Since its foundation as an Automotive Systems Design sub-track in 2015, the Mechatronic Systems Design (MSD) program has rapidly grown in popularity. Now a PDEng in its own right, it’s become increasingly aligned with the needs of industry, allowing Master’s graduates to gain a deeper level of design experience while tackling real-world problems.
In this article, managing director of both HTSC and Eindhoven Engine Katja Pahnke and HTSC research fellow Ton Peijnenburg discuss the importance of design, the PDEng’s expansion and how these connect to the wider Eindhoven ecosystem.
Striving for solutions
“I finished at TU Eindhoven in 1992 and decided to work at Philips instead of taking the extra two-year training. I was convinced by my hiring manager that after one year I would have as much experience as two years on the PDEng,” Ton laughs. “When I came back to work at HTSC, I recognized that the university had become more scientific. Analysis was more important than synthesis, but engineers are trained to develop stuff. They should be working towards base solutions for a problem.”
For students who have completed a Master’s, the PDEng MSD presents an opportunity to combine both the academic and industrial aspects of mechatronics into one solution-focused course. After a year of advanced education, students complete an eight to twelve-month design project within a company. It’s not just the students who benefit from such an approach. As Ton notes, “many companies say, ‘well, we’re not going to invest in a PhD because our problems are more immediate.’ If industry wants to involve the university, it’s easier to talk about a two-year program. It’s also important to talk about something that results in a prototype rather than a study.”
The intersection of many disciplines
With its focus on accelerating innovations in the Brainport region, PDEng programs fit perfectly within Eindhoven Engine. Eindhoven Engine consists of multiple teams of 20 people that bring together PDEngs, university staff, industry representatives and students to work on technological breakthroughs. “Eindhoven Engine is focused on higher TRL levels, co-location and what we call challenge-based research,” Katja explains. “Working with a mix of researchers and and students at various levels of study helps to find the best team for particular challenges.” Eindhoven Engine has a broader scope than HTSC, working also on domains such as mobility and health that profit from cross-sectional work. “The Engine is really multidisciplinary like in industry,” she continues, “and addressing challenges efficiently.”
As a mechatronics example, she cites a consortium that was formed with ASML on a new concept for ‘wafer stages’, subassemblies of devices used to manufacture integrated circuits. “In HTSC, we formed a consortium with four PhDs, abd transferred them to Engine since we are convinced that this surrounding will better fit the project. We’ve added PDEng work in order to accelerate innovation faster – the start is only theory until we bring it into a new environment. We also have a project called Brainport Smart District. You can see it as a ‘living lab’ for 1500 apartments in Helmond. That’s not only about technical but also social innovation.”
A personal transformation
As with PDEngs in general, more and more graduates are opting for MSD rather than a direct path to the field of work. Fortunately for Katja, this has a positive impact on Eindhoven Engine. “Normally, we have a track of eight PDEngs per year. In a few years, we think we’ll have about 500 people working within the Engine. I imagine that there planis much more space and need for PDEngs. I think it’s very inspiring for them to work with a mix of industry and other students.”
Despite its rising popularity among students, however, it can be tough to make industry aware of the benefits that the program brings. “If you look at Mechatronics System Design, finding assignments for the students is not straightforward,” Ton concedes. “People in this industry don’t really know what the PDEng is about.” Nonetheless, those who have sponsored PDEngs are enthusiastic about the results. Ton expects to see more students from other universities signing up in the near future, drawn in by what Katja calls ‘the personal transformation’: after two years of Eindhoven Engine and the PDEng MSD, you’ve not only learned the technical side of design but have also developed as a person.
As for the future, Katja emphasizes the importance of Eindhoven Engine’s ecosystem development function. Collaboration is about more than just the way of working, and the ability to select top talent will allow the university, industry and Eindhoven Engine to further align their goals. “We look not only for different domains but also for different organisations that we can bring together: Higher vocational education from Fontys, for example, or using the power of TNO for applied research. My next goal is to get Eindhoven Engine running and really accelerate innovation,” she says. “Ourdream is that we look not only at which projects need acceleration but also at program management, at how we can support the Brainport region by finding and accelerate developments of the iconic applications ourselves.”
For Ton, promotion of the MSD takes priority. “I hope that companies will be more inclined to look for PDEng candidates, knowing that they can hire someone who will be trained within the context of this high-tech systems field. One of the things we’d also like to do is innovate on the model so that industry doesn’t have to wait until the final assignment is due when it comes to selecting a candidate. This is being done by other PDEng programs, where the program only starts if there is an industry sponsor who knows which candidate the industry would like to hire. These candidates make a better start than those with ‘just’ a Master’s degree.”