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Corporate support for academic programs provides winning combination

Release Date: December 13, 2007

Southfield, Mich. – When Professor Vladimir Vantsevich started a pioneering academic program in mechatronics at Lawrence Technological University, financial contributions and cooperative support from the private sector were key to getting the program launched.

Mechatronics degree programs, common in Europe and Asia but still a rarity in the United States, meld mechanical, electrical and computer engineering disciplines. Vehicles rely more and more on sophisticated electronics and computer controls. Vantsevich was very familiar with this approach after a nearly 30-year academic career in Belarus, where he specialized in designing driveline systems and control devices for multi-wheel-drive vehicles.

Vantsevich introduced Lawrence Tech’s master’s degree program in mechatronic systems engineering in 2006. This unique high-tech educational program, the first in Michigan, includes research options for students. The Laboratory of Mechatronic Systems opened this year.

To outfit the new laboratory, equipment and software valued at $470,000 was contributed by Bosch, dSPACE, Eaton, Festo, Kistler Instrument, KUKA Robotics and National Instruments. Chrysler contributed nearly $50,000 for academic support programs and also donated hardware.

This high level of interest indicates that the private sector sees good things coming from the program. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in robotics, aerospace, automotive and other industries will benefit if there are more American engineers available to bring mechatronics to the product design and production process. The suppliers will benefit if the next generation of engineers understand how to take advantage of the specialized engineering equipment and software.

Some corporations did even more to help, as demonstrated by Kistler Instrumente AG of Switzerland and its American subsidiary based in Amherst, N.Y., which make sensors and measuring devices widely used in the automotive industry to enhance vehicle performance.

When Vantsevich and students began working on the 4x4 vehicle chassis dynamometer with independent wheel control at Lawrence Tech, Kistler provided two wheel transducers, valued at $270,000, that take six measurements simultaneously from wheels rotating on the dynamometer, which is used for unique tests in different road/off-road conditions under the four wheels. The company also provided the first cash grant for a research project using the dynamometer.

Next Vantsevich joined Kistler’s Dieter Barz from Germany and John Kubler and Aaron Schumacher from the American subsidiary in writing a research paper for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The paper resulted from research at Lawrence Tech using the equipment donated by Kistler. Vantsevich made presentations at Kistler symposiums in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Kubler also joined the mechatronics advisory board that helped create the original course content.

The relationship will advance to a new level in April 2008 when Barz is scheduled to come to the Lawrence Tech campus to give lectures in the course “Mechatronic Systems Implementation – I.” Barz will attend the SAE Congress and present three lectures during his visit.

Another good example of cooperation is National Instruments (NI), which donated hardware and software for the lab. NI engineers teach 42 hours in eight core courses on the mechatronics program – so all students will be experts in LabVIEW and will be able to apply it to designing robotic systems, vehicle and other types of mechatronic systems. In return, Vantsevich supported a NI conference with a presentation.

To further aid the faculty and staff, NI plans a free three-day, custom-designed training class in January.  Lawrence Tech faculty and staff will learn to write LabVIEW programs and implement advanced models on real-time control systems. This will help improve and expand labs and workshops for students in the mechatronic systems degree program and in a new mechatronics core course for undergraduates.

This type of cooperation between private industry and academia is a “win-win” relationship, according to Vantsevich.

“We need industry involvement to stay on top of the latest achievements in this field. They provide new information and knowledge about what’s being used in the field,” Vantsevich said.

Students gain insights into how to design equipment, which is normally proprietary information rarely shared outside a company.

In return, companies get exposure for products with both practicing and future engineers, and often gain access to valuable research data that can be used to help improve or develop new products and processes, according to Vantsevich.

Lawrence Technological University, www.ltu.edu, offers more than 60 Undergraduate, Master’s and Doctoral degree programs in Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Management. Founded in 1932, the 4,500-student, private university pioneered evening classes 75 years ago, and today has a growing number of weekend and online programs. Lawrence Tech’s 102-acre campus is in Southfield, with education centers in Livonia, Clinton Township, Traverse City and Petoskey. Lawrence Tech also offers programs with partner universities in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia.