PARIS – PSA Peugeot Citroen is moving part of its research and development effort as far upstream as possible without granting tenure to its engineers.

Three or four dozen PSA engineers are being placed in a network of “Open Labs” that PSA is sponsoring with universities mainly in France, China, Brazil and Russia.

Sylvain Allano, PSA’s director-scientific direction and future technologies, was hired away from a top French university in early 2010 to lead the auto maker’s deep dive into academia.

“In the past, we were not close to science,” he says in an interview. “Until the last two years, our relationships were punctual and opportunistic, not for the long term. It is a cultural revolution for us to install PSA physically in academic sites.”

Each of the six Open Labs in France, five in China and one in Brazil has a specific orientation, such as the study of human movement, which was the first project announced last year in Marseille in partnership with the Université de la Méditerranée.

PSA provides funding and three or four of its own engineers, while the university provides workspace to the auto maker, a half dozen scientists, post-doctorate students and researchers.

There are two basic goals of the Open Labs project:

  • Serving as sensors, in place to catch the first hints of potential technological revolutions that could apply to automobiles.
  • Mixing industry engineers with scientists, to bring a whiff of “development” into the world of pure research as the Open Labs take on various projects.

PSA CEO Philip Varin, who hired Allano, describes the Open Labs network in a speech to the Automobile Club of France as a project that “aims at bringing together the research teams and the experimental resources of the group with those of partner laboratories at the heart of a mixed research structure.”

University partnerships are well-known in industries such as aerospace, chemical and automotive, says Allano, who benchmarked the French-defense and aerospace-contractor Thales and the BMW Technology Office USA in Palo Alto, CA.

BMW’s office is charged with studying the human-machine interface, mechatronics, infotainment, driver assistance, business communications and even materials and production topics such as form-memory alloys. Launched in 1998 in the Silicon Valley, it “has been a very good experiment that has generated technology in cars,” he says.

PSA’s Open Labs concept was well under way before the French auto maker and BMW started an unrelated joint venture on hybrid-vehicle development, says Allano. The hybrid technology under development will come to market in the next several years, while technology from the Open Labs is on a 10 to 20-year development cycle.

PSA is oriented toward R&D, and its engineers file about 1,300 patents annually in France, more than any other company in that country.

Intellectual property that flows from the Open Labs could end up being patented in three ways: By PSA, if the development occurs within the company based on what it learns in a lab; by the academic partners, if they are bringing an innovation to the table; or shared, if the Open Lab itself develops a patentable idea.

“We say to them: ‘If you have realized an invention, protect it in the Open Lab and we will learn from it,’” says Allano. “We don’t want to get mixed up in intellectual-property problems.”

Besides the current Open Labs, PSA is developing a second one in Brazil and plans to open two in Russia before 2014.

While PSA is investing both people and money in its project, Allano sees it as a bargain.

“Our idea is that Open Labs will let us do research in a lean way, lightly. We will give it just what it needs, just in time,” to bring new technologies to market.

To manage the networks, PSA has launched StelLab 1.0 at its technical center in suburban Paris – rather like the spider in its nest ready to pounce on good ideas that strike somewhere on its web. A second hub, StelLab Asia at PSA China Tech Center in Shanghai, will connect the five Chinese labs.

“StelLab 1.0 is the collection point for innovations and where we will integrate technologies,” says Allano. “The difference here is that it is a closed hub.” Developments here will stay in-house.

In addition to the hubs, the Chinese labs will duplicate French labs, says Allano. For example, the Chinese lab in Wuhan based on photonics is twinned with the electronics lab in Bordeaux, while a machining lab in Shanghai is coupled with Marseilles, studying human movement.

In addition to its Open Labs, PSA is sponsoring a series of university chairs. The auto maker started its PSA corporate university a year and a half ago.

“Others have had this for a long time,” says Allano. “With this, we position ourselves in the big schools of France to help our brand reputation as an employer, to show our interest in education and sustainable development.”

Underwriting a senior position in a university also helps PSA recruit the best students.

Early this year, the auto maker sponsored a chair at the PRES Université Paris-Est as one of three connected to the L’Institut pour la Ville en Mouvement, the PSA-sponsored non-government organization studying cities and mobility. Two other chairs will be established in China and Brazil.

In some cases, chairs are linked to an Open Lab. For example, the Andre Citroen chair at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris is coupled with the computational mechanics lab. Andre Citroen, who founded the car company with his name, had been a Polytechnique student.

PSA is looking to gain ground on its competitors on future technologies with the help of academia, but it is giving something back as well.

“We bring two things,” says Allano: “One is access to our industrial tools and technology. We have a lot of technology like virtual reality and test benches that they can use.

The second thing is to invite their scientists to join with us on a specific project, for a month or several years, to live at the industrial rhythm.”

PSA’s Open Labs Network

Hubs

StelLab 1.0 (Science Technologies Exploratory Lean LABoratory), Velizy

StelLab Asia, China Tech Center, Shanghai

Open Labs

France

  • Human movement, Marseille, with the Université de la Méditerranée
  • Electronics, Bordeaux, with the Laboratoire de l'Intégration du Matériau au Système
  • Fluid dynamics, Poitiers, with Institut Pprime ( ENSMA-CNRS-université de Poitiers)
  • Thermodynamics, Orleans, with Institut Prisme (Université d'Orleans)
  • Computational Mechanics, Saclay, with Ecole Polytechnique et Ecole des Mines
  • Materials and Processs, Metz, with Arts et Métiers in Metz GeorgiaTech-CNRS and the Centre de Recherche Publique Henri Tudor, Luxembourg.

China

Shanghai (2)

Wuhan

Beijing (2)

Latin America

Russia

(2 proposed)