with Felipe Rubio Castillo, General Director, CIDESI
Dr Rubio, this August it will be 7 years that you have been the head of CIDESI. What would you say are the most important developments that the Center has experienced since you have been running it?
What I consider the critical issue during these years has been the transformation of the culture of the institution. We are a public research center but we are committed to work as a high class private company in the sense of efficiency and excellent technological level that can match with international standards. At CIDESI we are working on getting bigger projects, more complex from the technological point of view, with greater output for the society.
Our mission commits our activities to contribute to the competitiveness of the clients we serve. So in that sense we have to be firstly efficient ourselves, then endeavor to do so with our clients. Saying that, we have been working in improving our self-control operation to gather feedback and improve quality.
In other issues, we work hard to have a self-sufficient operation in the sense that we can warranty the future and sustainability of the institution, as well as the growth of every member of the organization.
Finally, we work on clients’ relationship that are built on confidence .Because when you talk about innovation and speak about technology, usually you are moving into an unknown area, for your client. So we have to guarantee them that they will receive the best technology.
In the past years we have done many large and interesting projects. For instance, we have been working with Canaries Telescope – this project demonstrates that the center is capable to fulfill the strictest specifications. This telescope on Canaries Island is working with equipment that we developed. This equipment came about as a result of an international bidding process, and was submitted under very strict supervision from the proposal point of view to the final delivery of the process. In this same project, now we are working with a device that will enable the telescope to look at infrared rays. This is something completely new for the center which is moving ahead to the next level.
We are very glad that we are moving ahead, not only from the technological point of view, but also in terms of interaction with other institutions in the world – in Spain, in the United States, in France, and some others – with the ones we are working in the Canaries Island telescope project.
So Mexico can innovate? As you mentioned one of the main missions of the center is to generate value for companies and increase competitiveness. In the latest results of the world competitiveness index Mexico did not figure in the top 30 worldwide or in the top five of Central American or Latin America. In your opinion what is lacking that would make Mexico a more competitive country?
I think it is necessary to change a culture that comes from the mid-40s when the economy was closed completely to the international market. In those days it was common to support the national industry. The problem, from my point of view, is that this closeness went too far. And as the time went by industry lost its motivation to improve and innovate. On those time they could sell anything they produced because there was no other suppliers – no other competition. And then we suddenly opened the economy and we have now more than 30 free-trade agreements with the same number of countries.
In those times where the economy was not opened the Mexican engineers were more used to being involved in maintenance than in design and development so they didn’t know how to innovate. So that is one of the key points that the schools of engineers are now changing – the training and capabilities of the new generation of engineers – towards design and things are moving smoothly. Today, companies from all over the world are aware that Mexican engineers can design in better conditions and with very outstanding results.
I personally have experience in starting up a group of engineers, in another center, that work in the turbine industries. After a couple of years this group went to the company and now they have grown to 1,500 engineers here in Queretaro designing top quality pieces of equipment. This was a step to develop the aerospace industry in Queretaro and today this State is a national hub for the sector. The aerospace sector has been growing quite rapidly because of the capability of the workers and the engineers. We are now certified with the PRI Center – Process Review Institute – and their aeronautical capability and we have been certified by Bombardier in our labs. And of course we have been ISO 9000 for 11 years. So we keep our labs certified and with the best standards.
Aside of this, we have also some other types of projects we have been working on – a long time ago for the automotive industry which is a very demanding industry because you are talking about seconds spare piece . And we developed 100 percent automation plans – assembly lines for different devices. So already we have developed semi-automated devices than those with human interaction in the process with high standards of quality. In fact, some years ago we developed the machining process for the airbag cylinders in cars which are very demanding because they are only going to operate once and they have to work.
What about the oil and gas industry? When my colleagues interviewed you about five years ago it was a new industry for the center – now seven years have passed – how important is the oil and gas industry for the development and future of the center?
It is important mainly in the field of high tech services. We are talking about non-destructive testing for equipment – structural, under pressure vessels, pipelines, and things like that – also in metrology.
Today we are moving into more complex technologies for certain specific applications.
But always moving into technology fields which are the core of the center, mainly in the overall we are working in the automation industry – in robotics, mechatronics and electronic control devices and so on – and we are trying to move that expertise that we have to the oil and gas sector.
Saying that, we are specifically interested in deep water, for that purpose we have developed two versions of underwater remote control vehicles at this stage for inspection, and maybe for picking some samples of anything that might be required.
