The future is bright

Electrical Engineering at TU/e

In the past 50 years Electrical Engineering has been instrumental in driving the third industrial revolution through digital technology. But we have already entered the era of the fourth industrial revolution. In the next 50 years, advances in Electrical Engineering will provide the building blocks for a connected world of cyber-physical systems that deliver services around ublic health, education, fossil-free energy and transport that will deeply influence our daily lives.

The Electrical Engineering Department has nine research groups and several research labs. These are organised in three focus areas with corresponding research centers.

This interview highlights the work of three scientists at the Cyber-Physical Systems Center Eindhoven (CPSe): 
Jeroen Voeten (scientific director and full professor), Sofie Haesaert (assistant professor) and Jeroen van Dam
(PhD candidate and program manager).

TU/e seems like a special place. Can you tell us about your connection to the campus?

Jeroen Voeten: We are passionate about building the green electricity grids of the future, to make E-mobility a reality and to improve the performance and capabilities of high-tech products. To this end we have intimate collaborations with Dutch companies – ASML, Philips, Nexperia, Enexis, NXP, Shell, DAF, ICT-NL – and many more. In fact, TU/e is number one in Europe in this regard and maybe number two in the world. This is all about staying ahead of the competition, by reducing costs and accelerating innovation. The core technology underlying all these innovations is Cyber Physical Systems (CPS), i.e., the symbiosis of physical products with smart algorithms. The Eindhoven region excels in this cross-disciplinary CPS technology, and this is one of the key reasons why ASML, for instance, is the global market leader in lithography equipment.

Sofie Haesaert: I first came to Eindhoven to complete my PhD, after which I moved to Caltech (in the US) for my postdoc. But I missed the European way of doing things, so I jumped at the opportunity to return to Eindhoven. Of course, I still collaborate with colleagues from all over the world. My research looks at the intersection of control systems and formal methods, a key challenge in CPS research. Cars have relied on control technology for their engines for a long time. But the number of controllers is rapidly increasing, and they carry out more and more safety-critical functions. These controllers are therefore getting more complex, but at the same time must operate correctly under all circumstances. A car constantly changes; tires get flatter, brakes become less responsive, and road obstacles come and go. There are loads of uncertainties and these must all be handled correctly. My focus is on automatically removing the errors and developing controllers that do not make mistakes. There’s a lot of theory in my work, but it’s also tightly related to real engineering problems. Being so close to so many high-tech companies is one of the best things about working at TU/e.

Jeroen van Dam: TU/e is a very exciting and flexible employer. I am in the final stages of completing my PhD research. This focuses on the development of a binary, electromagnetic valve actuator with soft-landing for an adaptive, automotive damper. During my PhD project I have been working with the world’s largest manufacturer of shock absorbers, gaining a lot of experience in the automotive industry. Since last year, I have also been working as a project manager, with one foot in the EPE group and one foot in CPSe. In this way I am increasingly connected to Brainport’s high-tech systems industry, for instance through my involvement in a new project on next-generation lithography machines which boasts 50 partners and a multimillion budget. In addition, we are working on setting up a cryomechatronics consortium that will focus on a novel actuator technology that operates at very low temperatures and will take the performance of high-tech equipment to the next level.

Jeroen van Dam, Sophie Haesaert en Jeroen Voeten

What about a recent achievement. What’s been your proudest moment in the last 12 months?

Jeroen Voeten: My biggest challenge was to bootstrap the center. Within one year, four different Electrical Engineering groups came together. The Electrical Energy Systems (EES) and Electromechanics and Power Electronics (EPE) groups are especially knowledgeable in the physical aspects of systems, while the Control Systems (CS) and Electronics Systems (ES) groups have a lot of expertise on the cyber side. Together we form a unique symbiosis of two worlds that enables us to address the societal and industrial challenges of E-Mobility, High-Tech Systems and E-Grids. Challenges that none of us can solve on our own. At this moment, 18 scientists are affiliated with the center, in addition to three program managers, a secretarial office and a scientific board. This collaboration is already paying off. Based on a unique roadmapping process in which scientists sharply articulate their research propositions, we have already acquired impressive research funding. We did particularly well in the last ECSEL Joint Technology Undertaking (JTU) call. CPSe managed to get involved in four out of the 14 proposals that were granted across Europe. That’s 2.5 million Euros spent on CPS research!

Jeroen van Dam: One of the most important contributions of my thesis has been building a test rig. We spent the past half year working on a test setup for the binary valve actuator. This was a real challenge, especially due to the Covid-19 restrictions. The entire design and mechanical drawings had to be discussed with multiple parties via video conferencing. But our efforts paid off. We were able to run tests in which we used two back-to-back linear motors, one resembling the load and the other the actuator. We are currently applying the experiments to validate my models, after which we will continue with control algorithms proceeding towards soft-landing, a difficult-to-achieve system feature that necessitates the CPS level of abstraction. With this I will wrap up my thesis work. I am looking forward to publishing my results so that I can inspire new researchers to build on it. Further electrification of transport is key to green, autonomous and safe mobility. And a lot more research is still needed to get there.

