InTribology COMET Centre
Tribology Intelligence - Customized Tribology for Industrial Innovation
The nationally and internationally recognised Austrian Competence Centre for Tribology (AC²T) is one of the largest independent, private-sector, non-profit research service providers worldwide in the field of tribology – the system-oriented science of friction – and offers integrated tribological knowledge and attractive financial framework conditions to enable cooperative work on fundamental research questions faced by industrial clients all over the world.
Every single optimisation and increase in efficiency of a tribological system also represents a reduction in the ecological footprint of human activity, thereby directly contributing to the solution in the pivotal challenge of achieving environmental and climate protection goals in line with sustainability, and is reflected in the future competitive edge of the companies involved in the research programme.
As the sponsoring organisation of the InTribology COMET K2 centre, AC2T research GmbH is funded by the BMK (Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology) and the BMDW (Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs) as well as by the states of Lower Austria and Vorarlberg as part of the research promotion programme “COMET – Competence Centers for Excellent Technologies”. The research promotion programme COMET is handled by the FFG (Austrian Research Promotion Agency).
Information about the COMET Centre
Tribology, the science of friction, is a system-oriented science that studies the interaction between at least two surfaces or parts in relative motion when force is applied. If a shoe slips on ice, then the friction between the sole of the shoe and the surface of the ice was too low; if, say, a cabinet refuses to budge, then the friction is too great.
Here, the macroscopically measurable friction is the total sum of the forces of attraction and repulsion, i.e. the energetic interaction between atoms. The aim of tribology research, therefore, is to minimise the amount of energy and materials needed and maximise the functionality of systems where the components or their surfaces are moved against each other. Today, these research objectives are also acknowledged as a crucial challenge in achieving the environmental and climate protection goals in terms of sustainability.
In the industrial nations in particular, since 1966, the year in which the collective term “tribology” was brought to the forefront of public awareness in England, a plethora of initiatives have been launched with the aim of expanding the knowledge regarding tribological processes. Today, tribological research takes place in many regions of the world.
Every single optimisation and increase in efficiency of a tribological system, no matter how tiny, also represents a reduction in the ecological footprint of human activity. For example, if the friction in an engine is reduced by using lubricant, for one thing, the engine requires less energy to generate movement, and for another, it therefore also needs fewer resources in order to create the necessary energy. If the friction is increased through a suitable combination of materials, brakes work better. When the resistance of a material is greater, this reduces wear and the appliance is operational for longer. However, systems that are subject to friction and wear are not only to be found in our environment; the human body also has a large number of such systems. But we often also only become aware of these once they no longer work as expected and potentially need to be replaced with artificial implants.
A crucial difference between the tribological systems in the human body and in many technical systems, however, is that friction and wear contribute to the pollution of the environment, whether this be through the conversion of kinetic energy into heat as a result of friction or through the loss of material due to wear, e.g. tyre abrasion, brake wear, and even everyday things such as the soles of our shoes.
Wear in the positive sense, however, is also helpful, for example when production processes like grinding or polishing give shape to surfaces, such as is necessary for the individual adjustment of scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses. As strange as the term “tribology” may sound for the average person, we are in fact all surrounded by a multitude of things that involve tribological systems and knowledge.
Until the initiative to establish a competence centre for tribology in the year 1999, which then led to the actual founding of AC2T research GmbH, the Austrian Competence Centre for Tribology at the location of Wiener Neustadt in July 2002, tribological issues were addressed as part of other disciplines, often as a secondary aspect, and were viewed merely as a means to achieving the desired device functionality. In contrast to this, with the founding of the Competence Centre for Tribology, a holistic approach was pursued and, through the interdisciplinary cooperation of experts from the fields of materials science, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering/mechatronics all the way to information technology, the focus was placed on the solution to the tribological issues at multiple size scales, since although we tend to associate friction and wear with a physical product, the energetic interaction between two surfaces is in fact created at an atomic level.
To tackle the various research questions, therefore, the competence centre uses a large pool of methods and instruments for the experimental characterisation and analysis of tribological systems, as well as corresponding numerical modelling and simulation programmes for the theoretical search for solutions. Today, in a manner that is utterly unique worldwide, one of these elaborated methods enables the identification of metallic wear in a liquid-lubricated system, e.g. in a combustion engine – both in the laboratory as well as directly in the vehicle itself, using the unit “nanometres per hour”. The scale of this measurement becomes clearer when compared to the average diameter of a human hair at around 50,000 nanometres.
Several years after the founding of the competence centre, initiatives to establish research centres with a focus on tribology arose in numerous other countries, with the goal of bundling the fields of knowledge based on the AC²T model. Depending on the respective proponents and the success of the initiatives in question, these research centres are now established in the university or university-affiliated sector.
What continues to make the design of the Austrian Competence Centre for Tribology unique is its combination of various modules, which is only offered in this form by the Austrian competence centre for tribology. This is an independent, privately run non-profit research service provider that offers integrated tribological knowledge while also providing industrial clients all over the world with co-financing to find cooperative solutions to research questions, thus even providing competitors within the same product segment with the opportunity to come together to have fundamental research questions addressed from what clients view as a “neutral” place, and even play a part in finding solutions themselves.
The neutrality of the Competence Centre for Tribology is further reflected in the chosen location of Wiener Neustadt, as COMET centres are often established in buildings that are associated with shareholders of the respective centre, such as universities, as well as in the heterogeneous shareholder structure selected by the centre itself, without majority shareholders and without a clear distinction between participation as a shareholder or client.
