Alexander Pil
15 December 2020

Internally, everything has been in place since October, but now, the outside world may know as well. The High Tech Systems Center (HTSC) of Eindhoven University of Technology is being integrated into Eaisi, the Eindhoven research institute for artificial intelligence. With the transition, HTSC figureheads Katja Pahnke and Maarten Steinbuch think it’s time to hand over the baton. They now have their hands free for their next Apollo project: Eindhoven Engine.

Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) has set itself the ambitious goal of making the Brainport region the center of artificial intelligence, in particular AI in engineering. Last year, it started the Eindhoven Artificial Intelligence Systems Institute (Eaisi, pronounced easy), led by Carlo van de Weijer. In addition to Eires (the institute for renewable energy) and ICMS (molecular technology), Eaisi is one of the new pillars of Eindhoven’s research strategy for the future.

This choice and focus mean that the existing structures within TUE are repositioning themselves. Also at the High Tech Systems Center (HTSC), this calls for a change. The mechatronics center is going to operate under the umbrella of Eaisi. That might seem somewhat forced. While the HTSC does a host of projects and programs that fit perfectly under the heading of “artificial intelligence” – think of robotics and agri-food technology – there are many research lines that have little or nothing to do with AI.

“Yet,” corrects Maarten Steinbuch, initiator and scientific director of the HTSC. “It’s to be expected that AI and data science will play a larger role everywhere, but there are certainly subjects that come purely from mechanical engineering, physics or electrical engineering. It isn’t very natural to put an AI label on them. And we don’t have to.”

The brand “High Tech Systems Center” will continue to exist under the Eaisi flag. “In this way, we ensure that all HTSC projects, also those that have nothing to do with AI, still receive the attention they deserve. High-tech systems is one of the application areas within Eaisi,” explains Steinbuch. “We can also safeguard integrality.” That was – and is – one of the spearheads of the HTSC: multidisciplinary research across the boundaries of the university faculties – an approach that’s also being pursued within Eaisi.

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“What also remains is another strength of the HTSC: the local connection with the ecosystem,” emphasizes Katja Pahnke, director of the HTSC. “The programs reinforce each other. We benefit from the joining of forces, all available AI knowledge and expertise, and access to larger subsidy channels. Eaisi benefits from our way of working, the intertwining with the regional and national high-tech industry, and the lessons we’ve learned about how to organize collaboration between industry and academia.”

Pahnke and Steinbuch refrain from commenting on exactly how things should proceed and what the plans of the new HTSC are. “It’s not up to us; we entrust it to the new management,” says Pahnke. The duo is withdrawing from the HTSC program. After six years, they think it’s time to hand over the baton. Wim Nuijten (scientific director of Eaisi), Nathan van der Wouw (mechanical engineering professor at TUE) and Ton Peijnenburg (HTSC fellow), among others, will coordinate and manage the content of the new high-tech equipment program within Eaisi.

Eindhoven Engine Maarten Steinbuch Katja Pahnke BvOF 02
Katja Pahnke and Maarten Steinbuch are stepping down as driving forces behind the High Tech Systems Center and will focus entirely on Eindhoven Engine. Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

80 extra PhD students

But Pahnke and Steinbuch are happy to look back. While they haven’t achieved all their soaring ambitions, they’re very proud of what they’ve done with the HTSC over the past six years.

The first goal was to double the number of Eindhoven PhD students in the field of high-tech systems, from approximately one hundred to two hundred. “We managed to create some eighty additional PhD positions,” notes Pahnke. Moreover, the HTSC also initiated several PhD projects that didn’t meet the criteria it set itself. “If only one faculty was involved, we simply transferred the project and the PhD student to the relevant group.”

In the first years, the HTSC got off to a flying start with the Impuls program, an initiative of TUE to conduct research with and for the industry. When an industrial partner invested in a PhD position, the university doubled the budget for a second PhD student. After that, the growth had to come mainly from the formation of larger consortia and through large strategic partnerships with TNO in particular, such as AMSystems Center (around additive manufacturing, now a spinout with the same name), the Nano Opto-Mechatronics Instruments project and the Digital Food Processing Initiative (with Wageningen UR). Pahnke: “We’re very satisfied with the final result. We proved that it makes sense to scale up research lines together with other knowledge institutions.”


The second spearhead was co-location. The idea was to physically bring the researchers from the different departments together and let them solve multidisciplinary issues together. “That has been less successful,” admits Pahnke. “With AMSystems Center, that worked very well, but in general, it turned out to be tough to pull the scientists to us, even if it was only part-time. The research and projects were carried out everywhere: at the faculties, at companies and occasionally at our small facilities.”

“The HTSC has never put a claim on a large building with a lab environment,” adds Steinbuch. “The PhD students were employed by the faculties, so we mainly used the faculty labs to bring projects together. Within Eaisi, this co-location is better ingrained because it has separate accommodations: now the Gaslab and soon the Laplace building on TUE campus.”

Pahnke: “In the end, it’s not about square meters, but about the impact you make. With a limited budget, we’re still very visible within the university and to the outside world. We’ve made a strong statement about the importance of the high-tech industry for Eindhoven University of Technology and we’ve allowed the manufacturing industry to feed the research and vice versa.”

Eindhoven Engine Katja Pahnke BvOF
Pahnke: “It’s not about the square meters but about the impact. With a limited budget, we’re still very visible.” Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

Systems thinking

The third ambition was to establish a new PDEng course, a two-year post-master for high-tech system designers where system architecture plays a pivotal role. That Mechatronic Systems Design track has been underway for five years now. “In the early years, we only focused on research, but now, we’ve also taken on an obligation to teach,” Pahnke points out.

The HTSC has established itself as the guardian of systems thinking within TUE. “That stems from our involvement in the university’s 2030 strategy,” adds Steinbuch. “When we were brainstorming about the education of the future, we concluded that systems thinking is a core value there. From the HTSC and the automotive training courses, we’ve been saying for years that systems thinking and training system architects are so important. This is now being implemented in the PDEng program and we’re rolling it out among bachelor’s and master’s degrees at various other faculties.”

Inspiration and motivation

What was the biggest struggle for the HTSC? “The university is buzzing with collective intelligence, but collaboration outside the walls of your own faculty is a big challenge,” Pahnke replies. “We had to communicate a lot on a social-emotional level. But in the end, we managed to make the transition from ‘we have to participate’ to ‘what do we have to do to participate?’”

Steinbuch: “As at most universities, at the TUE, we’ve chosen to make the faculties the cornerstones. By that, you’re actually saying that the disciplines are leading. But the HTSC’s ambition was the crossover between those disciplines. This means that you operate perpendicularly to the university’s existing structure. We do that with some money but without power. It really has to come from inspiration and motivation. That was the difficulty for me: to get the scientists in those faculties to feel and experience together that this is also worthwhile. It has been a long process, and Katja and I both knew that beforehand. It took a long time before researchers said: ‘Yes, the HTSC has real added value for me, also scientifically.’ In general, we’ve succeeded reasonably well. I learned an awful lot from that, know the pitfalls and the do’s and don’ts to move forward at the borders between disciplines and between groups of people.” So much so that Steinbuch is now ready for his next tour de force.

HTSC VDL ETG Beast Paul Blom
The HTSC has never had its own large lab facilities. The research and projects were mainly carried out at the faculties and companies. Credit: VDL ETG

Eindhoven Engine

Steinbuch says he has only one ambition left in his life at TUE: “I want to make Eindhoven Engine so big that they’ll come here from all over the world to see how we’re able to accelerate innovation.” Together with his companion Pahnke, he fully commits to that initiative. “Now that we’ve handed over the HTSC baton, we can fully focus on Eindhoven Engine,” says Pahnke.

Just as a reminder: Eindhoven Engine is an initiative of Fontys, TNO and TUE – recently, they became formal shareholders – with the aim to accelerate research, by offering a place where scientific researchers and students, together with industrial engineers, can innovate disruptively and across borders. The program is inspired by the renowned Natlab, where there were hardly any boundaries between the various disciplines, by the successful “Kenniswerkersregeling” from the last crisis, when companies could temporarily outplace their R&D employees to a knowledge institution with a substantial subsidy, and by the Eindhoven student teams, who can innovate quickly and disruptively.

