What is UPLB’s role in Industry 4.0?

  • Written by  Daniel Dave J. Batayo
  • Published in Features

We live in an interesting era wherein we are on the cusp of the third and fourth industrial revolution. This revolution, dubbed as Industry 4.0, is characterized by the confluence of physical systems and information systems through sensors and actuators that enable the creation of smart products, and smart machines that can learn and improve their processes on their own. Also, current developments are influencing the shift of industrial economies to knowledge economies driven by technologies that are based on the production and dissemination of information and knowledge (Powell and Snellman, 2004)1.

With the premium placed on information and knowledge, there is a compelling need for knowledge-generating institutions like universities to be more proactive in safeguarding their intellectual property and in their efforts to have these technologies adopted/applied by the industry. This also reframes the role of universities as knowledge brokers and innovation hubs in their geographical regions.

The previous Industrial Revolution

The first Industrial Revolution which occurred between 1760 and 1840 across Europe and the United States can be characterized as the shift from manual production methods to machine production which utilized steam and water power. Agriculture, mining, textile, and the iron industry were among the fields that benefited the most from this period.

The second Industrial Revolution came in the form of marked increase in railroad networks and the telegraph, electrification of factories, and the modern production line. This is the period between 1870 and 1914 and was also called the “technological revolution” when people were able to travel further and faster and with them their ideas. This led to a great economic growth and increase of productivity.

The third Industrial Revolution or the “digital revolution” is the period in the late 20th century where development of advanced communication technologies and digital developments radically changed relations of economic productions and dynamics of social interactions.

Industry 4.0

The fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 is the time of cyber-physical systems, Internet of Things, cloud computing, and cognitive computing. It is characterized by the widespread use of internet, artificial intelligence (AI), smart sensors, 3D technologies, mobile devices, location detection applications and large digital data management.

It is a period of more efficient or deep learning machines which can analyze data, execute tasks without explicit instructions and by simply relying on patterns and inference from big data.

These are wonderful developments but with it provokes a new set of questions: “Will machines replace my job? Are scenarios in sci-fi movies now coming to life?”

The answers are difficult. On the one hand, we can definitely say that AI is capable of “learning abstract concepts, thinking cleverly of strategies, composing flexible plans and make a wide range of logical deductions (Chang, 2019)2.” And yes, AI can definitely replace humans in performing a number of jobs.

But on the other hand, these should not be a cause of alarm because recent studies made by the World Bank indicate that while there may be a displacement of workers, technical innovation compensates by creating new industries and jobs.

While AI can essentially do everything that requires thinking, it can only do specific and well-defined tasks. For example, an AI developed for managing a greenhouse farm cannot manage a power plant. AI can only mimic human tasks that are specific. This limits AI to perform tasks to which it is programmed to do.

A human would have to program an AI to perform tasks (for example the management of a power plant) and then let it learn on its own how to best execute the task. There is still a stark difference on how humans learn and how machines learn.

But what is certain is that in this reiteration of Industrial Revolution, information and knowledge is king. Thus, the impetus for a successful economy is to identify valuable knowledge and information, and generate innovation. This places universities in a unique position as they have a wealth of information as research institutions and the potential to be knowledge brokers and innovation hubs.

However, knowledge and information generated by the University is not necessarily fit to address the needs of the industry. It has to be matched to real industry problems and recalibrated for the public to benefit.

The challenge for universities is stepping out of their silos and embracing collaboration and commercialization with the industry sector to come up with working solutions that will address pain points in the society. The university should also provide an enabling ecosystem for innovation and entrepreneurship. This would allow university constituents to have a space to come up with out of-the-box solutions without the fear of failure and its repercussions.

UPLB in Industry 4.0

UPLB is no stranger to research. Over the last century, we have successfully churned out hundreds of research findings through papers, inventions, and technologies. UPLB currently has 16 Research and Development (R&D) centers with seven of them recognized centers of excellence in research as proclaimed by presidential decrees. These centers have continuously provided us with invaluable research information. But what do you do when the majority of our research outputs are shelved in libraries, printed and presented only in academic papers, or can’t be transferred through extension activities?

Prof. Glenn Baticados proposes a fresh perspective, “we should shift our focus from our successes to our impacts.” Prof. Baticados of the UPLB Technology Transfer and Business Development Office (UPLB TTBDO) furthers that it is easy to claim successes but what we should be looking for is the impact of those successes.

Creating a revolutionary biofertilizer is great but how many farmers have a better life because of this product? Is it even an appropriate solution to their problems? A biofertilizer that can significantly increase the rice production of a farmer by two times sounds amazing at first but it becomes less impactful when you realize that current farm gate prices are only at PhP 17.

