Connected Systems Institute draws on UWM’s growth in corporate research

Higher Education & Research

Graduate students in the UWM battery lab built with support from Johnson Controls.

A $1.7 million contribution doesn’t amount to much compared to the nearly $350 million Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc. spent on research and development last year, but for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, it will help kickstart the latest research center on a campus that has seen corporate support for its work grow in recent years.

Rockwell’s donation will provide funding for the Connected Systems Institute, a new entity focused on helping companies navigate the arrival of Industry 4.0. Going beyond automation and robotics, Industry 4.0 incorporates data, communications, controls and sensors to bring together the cyber and physical spaces.

Graduate students in the UWM battery lab built with support from Johnson Controls.

Even before the announcement, Rockwell had been supporting the institute, which grew from a January 2016 meeting between UWM leadership and Microsoft chief executive officer and UWM alumnus Satya Nadella. Rockwell provided a planning grant to help develop a vision for the institute and allow a team to travel the world to see what’s being done in similar centers.

“We came back with a plan,” said Adel Nasiri, associate dean for research and a professor in UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science.

The plan includes an institute that focuses on applied research, creating state-of-the-art facilities and developing talent for the region. One element of the plan calls for the institute to have an end-to-end approach that looks at Industry 4.0 from the machine or device level, to the production line, and up to the entire factory or company. When fully built out in the Golda Meir Library, the institute will have equipment allowing companies to simulate their factories, visualize their data networks and try different placements of sensors and equipment.

“Data by itself, of course, means nothing. You’ve got to convert that data to some sort of knowledge,” Nasiri said.

He said there are many companies that have moved into automation and robotics, but many have not taken the next to step to capture or analyze data in a meaningful way.

“A lot of companies don’t know how to start,” Nasiri said. “One person handling things is not going to be the answer.”

The CSI’s physical space will initially be 3,000 square feet, but will eventually expand to 10,000 square feet. It will allow companies with complex problems to work directly with UWM faculty on proprietary work to address their challenges. But beyond the applied research, a major mission of the institute is to develop a talent base for companies to tap.

Nasiri said the CSI will develop everything from a certificate to a master’s degree program and that there is already interest from students. One initial program will be a four-day course through the Lubar School of Business called the Connected Systems Challenge. Business and engineering faculty will help attendees, ideally executives, understand where their businesses could apply connected systems.

UWM chancellor Mark Mone has said the institute will ultimately need a $5 million to $10 million endowment. Nasiri said he feels good about fundraising as work continues on the institute’s structure and governance.

Research has been a growing priority at UWM, with the university receiving a top-tier designation in 2016. Corporate involvement in research has also been growing, averaging $2.75 million in annual funding over the past five years, accounting for about 9 percent of external research awards.

UWM’s rise in the world of research began a little more than a decade ago under then-chancellor Carlos Santiago. At the same time, Johnson Controls International plc began to increase its interest in working with universities to develop battery technologies, said Craig Rigby, advanced market and technology strategist at Johnson Controls.

The relationship with Johnson Controls has been one of the more high-profile corporate partnerships at UWM. The company funded an endowed chair position in 2010, participated in the search for someone to fill the position and helped build out lab space on the UWM campus. The company has also funded millions of dollars in research projects, including just last year when the UW System Board of Regents approved work statements for two additional projects worth nearly $600,000.

One project focused on different techniques for manufacturing lead grids in batteries. A longer project is focused on electrolyte additives in absorbent glass mat batteries. AGM batteries allow for start-stop functions in car engines and JCI is working to triple its U.S. AGM production capacity to 50 million by 2020.

Rigby said the assumption might be that university research is focused on theoretical ideas or developments that may not come to market for years. The reality is much of the work JCI does with UWM translates into the company’s products, whether it’s in AGM batteries or even the traditional lead-acid battery.

“There’s still ways to make those batteries better,” he said.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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