visit to Graz proved to be very fruitful and confirmed the excellent opportunity of conducting a PhD with support from an industrial partner, I look forward to the years ahead working in this partnership.
The chance to meet the team at AVL that I will continue to work with throughout my PhD was invaluable, as it enabled ideas and questions to be addressed and developed much faster than online. During the visit, I was also able to spend time in the e-machines lab, discussing technical details of the machine and understanding the physical test procedures in place at AVL.
Having an industry partner to work with on real and tangible challenges gives context to the project and provides huge motivation to deliver a novel solution to their problems. I was sure to spend as much time as possible in meetings and discussions with employees from AVL, building partnerships with those who could guide and help with my work. Specifically, this included teams working on digital twins and predictive AI systems. From these discussions, I have come up with new ideas and targets for the final work packages of my PhD, developing a modelling tool that not only works in real time, but helps to plan far into the future.
The city of Graz and the surrounding area is truly beautiful, and I look forward to returning soon. Running up the Schlossberg (a fortress on a hill in the middle of the city) and hiking up the mountains were definite highlights. I was also surprised by the hospitality and friendliness of the locals, this ranged from many free drinks at the bar, to an old woman paying for medicine for me at a pharmacy. Also, what really surprised me was that because theft rates are so low, they don’t even lock up their bicycles properly!
The Systems Engineering Lab (SE Lab) at AVL was a great place for inspiration and helped to shape my thinking about the PhD project. Having never done PhD before (as is probably the case with many other students embarking on their PhDs) I was able to talk to many students at the SE Lab who have worked in many different aspects of Systems Engineering with their AVL teams for, in some cases, many years as well as the teams themselves. Conversations I had helped me to begin to see the bigger picture of how everyone’s role is just a piece of the whole puzzle and I was able to begin to identify the pros and cons of the current methodology. This inevitably led to identifying gaps and opportunities for improvements which is an invaluable resource that informed my initial planning of my PhD project and enabled me to build a system framework where I identified all the aspects that I would like to address over the course of the next three years.
During the two weeks at AVL I went from not really knowing what was going on and what the problem was to having a relatively good understanding of the bigger picture and the possible direction of the research. I believe this is one the benefits of having an industrial partner for a PhD as through a few friendly conversations and meetings with the state-of-the-art practitioners I was able to gather information that would have took me hours if not days of doing literature review and identifying all the relevant information. What is more is that I now know the subject matter experts I can bombard with emails when I get stuck, things go downhill and the panic kicks in.
The Industrial visit to AVL also represented a priceless opportunity to integrate within the department which first proposed your PhD project and start interacting with its members. This encouraged detailed discussions regarding the background and context of the project as well as an improved understanding of its intended aims and objectives. Consequently, the visit promoted a substantial amount of detailed ahead planning which concentrated efforts towards specific areas of the project presenting the most exciting research opportunities and offered the perfect opportunity to meet in person the key people who are to support the plans set. Furthermore, the visit also indorsed the identification of synergies with other research activities within the department, hence setting collaboration opportunities outside the scope of the PhD project. All these elements represent important resources with a significant amount of potential to enhance the outcome of the PhD as well as its learning outcomes, therefore, a clear incentive in setting these types of trips in the future.
Outside the benefits highlighted by the visit, the involvement of an AVL presents a series of other advantages for the research part of my project. Having the largest company dealing with the development, simulation and testing of powertrain systems supporting the work enables me not only to conduct state-of-the-art research but is also helping me guide it in line with the latest trends and developments in the automotive industry. Furthermore, as the project outcome is set to add to future products or services, it will directly contribute to future generations of environmental-friendly vehicles and further bridge the gap between academia and industry.
At the same time, in line with its status, AVL presents an extensive amount of expertise supported by specialists for a wide array of engineering subjects. Consequently, the close partnership offered by the project also presents a unique opportunity to build and collaborate with a large network of experts in the automotive field, a prospect which was strongly highlighted by the recent trip to Graz. Alongside the close tracing of the industry trends, this element represents another substantial advantage for a PhD student and yet another strong reason I would encourage my colleagues to pursue a project with AVL.
I greatly enjoyed my trip to AVL in November, the trip gave me a great opportunity to meet in-person the people I had only known over the internet. In addition we managed to spend some wonderful time at the evenings and weekends exploring the city and surrounding wilderness, with the city set in the middle of the eastern alps, so plenty of incredibly picturesque hikes to keep us busy.
The industrial visit was also wonderful, and I found it was very good timing for me, having just started the PhD a month before and perhaps lacking some direction after an initial review of the literature. Meeting face-to-face with my AVL supervisors to ascertain their priorities for the project, including their view of where the most interesting results would come from was very useful. It aided me to see the bigger picture and let me focus my studies on what was important as opposed to chasing loose ends that weren’t critical.
I also enjoyed the ability to work alongside other students from similar but distinct areas of work to myself in the SE-Lab (Systems Engineering). Due to their wide range of work, it helped give me an insight to the macro-objectives at AVL and the direction and priorities of the company. In addition, listening to people who are soon-to-be experts in their field explain their favourite parts of their work was also fascinating, with their passion and drive shining through.
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