I have spent all of my career working with companies building high-tech equipment, basically application-driven fundamental research.

Tom Oomen - Professor Control Systems

“Every time I travel around the world, I notice that Brainport is an absolutely unique ecosystem”

2021 was a big year for Tom Oomen: in addition to becoming a full professor at both TU Eindhoven and TU Delft, his work on advanced motion control won the prestigious Grand Nagamori Award. For this edition of the newsletter, Tom looks back on his career so far and how he found his balance on the spectrum of fundamental to applied research.

Research for curiosity’s sake

“I did my master’s and PhD here in Eindhoven and I’ve spent all of my career working with companies building high-tech equipment,” Tom begins. “They have such complex problems for which learning and control techniques are not yet available, so that’s what I’ve kept on developing in my career. Basically, what I would call application-driven fundamental research. I have also worked with TU Delft in the past on wind energy. Everything came together in May 2021 and I became a full professor for one day a week in Delft and four days in Eindhoven.”

Time spent as a visiting researcher in Sweden and Australia has also shaped his philosophy, particularly on the need for curiosity-driven research – something to which little funding is devoted in the Netherlands. This is in contrast to the history of Brainport, where entities like the NatLab kick-started most modern industry. “I believe that TU/e should be diverse and, since we’re a technical university, should have a focus on engineering aspects such as designing and building machines, of course,” explains Tom. “Many engineers and former students can design systems better than me, but I like investigating fundamental questions that arise in industry and later going back to applications. What I do with master’s students is often directly used in industry; with my PhD students, we’re about five to ten years ahead and work on fundamental approaches at the intersection of learning and control. At the same time, there’s a real need to develop ideas that could lead to new companies in a decade or two, so we have to also first invest in curiosity-driven research.”

Motion control for a greater good

In Tom’s view, this combination of new ideas with current challenges was the main reason why he received the Grand Nagamori Award, which is dedicated to motion technology that benefits society. With his research on improving the precision of motor control in mechatronic systems, Tom has – in addition to the well-known and extremely accurate lithography industry – worked with companies to use similar control approaches to better actuate the motors in ventilation systems for patients in intensive care units.

“How did it feel to win? Fantastic!” he smiles. “This is one of the biggest awards in my field. I was first told that I was nominated for one of the six normal awards and that the final winner would be selected during the award itself, which was at 1:30 am on a Sunday. It was crazy to win it in the middle of the night with the family asleep!”

An ecosystem for everyone

Of course, such collaboration is largely possible thanks to the culture of openness in the region. Tom contrasts this with other countries he’s worked in, where universities receive equipment from industry to test their control techniques but where industries do not report back what is done with the new techniques. In Brainport, results are always discussed and, in many cases, even published together with industrial collaborators.

“People in this area build their careers by moving from one company to the next and jointly build up the knowledge level in this region,”

concludes Tom. “How has this benefited me? Well, it’s interesting for me to work with PhD students in many different industries in this ecosystem, who inspire each other and rapidly progress scientific research in turn. And I can also work at the highest level with companies that are willing to share their application problems. Every time I travel around the world, I notice that Brainport is an absolutely unique ecosystem.”