Innovation and Industry Connections

Mechanical Engineering at TU/e

The Department of Mechanical Engineering has been at the heart of TU/e ever since the university’s founding in 1956. The department is focused on three knowledge pillars:

  • Computational and Experimental Mechanics (CEM)
  • Thermo Fluids Engineering (TFE)
  • Dynamical Systems Design (DSD)

The department’s large academic staff – there are over 200 PhDs and postdocs – are split into seven research groups, namely: Control Systems Technology, Dynamics and Control, Energy Technology, Mechanics of Material, Microsystems, Power & Flow and Polymer Technology.

While each of these groups has its own goals, obligations and partnerships to focus on, the truly interdisciplinary makeup of TU/e means that there is considerable collaboration with other groups – both within Mechanical Engineering and without – not to mention with industry players.

This interview focuses on Innovation and Industry Connections and will introduce you to some of the minds behind the Control Systems Technology and Dynamics and Control groups. Associate Professor Tom Oomen, Assistant Professor Michelle Chong (both from the Control Systems Technology group) and Full Professor Ines Lopez Arteaga (Dynamics and Control group) tell you about their successes, challenges and dreams and what makes working at the TU/e Mechanical Engineering department so special.

Why did you choose to advance your career at TU/e? What makes working here so special?

Michelle: My research revolves around system and control theory. I’ve recently turned my focus to designing algorithms that are secure against cyber-attacks. These days all systems are interconnected.
While this makes life much easier for system owners, it also opens up a whole world of possibilities for hackers. The CST research group at TU/e has a really good international reputation for strong theoretical research with high-tech applications. I heard about the opening through my academic network, but I only applied after visiting Eindhoven. What a great city! And what a vibrant and dynamic team we have at TU/e. My colleagues are very supportive and the relationships with industry are really important.
While my research focus is on developing the rigorous theory behind control algorithms, I have always ensured that the algorithms developed are used in relevant application areas. So far, I have worked with neurologists on brain implants and power engineers on smart power grids. When it comes to Mechanical Engineering, the most applicable systems are probably driverless traffic systems. It’s great to know that I am actually making a real-world difference. What’s more, real-world applications present unforeseen challenges which lead to innovative solutions. Theoretical mathematical work with societal impact. What’s not to like?

Ines: My research activities involve a broad range of topics within acoustics. I am a born generalist, but most researchers in my field know me mainly for my research in ground transportation noise. However, from the early days of my career, I have dedicated part of my time to educational innovation. To me there is no difference between understanding how a car tyre makes noise and understanding why students fail to master certain concepts in my course. In both cases reading literature, understanding, creating and testing come into play. And communicating through scientific publications. Both are research or learning or whatever else you wish to call it. Therefore, I see education and research as interrelated. This is very much in line with the TU/e vision: research and education are intertwined. It’s a very natural fit. Recently, in my role as Dean of the Bachelor College, I have shifted my focus almost completely to educational innovation and, together with the program directors, I am very happy to have the opportunity to shape our Bachelor Education.

Tom: My research centres around the field of control technology. Control makes machines do the task that you want them to do. Typical examples in my daily work are ASML machines, electron microscopes, and industrial printers. For understanding the role of control in these machines, think about the position control in your printer at home. Control algorithms make sure the printer moves the printhead to print ink at the correct location. This is rather easy with a home printer, but very difficult and complex for an industrial printer or an ASML machine. My team and I use data from these machines to build very accurate mathematical models. We use these models to design complex control algorithms. For me it is fantastic to be in an ecosystem where companies are so close by. This is the main reason why TU/e is, for me, the best place in the world to work. I’m working on a number of projects with different companies. We develop the research together and we learn a lot from one another. It truly is a unique ecosystem!

Ines Lopez Arteaga, Tom Oomen en Michelle Chong

Can you tell us about a breakthrough you’ve made in the past 12 months?

Tom: While I do a lot of work in mechatronics, my work can be applied to much broader systems. Even human breathing. Last year we did just that, together with a company called Macawi that builds respiration systems and a colleague from another research group within the university. As you are probably aware, mechanical ventilators are vital for patients who cannot breathe on their own, which has become very important in the last year due to COVID-19. One of the major challenges facing doctors is controlling the pressure of the ventilators, to ensure patients get exactly the amount of air they need.
Together with a PhD student, we developed a technique based on self-learning algorithms that improves the performance of the mechanical ventilator by a factor of ten. We used a technique called Repetitive Control, which we’re developing for printers and wafer scanners to improve positioning accuracy. In industry machines, our algorithms can learn from machine errors and actually correct them within a few iterations, using measured data from sensors in the machine. Applied to a mechanical ventilator, they can increase the accuracy of pressure and flow provided by the ventilator by a factor of ten after a few breaths, even when the lung capacity of the patient is not known. This was a really unique project where we applied learning control technology to help solve a very real and pressing societal problem.

Michelle: I recently developed an algorithm that is secure against sensor attacks. One relevant area is in the smart grid. It’s got loads of applications. For example, the electricity meter in your home, that collects all your data. These days a lot of houses are equipped with new technology like solar panels. The ability to inject power into the grid could destabilize the system. There are algorithms to prevent this from happening, but these can be hacked. My secure algorithm ensures that the system will remain protected even if the data has been manipulated.