Eindhoven Engine has been running for over a year and a half. How is it doing? “We had a very successful call this spring, with more than twenty interested parties, and ultimately eleven proposals,” indicates Steinbuch. “After a strict selection by an independent committee, we accepted and started six of them.” With the five projects from the first call and the four from last year, the total now stands at fifteen programs, with about two hundred (part-time) researchers and students and engineers from industry.

Eindhoven Engine is also doing well financially. Pahnke: “It’s a program of 75 million euros, of which 15 million from the ‘Regio Deal.’” The coming calls will provide more clarity on the co-financing, but Pahnke expects that amount to be amply achieved and that she can finance projects for five years. “We are of course contemplating how to increase funding, also after 2025. I’m sure by then we’ve shown that the concept works.” The goal is to employ five hundred engineers, researchers and employees of social organizations in five years.

In contrast to the HTSC, co-location is a requirement. If companies and scientists want to participate, they have to spend part of their time at the offices and labs of Eindhoven Engine. While this is a challenge in these times of corona, Pahnke also sees the bright side: “It gave us and the building owner the time to renovate our home base, the Multi Media Pavilion on TUE campus, or Hub 0, as we call it. The construction workers weren’t in the way of anyone, and no one was bothered by dust and noise.” She immediately admits that it’s a great loss that the engineers can’t see each other regularly. “Cross-fertilization between disciplines and between research projects is one of Eindhoven Engine’s success factors. Because almost everyone now works from home, we were forced to think about how we could facilitate those unexpected encounters at the coffee machine in a different way. We’ve partly solved it with internal webinars and community events, but sometimes, you need chaos and inefficiency to create crazy, inspiring conversations and ideas. Fortunately, I hear from project staff and students that they experience little delay, precisely because they can work calmly and with focus. But everyone is looking forward to a physical meeting place with its dynamics, social cohesion and room for creativity.”

Eindhoven Engine Maarten Steinbuch BvOF
Steinbuch: “The biggest challenge was getting scientists to feel and experience together that collaborations beyond the boundaries of their faculty are also worthwhile.” Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

TRL 4 to 6

How does Eindhoven Engine compare to Eaisi? After all, they both revolve around co-location for applied research at the border between industry and science. “They have nothing to do with each other,” says Steinbuch firmly. “Eindhoven Engine isn’t part of the university like Eaisi. We’re completely separate. Moreover, Eindhoven Engine focuses on the broad spectrum of themes that are relevant to Brainport. We have projects from the high-tech manufacturing industry, but also from architecture, life sciences, chemistry and smart mobility. We include all the institutes of TUE, plus everything that happens at TNO and Fontys, as long as it’s relevant for the Brainport region. And the engineers from industry actually come to work on location. That’s also different from research institutes such as the HTSC and Eaisi. Only scientists from different faculties come together there.”

“Eaisi could be a customer of Eindhoven Engine,” Pahnke expresses the relationship. “Another clear distinction is that university institutes are often involved in more fundamental research. Eindhoven Engine is much closer to the application. We aim for technology readiness levels 4-6. Generally, this will be lower at Eaisi.”

To illustrate the type of research within Eindhoven Engine: ASML uses the disruptive nature of that environment to tinker with the next generation of wafer stages. The company wants to look outside its comfort zone, free from its established design principles, for innovative alternatives. After all, a different view of the matter could lead to groundbreaking solutions. The researchers are trying to do this within the Eindhoven Engine project “Advanced piezo-electric wafer stage.”

When asked about the ultimate goal of Eindhoven Engine, Steinbuch states: “I think we’ll have succeeded when, in a few years, employees of companies in the region will say to their boss: “Can I take a sabbatical and work in Eindhoven Engine for three months?” I would be proud when Eindhoven Engine becomes the place to be for researchers, engineers and others to come together. Or in mechatronics terms: when we become the new Philips CFT. I would also love it when similar initiatives arise in Munich, Lausanne, Aalborg or Enschede, for example. And finally, we would be over the moon when companies start a branch in Eindhoven Engine as a disruptor for themselves.”