A significant and fundamental cornerstone of the success of the Competence Centre for Tribology is, in particular, rooted in the forward-thinking decision made by the respective Austrian government and state governments (in this case, since 2002 predominantly by the state government of Lower Austria and, to a lesser extent, also the state governments of Vorarlberg and Vienna) to provide sponsorship in the form of the COMET centre programme (with federal organisational supervision by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency FFG). This programme, which at the time of its creation by the federal government and the individual states was a financially challenging and courageous decision, can certainly be considered unique throughout the world in its overall composition, and provides the qualifying competence centre with a research financing framework for cooperative research spanning multiple years, provided that the competence centre procures at least around half of the research financing from the industry on its own initiative.
Unlike other research institutes, a COMET centre does not receive basic funding. Every competence centre, therefore, must make a constant effort to sell its knowledge to the industry while also reinforcing itself financially under private sector framework conditions.
Despite this complex challenge, the COMET centre model with its underlying multi-year budget approach (typically eight years divided into two planning periods) constitutes distinct added value compared to the funding programmes with individual project applications, making it possible to strategically pursue research objectives, achieve a sustainable and efficient research performance, and thus be perceived as a long-term research partner at the European level.
As a result of these special framework conditions, which differ considerably from individual project applications that often have longer application periods and limited success rates, and which, unlike many other research promotion programmes, impose no national limitations with regard to collaborations, the Competence Centre for Tribology, with its more than 100 employees active in the scientific field, has surpassed a critical mass – in the field of tribology – and obtained national and international visibility and appeal. This, in turn, has a domino effect, essentially enabling access to participate in the international competition for European research financing resources in the first place. By doing so, the competence centre plays its part in bringing Austrian financing contributions to the EU budget back to Austria.
The fact that the Competence Centre for Tribology has exceeded a critical size is also evident in the financial framework, among other things; this currently comprises around € 12-14 million per year. Approximately 2/3 of this pertain to the “COMET K2 centre” framework project, that is to say the competence centre can draw upon up to around € 5 million per year in public funds from the COMET programme for research expenses. In connection with these funds, however, a COMET K2 centre also receives an extensive list of target figures to be aimed for, stipulated by the funding bodies. A central element of these target figures is to finance people currently undergoing training to carry out scientific work; they can then make use of these results for their individual careers in science in the form of specialist scientific publications, master theses and dissertations.
The amount of the public funds available and the desired target figures are subject to extensive compulsory reporting, in the course of which a COMET K2 centre must prove that all of the eligibility criteria are fulfilled. Although the monetary funds required to cover the costs of these administrative expenses, both by the funding recipient and the funding authority, might be more optimally invested in research content, this is both justified and necessary to ensure the transparent use of public funds.
Setting aside the financial aspects, it is worth noting that using public funds to support this research has encouraged and continues to encourage research efforts which, when the research results are applied, subsequently leads to a sustainable reduction in the impact on the environment and climate and therefore represents long-term economic added value.
In order to achieve these sustainable reductions in the strain on the environment and climate more rapidly, we are intensifying the integration of findings from data science, in particular regarding data analysis, which leads us to the digitalisation of the field of tribology so that in future, we are able to anticipate the behaviour of a tribological system in a real-world setting using computer-based in-situ data recording and analysis. At present, digital twins created in this manner still require considerable computing power and are therefore not yet applicable in real time; however, we are convinced that the continued development of computer technology in this area will provide corresponding options in the not-too-distant future. The digitalisation of tribology is necessary in particular when considering that many areas of application are developing automated processes, e.g. “autonomous driving”, in which it is a requirement that the vehicle control system is able to detect a potential loss of function in a tribological system in a timely manner, so that the vehicle can drive itself to get repaired in good time and does not simply stop in the middle of traffic.
These steps toward digitalisation in tribology are being taken as part of the ongoing “COMET K2 centre”, framework project, known as “InTribology” for short, which features a research programme being carried out from 2021 to 2029. With the integration of data science methods – which in recent years have been developed in particular by corporations operating on the internet for the analysis of complex data – into tribology and the opportunity this provides for the advanced analysis of tribological data, which describes a highly dynamic tribological system chemically, physically, mechanically, geometrically etc. within the ever-changing variable of time, a new kind of knowledge processing is built, which in future will make it possible to record and assess the “health status” of tribological systems even more expediently on the basis of innovative sensor systems that are ideally able to measure though solid bodies contact-free (e.g. ultrasonic sensors), and thus to maximise the useful life of these systems while minimising the resources (energy, materials) required to do so. From the standpoint of the Competence Centre for Tribology, therefore, terms such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, pattern recognition etc. are now also considered central components of the field of tribology, and require the integration of the data science methods into tribology-oriented research. The aim is to implement this in the COMET K2 centre framework project “InTribology” by 2029; this is only made possible thanks to the special design of the framework conditions in the COMET centre programme and represents the contribution made by tribology-oriented research toward achieving the environmental and climate protection goals in terms of the sustainable design of technical systems.
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Funding institutions within the COMET programme
The project InTribology (Tribology Intelligence – Customized Tribology for Industrial Innovation) is a COMET Centre within the COMET – Competence Centers for Excellent Technologies – Programme and funded by the Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology, the Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs, and the federal states of Niederösterreich and Vorarlberg. The COMET Programme is managed by FFG.