We also need to answer the question of how farmers would have access to this product. The researchers have no capacity to supply the nation’s demand for the product nor do they have a mandate to do so. Their job is limited to conduct research. They cannot mass produce in their laboratories. Should we just teach the farmers through extension activities how to produce the biofertilizer on their own? Do they have the technical capabilities and equipment to do this? Is it even correct to push them to be fertilizer producers when all they want to be are to become effective and efficient farmers?

Fortunately, UPLB has started to work on the answers to these questions – innovation and entrepreneurship.

A successful nation through collaboration and innovation

Collaboration is a catalyst for innovation. And this is more significant in Industry 4.0. Thankfully, UPLB has already started along this road. A few years ago, it established 18 Interdisciplinary Studies Centers. The Institute of Computer Science working with the School of Environment Science and Management, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Physics, and the Institute of Biology working on a single project, and a host of other units working together on an unprecedented level.

However, this collaborative mindset should not be limited inside UPLB. Collaboration should extend to the other key players of society – namely, the government and the industry sector.

The government is a key partner that provides support through grants and policies to conduct academic research and the industry sector are valuable partners in getting our research translated into meaningful products for the public good. This is done through a process called commercialization – a polarizing term for the constituents of the University of the Philippines.

Commercialization is the vehicle for academic inventions and technologies to reach their end users, but it is a term that most people conjure images of corruption, of multinational companies grabbing publicly-funded research for their own economic gain. In reality, we have checks and balances that would prevent these.

Commercialization is an essential process that enables universities to transfer their know-how from the academic setting to enterprises and enable them to be successful by being equipped with state-of-the-art products and services, which in turn would provide the public access to university-developed technologies.

In a nutshell, this is how it works. Universities engage with the government and industry to identify and work on actual problems. The university then conducts research and validates research results with the industry and the end users. The product and technology are refined based on feedback and then undergoes the process of commercialization through licensing agreements or spin-offs.

The need for commercialization arises because universities like UPLB has no capacity to provide the supply for the demand of the technologies it produces.

We cannot make it sustainable on our own and it is beyond our mandate of instruction, research, and extension. It is also not possible to channel all our research outputs through extension.

By empowering a local enterprise with our technologies, we are empowering the local economy because the public would have easier access to the technologies we developed.

Furthermore, the local enterprise would provide more jobs to the community as they grow thanks to our technology. And the university benefits as well through royalties gained from the licensing agreement with the local enterprise which could fund further research.

In this cycle, the technology we produced transforms into an innovation. We say transformed because technologies and other research outputs cannot be called innovation unless they find actual use in society. Innovation is technology applied.

Nurturing the next generation of employers

With a collaborative mindset and a thirst for innovation, it comes as no surprise that UPLB has started to embed entrepreneurship into its academic programs and endeavors.

The value of entrepreneurship is a business mindset that leverages on innovation to generate value and create impact by solving social problems. It can be either through an innovative business model or an innovative service/product.

UPLB has started several programs to empower its faculty, researchers, and students to explore entrepreneurship as a viable career path. UPLB is currently building an Innovation Ecosystem that would enable university constituents to unleash their innovative mindsets.

We want to plant the idea on each student that they can be more than employees once they graduate, and that they can actually be employers hiring employees from the local community.

Entrepreneurship is an answer to the limitations of UPLB’s mandate in transforming its research and technologies into innovations.

We want to create a breeding ground for disruptive technologies like AirBnB, Facebook, and Grab. We hope to inspire and provide an enabling environment for faculties, researchers, and students to develop technologies that are transformed into innovations.

We want them to have a space wherein they can test their craziest ideas without worrying about failing. We want them to know that it is okay to fail and start over and over again until they can come up with a solution that fixes a specific problem of society.

Embracing Industry 4.0

As UPLB takes the challenge to be a globally competitive graduate and research university with Industry 4.0, UPLB TTBDO has developed several programs to make this possible.

TTBDO has capacitated and empowered its Intellectual Property Office to ensure the protection of all university IP assets while remaining open for collaborations with the industry sector.

At the moment, TTBDO has launched several projects that aims to audit university research outputs and determine which ones can be commercialized either through licensing agreements or spin-offs.

The TTBDO also recently launched this year its Startup Innovation and Business Opportunity Linkages (SIBOL) program. It is a technology business incubator program that aims to provide mentoring and services for startups in the university. It is part of our efforts to build an Innovation Ecosystem.

Through the SIBOL program, we hope to encourage faculty, researchers, and students to create startups based on their research outputs. The program offers mentoring from actual entrepreneurs on a variety of topics, provides access to finance and space for ideation and prototyping in partnership with the Innovationeering lab at the College of Engineering and Agro-Industrial Technology.

The land has been tilled and the seeds planted. UPLB is ready to bloom with the next wave of innovations and entrepreneurs. The university is in a unique position to drive economic growth in today’s knowledge economy. ■

This article was published at RDE Digest Vol 11 No. 1 (2019).