The key point is that we can provide Pemex and others suppliers with a technology that can provide top quality services to support Pemex operations. When we start serving the oil and gas industry, I think we made a mistake because we were trying to provide Pemex with pieces of equipment and at the end of the day what Pemex requires is services and technology. Their business is to dig and get oil out of the ground. So the services must be provided by a third party. In that sense, we have developed ROVs for shallow waters, which is a good level of advance.
It bears several stages for these ROVs. The first is the guidance, so you have a live line from which you can control from the surface, through which you can feed power and take images or whatever is necessary, and the other is the fully autonomous ROVs which is even more complicated. The reason it is complicated is that a mathematical model is required to warranty a fixed position of the device under the water. And this is because underwater there are currents which are changing in direction and magnitude, and if you want to see a certain point, the water is moving the device. So you have to develop a mathematical algorithm related to sensors so the engines keep the device in a fixed position. This is needed even if you just want to take a picture or a sample, or do some welding or open a valve. So we have been working in that direction. It is a complex process. It is even necessary to get a certification to operate – not even design, but just to operate – that is why we sent some of our PhDs to the UK to get the proper training.
Aside of that we are also working on a deep water ROV. At this moment in time we are only on the design phase of the process because this requires more resources to finance complex operations. In our view, the key issue is to have solid core technologies and apply them to different needs of the industry.
The second major project we are working on, with regards technological services – is that we have consolidated our long history of clients and refining stations. But on the innovation part we are working in the common language they call PIGS, a robot that goes inside the oil pipeline. Of course the PIGS goes with the fluid – and it has a very complex system of electronics – to study the thickness of the walls of the pipe and even to detect where cracks are starting or even failures or holes for illegal removal of the fluid.
The problem is that this device is really complicated and has to move close to the speed of the oil. It goes a little slower because it has a special design to lower the speed. But finally the pressure of the fluid is pushing the robot inside the pipe.
We have already developed the first stage of a 12-inch PIGS and we are working on the design of the other. Just to give you an idea, this robot has to sense every bit of the fluid, 360 degrees at the same time, because the crack or the erosion spot could be anywhere on the pipe. It has to check all around at the same time, and move ahead with the speed of the fluid. The most complicated thing is to store that information and have a correlation to the starting point with the failure. Since it is not very useful to say “Within these two 5kms of pipe there are three cracks, or three erosion spots.” You have to be more or less exact to determine where the problem is.
We think that developing this kindf of technology will be very worthy in the future since what happens nowadays is that the companies that provide those services do not sell the equipment or lease the equipment – they just provide the service. So there is a kind of monopoly. Hence it is expensive for PeMex and there is not enough coverage of the needs. The pipes are quite old, and it is natural that there has to have some sort of surveillance and repair.
The key point to consider when you start theto make this of kind design is to be sure that the pipes are in proper condition. There are more than 50,000 kilometers of oil piping in the country. From those, maybe 40,000 kilometers are subject to this type of inspection.
Even when the pipes are properly protected, as time goes by, there is a corrosion of the walls. And most of those 40,000 kms are underground, so you have two problems. The first is that you are missing the oil or gas or diesel which is an economical loss. There is also ecological damage, because that leak is going into the soil. It is possible to remedy the problem. But it is complicated, especially if the soil is sandy as this leak may go very deep and finally even contaminate water, deposits, and do ecological damage.
Is this 100 percent Mexican technology or do you have some partnership with other companies or institutes to enhance it?
We will have a partnership with the Mexican Petroleum Institute because they have experience in the development of this sort of robot but never consolidate it. Hence we will partner them because we have a small track on this field but we have prove that we have the capabilities to develop such technologies. As mention this project is in process and we hope that there is a demand to keep on going. At this stage we are investing our own resources, in the PIGS, so they can check that we have the capability to develop them.
We also work on energy operations for the optimization of the electrical generation that requires fuel, to optimize the combustion process, with double purpose. Firstly, to reduce the use of fuel and also in reducing the use of this material we will reduce carbon emissions. We have done this with a CFE plant in Tuxpan Veracuz – a plant with 250 megawatts. In this mentioned project we have an alliance with Lehigh University as they have quite a lot of experience in that kind of processes.
Will you also be working towards cleaner energy?
Yes. We will also be working with Pemex and Cadereyta to apply the same principles, the same technology to their generations, and some other industries that are working with high consumption of energetic energy.
