Q&A With UW-Madison’s Robert Lorenz


Professor Robert Lorenz, Ph.D, pictured with his lab students.
Prof. Robert Lorenz (far right) pictured with his laboratory students this summer.

Professor Robert Lorenz, Ph.D., is an award-winning pioneer in electric engineering, research director and highly-praised professor, whom the University of Wisconsin-Madison is lucky to call its own. Currently, Lorenz is facilitating the Automatic Controls Laboratory course in which graduate students of the Department of Engineering Professional Development are working hard to ace the class in pursuit of their master’s degrees.

The Automatic Controls Laboratory course provides experience in designing, constructing and debugging real-time control systems, with emphasis on understanding theoretical controls design methods in practical environments. The course is currently being taught in a compressed setting during a three-week summer session. We caught up with Prof. Lorenz to see how the lab was going.

What are the students doing in the lab?

The students have all had the theory classes that are behind controls; in this lab, they get to build all the things they learn about. They build various types of controllers and see how the things they learn about in theory work. The students build a new controller each day in lab, they evaluate it, then they write a report on it. Yesterday they built current regulators to regulate torque. Today they are building motion controllers.

What is the schedule for this course?

This is a course that I teach during the semester in 15 weeks, but these students are here for less than 15 days because it’s a three-week summer intercession. So, they’re doing in 15 days what we do in 15 weeks in the semester. Each day they do equivalent to what happened that week in the class in one day. It’s the same material we cover in the semester, just compressed. The students are also full-time employees – they can’t stay here longer than three weeks because their companies want them back.

What is the objective of the lab?

A main objective of the lab is to experience what the limitations are of physical systems. The theory which they have already learned only goes so far, then you have to see the limits of realistic applications. They’re learning about the limits by experiments. Conducting experiments is important because simulations don’t show you limits. You never put things you don’t know about in a simulation, and, as a result, you don’t see those limits. You can’t find limits through simulations unless you know how to put them in.

What is the outcome expected for this course?

The outcome of the course is for the students to acquire knowledge and skills that are top of the industry to benefit their careers and their companies. The stuff that they do as we progress through the course, it’s stuff that was in research publications a few years ago and now it’s finally being done. They’re seeing things that very few people have seen or built. The students build this advanced stuff here, which pushes them ahead of their peers when they leave. It’s a nice place to be. They are put at a point of knowledge and experience that is way beyond the norm. It also puts them in a great position to help their firms to grow, to do things they don’t necessarily do today or haven’t even thought about doing. The students leave knowing things they can take back to their companies and use. Now there is someone who can walk in and say “I really can do this.” It really helps to effectively transfer technology for their companies. The companies benefit and so do the students’ careers.

How has the class changed from the past?

From the past 20 years, there are a few pieces of equipment in the lab that are the same but not very many! It’s the experiments that have changed dramatically with all this new advanced technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Things that were in dissertations then are now being taught here now, knowledge that was created 20 years ago but wasn’t really pushed into the field – now it’s pushed. Now it’s the future.

For example, I have a student whose boss happens to be someone who took this class about 20 years ago. Her boss told her, “This is a really good class, this is probably the best one you can take.” That’s why she’s here. She’s getting great experience and learning things that she would never have learned otherwise. And this stuff she’s learning is way ahead of the industry and obviously way ahead the stuff they learned 20 years ago. She is creating a really advanced set of knowledge, and she’ll be able to take that knowledge back companies to improve them. It’s nice to see that happen.

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