The Automotive Campus in Helmond is a H Edwin Heesakkers of Altran tells us more about this tech hotspot.
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On your way to the Automotive Campus in Helmond, you hardly notice that part of the A270 is used as a test environment for innovations in mobility. The new products and technologies that are conceived at the campus are subjected to real-life tests here. Altran Engineering, a global player in applied technology for the automotive and maritime industries, is one of the hives of inventive activity at the site. “You will never hear any of our engineers say this, but what happens here is pretty unique”, says Edwin Heesakkers, Director Business Development at Altran.
Altran has been active at this location for many years, initially as the R&D facility for NedCar before taking on the same role for Benteler in later years. So the company has been one of the cornerstones supporting the development of the Automotive Campus. “In the heart of technical advancement in the smart mobility field”, as Edwin Heesakkers describes the site. “A stone’s throw away from Brainport Eindhoven, with the Hightech Campus and the TU/e in Eindhoven as close neighbours”, the interim manager adds. “You can ask yourself why we want an automotive campus in the Netherlands. After all, we don’t have a huge domestic market for car production like Germany. However, when it comes to engineering, we are truly in the picture on the world stage.”
From his spotless white office on the second floor of Altran's building (the former R&D facility of NedCar and later Benteler in Germany), Heesakkers has an unobstructed view of the campus site. “Over there on the right”, he points, “that building is a complete TNO test centre. And on the left, you can still see the old test track where the Volvos were put through their paces; Altran and a number of other companies want to update it and use it as a test environment. By the way, it is largely thanks to our predecessor, Volvo NedCar, that the Automotive Campus was established in Helmond. Some of the people who still work here were involved in developing the Volvo 480, the S40, the V40 and many other different models. There is a huge repositoryof knowledge here, which is backed up and strengthened by the knowledge institutes represented here on the campus.”
In addition to higher vocational education students from Fontys, several hundred secondary vocational education students from Summa Automotive can be found at the campus as well as dozens of Master students from TU/e. “As a living lab for technological innovation, the Automotive Campus is a true Valhalla”, says Heesakkers. “The same applies to new companies in the automotive industry. As a newcomer, I would definitely want to set up my business here. This is where everything is happening - here in this hotspot for high tech on wheels. These are golden times that promise a golden future. What else would we like to see at the campus? A knowledge institute for self-driving technology in which we could all jointly participate.”
The veil of secrecy that hangs over Altran Engineering is also distinctly apparent during the interview with Heesakkers. He casually says that his engineers are busily working on a number of game changers in the lab downstairs, where high tech systems and automotive parts are subjected to endurance and functional tests. “I can’t go into details, but we are installing a complete set of armour plating on a car at the moment. That requires most of the basic chassis and components to be re-engineered.”
Later, during a tour of the test centre, we come across a self-driving shuttle that is ready to be shipped to Singapore. “We developed and assembled this shuttle for 2getthere, a well-known company that specialises in automated transport”, Heesakkers says. “The 6-metre-long ‘people mover’ is part of a completely new autonomous vehicle system. When the passengers embark and disembark, a ‘charging plate’ under the vehicle automatically recharges the shuttle's batteries.” A few metres away, we see the outline of a car under a black cloth behind a screen. “We are putting the vehicle through a full test programme; it won’t be launched commercially for another 2.5 years.”
What makes the Automotive Campus such an interesting place? “The technological innovations that are invented here and the extensive (test) facilities; they are truly state-of-the-art”, says Heesakkers. “Knowledge institutes, government agencies and businesses collaborate here in shaping the future of mobility. The businesses here are very varied and include international players, SMEs and start-ups. Team FAST with their bus powered by formic acid, for example, and Lightyear with their solar-powered electric car. In addition to large, established companies like Altran, VDL and DAF, start-ups are a key ingredient for a campus; they keep the winds of change blowing.”
According to Heesakkers, there is more of a networking culture at the campus in Helmond compared to the Hightech Campus in Eindhoven. “Typical of Brabant as a region. And the set-up here is still fairly small-scale. As a result, you make contact with each other more easily and are more inclined to go to the people you know. Because you need each other - that is also a factor - you can achieve so much more when you work together.”
The passion with which Heesakkers talks about the campus is partly fuelled by his fascination for mobility. “Within Altran's four walls, people already call me Mr Campus”, he says jokingly. His spare time is devoted to developing a vehicle which is a cross between an e-bike and a car. “Simply because I enjoy the challenge. The fact that mobility is perhaps the largest industry in the world has always fascinated me. Ever since graduating and my time at Fokker. We move people and goods around all day. We use the car to go shopping, fly to our holiday destinations, and jump on our bicycles to collect the kids. You could say that mobility affects everything we do. Covering the entire spectrum from prams as a baby to walking frames in old age. So I foresee continuous growth in this field and that also applies to the Automotive Campus.”
The term ‘automotive’ covers everything associated with the vehicle industry, from design, development and production to marketing and selling cars and other motorised vehicles. Ranging from self-driving and electric cars, buses and trains to super smart traffic lights and cars that communicate with boxes full of electronics at the side of the road. In terms of turnover, the automotive industry is one of the largest economic sectors in the world.
The Automotive Campus started in Helmond in 2009. This town has long been associated with automotive development. In the end however, engineering was the only activity that remained at the site. TNO's test centre came to the site subsequently, followed by an innovation centre linked to the Department of Public Works’ traffic control centre for the south-east of the Netherlands. Today, about 40 organisations operate at the campus. They focus on four key areas: smart mobility (primarily connected cars and autonomous driving), green mobility (alternative fuels), Triple Helix (a collaboration between businesses, government agencies and schools) and creation of a favourable business climate (reputation, appearance, good facilities, living environment and accessibility). The campus philosophy at the site is clearly visible wherever you look: facilities for testing and research, classrooms and meeting rooms. With flex workplaces, congress halls, a communal restaurant and units specifically for start-ups as an added bonus.
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