Last November, he received the 2021 ASPE Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society for Precision Engineering (ASPE). Jan van Eijk looks back at how he gained a foothold in the US with Dutch knowledge and know-how.
Jan van Eijk typically reacts soberly when congratulated with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the ASPE. “During the award ceremony, I pointed out that I see it as a token of recognition for the quality of mechatronics and precision technology in the Netherlands. I was sent to the US as a delegate about twenty years ago to develop relationships. This award is an appreciation from that professional group in the US that we’ve achieved considerable quality and effectiveness in that area in our region. I just had the pleasure of representing the Netherlands.”
Van Eijk is downgrading his own achievements a little bit. After all, it’s by no means straightforward to convince the Americans of the Dutch qualities in mechatronics and precision technology. Van Eijk still remembers his first presentation at an ASPE conference in 2001. “On behalf of Philips, I had to ensure that we would play a role in that community.” He bought a three-piece suit for the occasion. “In the American technical world, that’s very unusual, so everyone knew straight away that there was a weird guy walking around,” he says, laughingly.
In his presentation, Van Eijk emphasized the differences between the Dutch and American cultures. “At that time, KLM was negotiating a possible merger with an American airline. They didn’t get anywhere because the styles and cultures clashed. The American focus on quick money versus the long-term vision at KLM,” recalls Van Eijk, who then dropped a bomb in his audience. “I said, ‘I was sent here to cooperate with you, but I think it’s a mission impossible because Americans and Dutch can’t do that at all.’” He had made an unforgettable first impression.
Though it’s not all that black and white, Van Eijk hastens to add. “Of course, there are executives and engineers in the US who prefer the long term over the fast buck. We sometimes have that image of Americans in the Netherlands, but in practice, it turns out that it’s not too bad.”
However, Van Eijk’s deliberately provocative comment does make sense. He based himself on research by the Dutch organizational psychologist Geert Hofstede, who mapped different cultures in the world along six dimensions. One of those axes is long-term thinking. The most recent data from research agency Hofstede Insights shows that the Netherlands scores 67 out of 100 points there, and the US only 26.
An important reason why the Dutch excel in mechatronics – “no, that isn’t arrogance,” stresses Van Eijk – is linked to one of Hofstede’s other dimensions: masculinity. “How we work together in the Netherlands is fairly unique in the world,” Van Eijk points out. “Norway and Sweden are pretty close, but most other countries score much higher on the masculinity axis.” Hofstede Insights gives the Netherlands a 14 there, compared to a 62 for the US. “It’s about behavior within companies, about wanting to be the main guy. In American companies, it’s appreciated when a boss is masculine, decisive and self-aware. It must be a macho, maybe even a bit of a bastard. In the Netherlands, soft elements such as empathy and a collaborative approach play much more important roles. In this, we’re drastically different from many other countries. If someone here calls me “Mr. Professor,” I think I’m being played, when even across the border, in Germany, that’s common practice.”
The typical polder approach, the consensus-oriented way of solving problems, is an excellent starting point for mechatronic design, notes Van Eijk. “When you want to find the best solution, you have to work together at a high level because of the multidisciplinary character of the field. You need specialists in electronics, control engineering and mechanics. But when they all want to be the alpha male, it won’t work.”
It’s a wise lesson that Van Eijk learned from another Dutch mechatronics guru: Rien Koster. In the mid-80s, Koster started an ambitious project at Philips. His idea was to pull the super specialists from the various disciplines out of their cubicles and have them work together on a mechatronic system. The project, called Fast and Accurate 86 (FA86), seemed a guaranteed success, but in practice, the top players from mechanics, electronics, control technology, software and metrology only quarreled. “They all wanted to be the top dog,” says Van Eijk.
After a year, Koster pulled the plug and started over, but this time with a much better awareness of the challenge that when you put all those alpha males together, collaboration doesn’t come naturally. In the end, FA86 delivered the FAMM robot, a two-armed system with gigantic direct drive motors that you would normally find in a submarine. The FAMM (Fast and Accurate Manipulator Module) was so strong and so fast that other robots paled in comparison. Unfortunately, the industry wasn’t interested in such an expensive solution to a problem that they could also solve with twenty small robots.
Despite the technological success, Koster took that experience to heart and made it one of his missions to change the culture. “The general trend in the Netherlands at the time was already moving towards collaboration, but top technical specialists were eager to show that they were the best. That’s how they were trained,” observes Van Eijk, who still wholeheartedly endorses Koster’s vocation.
A result of the missionary work is the mechatronics training that started at Philips in 1989 – and can still be followed at High Tech Institute. “The main message of that course is that if you want to do proper mechatronics, you have to collaborate closely,” says Van Eijk, who has instilled that idea as a teacher on nearly two thousand students. “In the introduction, I always say that I have no intention to turn a mechanical engineer into a control technician, or vice versa, but that I hope that afterward, they’ll respect each other’s field of expertise, be curious about the challenges of the other and dare to climb out of their foxholes to explain themselves, and thereby do the valuable exercise of looking at their own work from a distance.”
This Dutch approach is also highly valued in the US. According to Van Eijk, knowledge sharing is one of the main contributions of the Dutch high-tech industry to its American colleagues. “Of course, you have a lot of American super specialists in the field of mechanical design, but they’re really interested to learn about that different approach,” finds Van Eijk. “In the US, it isn’t customary to take courses. It’s starting to happen a little around ASML’s San Diego and Wilton locations now, but other tech companies won’t be sending their employees to a course on a regular basis. That’s why, there are tutorials prior to an ASPE conference, for example. Many Dutch specialists have already transferred our approach in bits and pieces there.”
Along this technical axis, Van Eijk – with the help of various other delegates such as Adrian Rankers, Theo Ruijl, Ton Peijnenburg, Dick Laro, Leon Jabben, Dannis Brouwer and Piet van Rens – has managed to build up good relations with the American mechatronics sector. Van Eijk: “They became increasingly curious about what is happening here in the Netherlands, visited us, attended conferences and now there are many partnerships with companies in the region.” Van Eijk’s Lifetime Achievement Award is a token of appreciation of that sector for the knowledge that American mechatronic engineers can get here.
This article was written in close collaboration with High Tech Institute.