Sofie Haesaert: A few months ago, I was awarded a VENI grant (a prestigious Dutch grant given to highly promising young scientists) by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). While I’m very proud on a personal level, I’m also extremely excited about the opportunities this grant will bring me. It’s going to give me the chance to strengthen my research on the interface between system identification, control, and formal methods. These areas have evolved rather independently in the past. Truly bringing them together is one of the grand scientific challenges to be addressed by CPS research.

Small scale vehicle testbeds

Moving on to the future, what do you and your colleagues hope to achieve in the next three years or so?

Sofie Haesaert: I will use the proceeds of my VENI grant in part to move from developing theory on paper to designing methods and tools for engineers to try it out. This will be an important step towards results that are accessible to others and thus have impact. We will work with small-scale vehicle testbeds and drones in the lab to implement the results. We’ve got a very nice lab, with motion tracking facilities, so there are quite a few possibilities there. I will also integrate research on CPS in my master’s courses on control engineering principles, so that we can educate new generations of engineers. 

Jeroen Voeten: Organisationally, our main challenge is to make sure that everyone in CPSe does the groundwork necessary to ensure long-term success. We work in a bottom-up way, leveraging the strengths and passions of the scientists and program managers. Instrumental to this is our roadmapping process which allows us to work towards a collection of research propositions, sharply connecting our application domains with our CPS technology. One challenge is to systematically roll out this process so that creating propositions becomes a habit. Initially this will put a burden on our staff, who already have a heavy workload. I predict, however, that the habit will pay off. It will result in more research projects and funding, more interdisciplinary collaboration, and more external visibility. But above all it will accelerate the innovation required to address our industrial and societal challenges.

Jeroen van Dam: I’m very curious about the innovation that my PhD research will lead to. Conventional dampers react in exactly the same way to all inputs. My damper is adaptive and will respond differently to different circumstances. On a motorway you need a different damping rate than on a cobblestone lane. To increase the chances of this adaptive solution being adopted by industry, we are working on a smart and affordable electrical add-on to a standard damper. My dream is that this add-on will become a mainstream feature in the automotive industry that enhances both driving safety and comfort. This is what motivates me to push forward every day.

It certainly seems an exciting place to work. Do you have any advice for someone who’s considering a career at TU/e?

Jeroen van Dam: TU/e is a very interesting place to work. Professor Lomonova gave me the opportunity and the trust to take on some really challenging PhD research over the last few years. She also introduced me to CPSe and the possibility of a career switch once I have finalized my PhD. TU/e gives you this kind of freedom. In my role as a project manager, my tasks revolve around supporting scientists to formulate research propositions, attracting research funding, screening candidates for vacant research positions, and the daily management of projects. Someday, I might consider exploring my options in industry, but I am certain that my ties with TU/e will be long-lasting.

Jeroen Voeten: I have been working for the TU/e for my entire career – almost 30 years now. For 15 years I was also employed at ESI (TNO) as a research fellow, developing and supervising applied research and innovation projects in tight collaboration with industry – mainly ASML. This resulted in several industrial innovations, one of which is actually integrated into all of ASML’s latest TWINSCAN machines. I find it exciting to realize that almost every chip that is created in the worldis touched by this innovation. It is this knowledge and experience, about bridging the gap between research and innovation, that I am eager to pass on to our young scientists. I therefore did not hesitate for a moment when our Dean, Bart Smolders, asked me to lead the center and I am very happy that I took this step.

Sofie Haesaert: I was given a start-up package when I was hired at the TU/e. That was a really nice bonus, since it gave me the opportunity to build my own research line more quickly. This, coupled with the fact that everyone here really embraces interdisciplinary research and has close ties with industry, makes TU/e a great place for a young scientist to build a career.

Prototype adaptive damper

What is the one big dream that sustains you through thick and thin? The mark you hope to leave on society…

Jeroen Voeten: I think I speak for everyone at CPSe when I say we all dream of a full transition to fossil-free energy, the shift towards safe, autonomous electrical driving and to a prosperous future for our high-tech industry. Research in Cyber-Physical Systems technology is indispensable to making this dream come true, and we are passionate about doing our bit.

Sofie Haesaert: There are loads of cool questions I would like to work on. One of the things that really ‘grabs’ me is when I look at control software. I then wonder whether I can make it easy for everyone to build correct controllers. Right now, you almost need a PhD degree to be able to write the correct code and I think that’s a shame. I would like to explore the possibilities for making the regulation of physical systems clearer and more accessible. Maybe in 20 years’ time all school kids will be able to write code to make their self-built drone fly. It’s a big challenge, but it could make a real difference to how we live.

Jeroen van Dam: There’s already a lot of attention on the electrification of cars, but it is mainly focused on the electric motor. There are still loads of non-electrical components in electric cars and I’d like to be involved in achieving full electrification. Electric cars will become more popular and prices will continue to drop. But there are still many technical challenges. Battery charging still takes too much time and, as we’ve already discussed, shock absorbers are not yet smart at all. These are just two examples. Through the unique combination of expertise we have in our center, we have a lot to offer the electric car industry. The future of mobility is smart and electric, that’s for sure.