Back in 2006 when my colleagues had the opportunity to interview you, you commented to them that 70 percent of your budget came from commercial activities and 30 percent came from government support. At that time the vision was to have close to 100 percent commercial funding by 2010. Did you achieve it and which were the industries that helped to do this?
We split our activities; our commercial projects are fully funded by industry. But we have some other activities for which we have government money. The first one is the training of people. We have four first degree programs which are subsidized with federal money. We consider that having these programs is a key point for the future of the country – we need to develop highly qualified personnel.
Believe it or not today Mexico is certifying more engineers than the United States. That means that we have to take advantage of the number of people that are in a position to begin an engineering career. In my view, this increase on engineers is because they are getting better positions within their organizations. In the past, if you were an engineer, you were in the maintenance department keeping the engines running. Now there are many opportunities in salt water, in mechanical design, in aerospace, in power generation, etc.
In the other hand the rest of the money that we get form the government is invested in our growth. At the present, we have another facility in Monterrey, which is going to be as large as this one in four years. The Monterrey facility was founded four years ago. In those four years we have doubled its capacity over there.
Talking about our growth, a week ago we opened a facility in Baja California, Tijuana, for Mmetrology. We would expect to have 30 engineers there with new capabilities that we do not have at the Queretaro facility. For example, electricity, electronic applications, high and low frequency devices. There were no facilities of that nature in Tijuana. We are expanding that.
In about a year we will open, another facility with the highest specialized applications, complimentary with the one we have here. We have highly specialized and complex geometry machining. We are working on components for cutting tools for drilling oil wells that are absolutely complicated geometry.
Even in general in all our centers we have Mmetrology, along with electronics and design, we want to have a core discipline in each of our different facility. The ideas is to create synergies between all our operations and let’s say if here we will have design, in the State of Mexico we shall have flexible manufacturing cells, reconfigurable to the needs of advanced manufacturing systems.
Today in Mexico what is the most challenging – to have the technical development or to have the human resources?
I think it has to run in parallel. You can wait for four years to bring in a PhD in some discipline. But the needs are now. And the point is that companies require solutions now. So I think we have to have partners in other parts of the world, or the country, that have complimentary capabilities to our own. For example, we have a relationship and agreement with TexasA&M University . They have capabilities that we do not have. For instance, in their oil department they have a sort of pool to simulate an oil platform’s behavior. So we are not going to invest in such a huge facility. But we have some capabilities that they do not and we complement each other. We are also sending students to the university to get their PhDs.
We also have a share program in Germany for mechatronics. We just signed an agreement with Sheffield University for an advanced manufacturing research center for master and PhD degrees for students who graduate in the State of Mexico and Nuevo Leon. So we are working with a dual approach.
In general, I would say that we have to invest more here rather than buying technologies. If it is necessary to buy technologies then just share with Mexican universities or students or R&D centers so it is a real transfer of technologies and grow of capabilities.
One of CIDESI aims is it to sell our technology overseas, because we are an international quality center. We have sold equipment to China and Canada. We are doing pieces of equipment for companies that used to get them from France. So our core activity is to support the Mexican companies or the multi-nationals that have settled in Mexico but once we sell abroad it is a marketing strategy and further benchmarking ourselves.
You still have three years to go as head of the center. What would you like to achieve before you go or what is the legacy that you want to leave here?
First a new organizational structure, which we are in the process of forming already. We used to work like a factory works – vertical. But that design is for volume production. And we are not in that area. What we do is projects and we have to adapt our organizations and make projects in a very efficient way.
The other is to consolidate our Centers, in the State of Mexico, Tijuana and the second stage of Nuevo Leon and Tijuana. So there are three fronts that I have to tackle.
Talking about projects, we have bigger projects which mean we are better recognized – both nationally and internationally – focused on certain areas. Now we do a bit more diversify, which is fine because people come to buy. But what we want is to sell into very specialized areas, and this is part of our new organizational structure.
Finally increase the number of graduates. In terms of human resources, we have a very low turnover. I would say less than one percent. So no one wants to leave. And that is nice in a certain way. So that means we have people with 22 years of experience and the “mean” is around 12-15 years experience.
That means we have a lot of experience which is enough for the level of requirements we have today. But looking at the requirements for 5 or 10 years time, we will require far greater capabilities. So I am pushing to increase the number of master graduates and PhDs.