Katja Pahnke, director High Tech Systems Center

Although, in the early years, the focus was solely on research, we are now also taking on a teaching role

The High Tech Systems Center has earned itself a position at the interface of industry and academia. Although the target of 200 PhDs has yet to be achieved, the number of initiatives is growing every month. The High Tech Systems Center has now been in existence for three and a half years. The TU Eindhoven (TU/e) mechatronics center has attracted a lot of interest from industry. ‘We have become an acknowledged research center, a single point of contact that the business community can turn to with fundamental issues relating to mechatronics’, says TU/e professor and HTSC initiator Maarten Steinbuch. ‘We receive numerous requests from businesses who would like to visit, even from abroad. We’re very satisfied with our external visibility.’

Maarten Steinbuch and Katja Pahnke
Maarten Steinbuch and Katja Pahnke

Since its launch, the HTSC has provided 65 new PhD positions. Although quite an achievement, the center still has some way to go before reaching the target it set itself: doubling the number of PhD students specializing in high-tech systems from a hundred to two hundred. Part of this comes down to money. The HTSC had little to complain about the initial round of funding. It was able to rely heavily on the Impuls program, a TU/e initiative to conduct research with and for the business community. When an industrial partner invested in a PhD position, the university matched it by funding a second position. ‘That scheme no longer exists, but for the larger consortia that we are forming, we are able to achieve the same matching. The Executive Board sets aside funding by way of exception’, explains Steinbuch. HTSC director Katja Pahnke: ‘Reaching that figure of 200 PhD students will still be a challenge.’ Maarten Steinbuch and Katja Pahnke: ‘We are delighted with the visibility that the HTSC has achieved.’

The growth has to come largely from the consortia formed by the HTSC. The first was launched earlier this year. The aim of Fast (New Frontiers in Autonomous Systems Technology) is to give mobile industrial robots an open view of the world, with as little as possible determined in advance and without the need to pre-program every situation. Participants include cleaning specialists Diversey, Improvia subsidiary Exrobotics, Lely, Rademaker and Vanderlande. Together they are investing € 1.5 million. They also receive incentive funding from the government’s High-Tech Systems and Materials Top Sector.

HTSC is now copying this model in other areas of research, including relating to the Internet of Things for the manufacturing industry and agro- and food technology. It is aiming for around 20 PhD students for both of these. ‘We would also like to bring together a group of companies for photonics equipment’, says Pahnke. ‘And we have around six to eight ideas for consortia at various stages of development. Each of these should result in four to eight PhD positions. I hope to see at least half of these up and running within a year.’

PDEng in MSD

The HTSC recently moved from the old TNO building on the TU/e campus to Catalyst and Twinning. This new accommodation will also be temporary. In 2020, the Impuls building is scheduled to open to accommodate the HTSC and the AMSYSTEMS Center, the partnership with TNO in the field of additive manufacturing systems. This will give the HTSC sufficient space to allow researchers to work alongside each other. ‘We are a light-touch organization. Although we facilitate collaboration across research groups, organize research meetings and ensure that researchers come together, we do not enforce co-location’, says Steinbuch. ‘This means that a lot comes down to motivation and inspiration. Some of our PhD students don’t necessarily feel as if they belong to HTSC. Of course, that is one of the challenges within a university community like this. Some people just love focusing on their own thing. Our challenge is to demonstrate the added value of our model. I actually knew this from the outset – I saw exactly the same with the automotive program. These things just take time.’

"HTSC links university research with Mechatronics and Mechanical Engineering industry"

Part of the aim of the HTSC was always to have a new PDEng program, a two-year program for high-tech system designers with a focus on system architecture. That program has now been going for two years. Currently, 60 Master's students are working in Mechatronic Systems Design. ‘Although, in the early years, the focus was solely on research, we are now also taking on a teaching role’, explains Pahnke. ‘The HTSC funds the whole process, which means that we can only take small steps in increasing the number of people we admit. The aim is to reach a figure of around 25. With the contribution from the                                                                                                                                                                  Eindhoven Engine, that could even become 50.’

In the first year, the MSD PDEng students do several modules focusing on mechatronics, robotics and systems thinking. The program also includes some softer courses, such as project management and entrepreneurship, which they take together with their automotive colleagues. Pahnke: ‘In the second year of the PDEng program, students do an industrial project. One of the advantages of this is that the investment needed is also affordable for smaller companies. This means that we can also involve them in the HTSC.’

Eindhoven Engine

Steinbuch is particularly proud of the fact that HTSC is involved in TU Eindhoven's 2030 strategy. As part of it, the university is discussing the future across six key areas and three HTSC representatives are part of that discussion. The first of these is the university’s research profiling. One of the most important conclusions is that high-tech systems should play a prominent role in this. The HTSC's close involvement is therefore only natural.

The second is about systems thinking. ‘This was included on the agenda partly because, at the HTSC and on automotive programs, there have long been voices highlighting the importance of systems thinking and training systems architects’, explains Steinbuch. ‘A working group is brainstorming ways of rolling it out across the university and ensuring it’s included in teaching and research.’ 
The third area is the Eindhoven Engine. With the support of 

"The Eindhoven Engine has a momentum of its own. It’s also very much a regional initiative."

various companies, TU Eindhoven is working on a plan for the revival of the famous Natlab. The aim of the Engine is for researchers from the university and companies to work on marketable solutions for major issues in technology and wider society. The plan has been well received, but it will take several years for the Engine to be fully up and running. The aim is for 500 researchers to be working there by 2030. Steinbuch, one of the brains behind the plan: ‘The Eindhoven Engine has a momentum of its own. It’s also very much a regional initiative. We are exploring what the role of the university should be, how the HTSC should position itself and whether we can move HTSC projects onto the next development phase.’ The budget set to become available for the Eindhoven Engine could nicely plug the financial gap currently faced by the HTSC. ‘The Top Sector incentive funding is likely to increase from 25 to 30 percent’, confirms Steinbuch, ‘but that's still less than the 50 percent we need to double the number of PhD students in line with the Impuls program aim. The missing 20 percent could come from the funding for the Eindhoven Engine.’ That would be from the € 130 million set aside by central government for Brainport Eindhoven. Through co-funding from the region, a total boost of € 370 million is available. ‘That money is not intended for buildings, but for use in specific projects.’ In other words, in the HTSC or the Eindhoven Engine.


The HTSC scientific team at TU Eindhoven consists of Mark van den Brand, Herman Clercx, Paul Van den Hof, Elena Lomonova, Henk Nijmeijer, Maarten Steinbuch and Siep Weiland. It has also succeeded in attracting several fellows and program managers from industry. Georgo Angelis (SKF until recently), Jeannette Lankhaar (Marel), Ton Peijnenburg (VDL ETG), Jesse Scholtes (TMC) and Frank Sperling (Nobleo). New additions to this last group include Marc Hamilton (Altran) for software architecture and Anton van Dijsseldonk (formerly ASML) for optomechatronics.* ‘It’s no easy task finding good people who can run our projects in a multidisciplinary context and also to entice them out of the industry’, as HTSC director Katja Pahnke knows from experience. All fellows work part-time for the HTSC. ‘This means they are able to continue to forge the link with industrial issues. But we still have at least three vacancies for full-time fellows.’

*Recently TU/e HTSC has added two temporary project managers to the team: Edwin de Zeeuw and Tycho Sonnemans.

Source: Alexander Pil (Mechatronica & Machinebouw), mechatronicamachinebouw.nl (2 May 2018)