Ines: Looking back on the last years, what I’m proudest of are the things that my students have achieved. Take for example a project I started with a group of bachelor students. They started working with image & sound and AI to discover errors in structures, for example a tiny imperfection on a vibrating plate. This year they published a paper in one of the best acoustics journals in the world. We didn’t get any funding for this project; it was achieved purely through the enthusiasm of the students. When things like that happen, I don’t even think of it as a job.

ASML Waferscanner

What challenge do you hope to crack in the next 3 years?

Ines: As Dean of the Bachelor College, my ambition is to have a revised Bachelor College curriculum up and running in three years. This would be a very concrete step in the direction of our Strategy 2030. Increasing diversity is also very important to me. I really want to contribute to a more diverse and inclusive university. Since my time as board member and co-chair of WISE-Network I have come to understand the complexity of implicit biases and how they lead to pre-conceptions we are not aware of, colouring our judgment and the way we treat (and assess) people. In my eyes we should focus more on increasing awareness among staff and students. We cannot eliminate our biases, but at least we can try to be aware of them 99% of the time. You have to have sensitivity in an organisation to deal well with students. It’s about making sure that all students feel safe. As you can see, I am passionate about making the environment in which we all work and study as welcoming as it possibly can be.

Tom: The mechatronics industry shies away from producing lightweight systems. Companies are afraid that lightweight systems will deform due to the forces required for positioning. However, a lightweight system allows for much faster positioning, which directly follows from Newton’s second law. With advanced control technology, deformations can be actively compensated for and thus such lightweight and revolutionary system designs will become feasible in the future. I would like to help the industry to break through this barrier. What we ultimately want to do is to develop the control tools that enable us to achieve the limits of control performance for future complex machines. For example, if your printer makes the same mistake every time, you can use control technology to fix this. I’d like to push the boundaries to see how much improvement you can get out of a given machine. I find testing these limits fun and interesting, since the real application makes you focus your fundamental research on aspects that make a difference.

Michelle: All these systems that we implement require software updates at some state. When this update has been corrupted, it can easily have negative consequences on your system. I would like to design algorithms that don’t let this happen. I’m already in discussion about testing secure algorithms on actual testbeds. The goal is to eventually use our secure algorithm in practice. While developing the theory, I will work with academic colleagues, both at TU/e and from other institutions. At some point we want to engage industry, but this is a bit further in the future. It could be very relevant to energy providers.

What would you say to someone who’s considering joining the Mechanical Engineering department at TU/e?

Tom: If you’re looking for a job that allows you to combine fundamental research with real-world application, this the place to be. The relationships we have with industry in Eindhoven (and beyond) are incredible. And being in constant contact with smart young people exposes you to lots of new ideas. This really is a technical university, it’s about far more than just theory, and the labs we have are really state of the art!

Ines: Academically, TU/e is a leader and we are number one, worldwide in research collaboration with industry. But the culture is also important. We are becoming more diverse and inclusive every day and we’re not going to stop challenging the stereotypes. If you want to be challenged every day – both scientifically and culturally – you should join us. If you have a closed mind, don’t bother to apply.

Michelle: I’ve only been here a year but I can already see that Eindhoven is a wonderful city to live and work in. At work, every day is different, the students make sure of that. My new colleagues and I all take interdisciplinary research very seriously; I’m always working on projects with colleagues from different research groups and faculties. And, of course, the connections with industry are incredible.

Michelle Chong

What unresolved question or dream inspires you?

Tom: I enjoy pushing the limits of control technology for complex systems. In the near future the complexity of these systems will grow exponentially. Take, for example, a fully automated factory that is connected through the Internet of Things to suppliers and customers that want fully user-customizable products. This poses many new questions, all of which involve complex and robust control technology. I’m fascinated by exploring how you deal with complexity in a robust way. How far can you get with performance? How predictable is something? If you are going to connect things, how precise and secure is your system?
Control also has an important role in, for instance, self-driving cars. Cars still drive in a world with a lot of uncertainty. Think about pedestrians. This uncertainty needs to be taken into account through robustness. These are the kinds of problems where my field of control is essential and which I dream of solving. I have a team of ten PhD candidates who are all on the same page and pushing the boundaries of our field.

Michelle: For a while now I’ve been dreaming of developing a mathematical framework that will allow us to address all the vulnerabilities of control systems in a more holistic manner. Recent developments in the field of hybrid systems allow us to address a lot of the current problems and vulnerabilities. But much more has to be done to be able to achieve a unified framework. This is my big overarching career dream. And I can make it come true at TU/e. It’s just such a great environment for scientific development.

Ines: Academically, I’d love to further develop AI in relation to images of sound. I’m already working with a few different companies on this topic. Then, educationally, I plan to continue TU/e’s journey of diversity and inclusivity. Just one look at our campus and our staff rooms will show you that we are already much more diverse than we were a couple of years ago. But I want to keep pushing and contribute to making our university as inclusive as it can be. Gandhi said you should ‘be the change you want to see.’ That’s what I try to do every day.