Alongside SMRT, fourteen partners from seven EU nations are taking part in ARUM, a three-year project under the “Factories of the Future” European research initiative. These include TIE, Certicon, Almende, P3 Ingénieurs, universities of Cologne and Manchester and more, all coordinated by the EADS Group, a global leader in aerospace, defense and related industries, consisting of Airbus, Astrium, Cassidian and Eurocopter.
The ARUM project is designed to improve planning and optimizing the production and ramp-up of new complex products such as aircraft and ships. The underlying multi-agent technologies are aimed at a new generation of intelligent systems for real-time management of production resources.
The total cost of the project is EUR 11.5 million, 8.5 million provided by FP7 and the rest to be covered by the partners.
The SMRT is part of Knowledge Genesis Group creating a new generation of multi-agent systems. Such systems enable real-time management of company resources and solving other complex problems, for instance, those related to image recognition or text comprehension. Experts believe that multi-agent technologies marking a new stage in IT evolution are becoming comparable to critical nano- and biotechnologies in their significance.
The explosive growth in that area is associated with the ability to create a new generation of flexible computing systems employing the principles of self-organization and evolution typical of the behavior of living systems such as ant colonies or bee swarms. The Smart Solutions products find practical applications in aerospace industries, highway and railroad transportation, mechanical engineering, management of mobile emergency teams, supply chains and elsewhere.
“It was way back in 1998 that we first learned that we could take part in EU Framework Programmes,” says Dr Pyotr Skobelev, the company’s founder, chairman and chief designer. “Then we did not really face any competition in our field, so we quickly won a grant to form our first consortium. However, my talks with British, French and German companies interested in multi-agent technologies that we had dreamed to introduce internationally since 1990 soon led me from the initial project to the concept of a company with partners and investors in Britain.”
So Magenta Technology (http://www.magenta-technology.com) was opened in 2000 to develop multi-agent technologies for discrete optimization of mobile resources in transportation logistics. The cofounders were two big European investment funds. Skobelev now regards the eight-year collaboration within that entity as a major life lesson and invaluable experience. “To raise the capital, we successfully sold 12.5% of the company but unfortunately lost the reins of power. We were tugging at the oars; we pioneered the technology on its way to the market and had it commercialized, but our opinion was still not heard in key decisions. That’s why we settled for a fresh start after we finally diverged with the British investors and managers in our perceptions of the future business.”
It was not an easy venture to leave the well-established business built by themselves, with the headquarters in the London City, customers worldwide and high salaries. However, Pyotr did start from scratch in 2000. The Smart Solutions Company was founded then to explore the new area. They had gained much knowledge and experience but they needed serious financing and huge efforts to develop a new, more powerful generation of multi-agent systems. “We had very hard times,” Skobelev admits. “We tried to take every opportunity to form a new resource base, to train personnel, and to solve all kinds of organizational problems. I invested my personal savings and got into debt. Many folks gave up and left, but the fledgling Smart Solutions team never lost hope. We believed in the huge potential of this fundamentally new technology opening new horizons to solve the most complex problems that could not be solved well or even were totally insoluble by means of conventional mathematics.”
The novel practical applications developed and commercialized together with the Russian companies Energiya, Axion Holding, Russian Railways, and others have been noticed by the EADS Group and the leading universities working in this field. However, the road to European recognition has proved to be difficult, with many lessons to be learnt, some from the company’s own mistakes.
According to Pyotr Skobelev, a key factor in achieving the EU level of collaboration has been the support provided by Russian Technology Transfer Network (RTTN) assisting in commercialization of knowledge-intensive technologies in Russia and search for partners in innovative projects. “Thanks to RTTN, we attended every EU forum for three years learning how to form consortia and bid on projects. Executive Director Gennady Pilnov and his colleagues have always provided expert consulting support and helped find new contacts.”
RTTN has been supporting the Skobelev team under the ISTOK-SOYUZ project (http://www.istok-soyuz.eu) aiming to promote the ICT component of the EU Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, raise awareness about benefits of mutual collaboration and identify ICT landscape and potential for R&D ICT collaboration between European Union and all 12 addressed countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Nonetheless, four initial attempts were unsuccessful. “We submitted interesting projects but to our great disappointment they all failed,” Skobelev said. “But the points we got for our bids gradually improved. As we understood from our own experience, to be a winner you need to team up the best scientists and manufacturers, the real leaders in their business. It took us two years to form such a consortium and to prepare a proposal. We had to make presentations at serious international conferences and workshops, to convince, prove and show viable results for people to believe us and understand our advantages.”
Finally, the fifth application submitted by the Smart Solutions in consortium with EADS was recognized the best of the nineteen competing strong projects. At the final stage of the call, the European partners helped convince the European Commission that the Russian company was really necessary in their project. It is no secret that Russians are treated reservedly and watchfully in many commercial ventures. Such a policy has its own historical background and seems inevitable, Skobelev said, so you have to work hard to prove that you are not second-rate. So far, the Samara company has been able to do so. “We have a great consortium; every problem is successfully resolved,” the head of KGG notes. According to him, what makes ARUM different from his past experience is more flexibility in project management. People enjoy more trust; everyone values their reputation and does not want to put it at risk; the reliance is on internal self-organization.
“This is a unique opportunity for us in cooperation with the best European experts in our field to make a new product with strong competitive advantages, immediately test it with a big manufacturer and commercialize it in Europe, for instance, through a joint venture,” Skobelev concluded.
According to him, one has to learn how to prove one’s ability to do something and to get results even in the environment that initially seemed aggressive and hostile.
“There is no cooperation without competition – that is what we have tested on ourselves for sure,” he said. “No one will receive us with outstretched arms. If we had not brought something new proving our case in practice, people would not have worked with us. You need to be in constant search of new ideas and technologies that are supplemental to yours, to find partners for synergy, to try and face mistakes and challenges in pursuit of your goal.”
As it has walked a thorny path to international recognition and rightful participation in a European program for a decade and a half, the Samara company recommends that other Russian enterprises should more proactively use RTTN mechanisms and capabilities to achieve serious joint projects with EU partners.