Hofstra’s new approach to mechatronic mastery

Kevin Craig: Mecha man.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

An innovative Hofstra University certificate program is speeding professional engineers toward the multidisciplinary systems expertise required by 21st century dynamics.

By focusing on mechatronics – the crossroads of mechanical, electronic, computerized and control systems – the new certificate program serves two masters, notes creator Kevin Craig, a Hofstra mechanical engineering professor who directs the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Center for Innovation.

Not only does the program save practicing engineers time and money while they upgrade their professional skills, it lets those engineers immediately apply their new knowledge on the job – an instant benefit for companies hungry for a competitive edge.

The big idea behind the Mechatronics Certificate Program for Practicing Engineers, Craig said, is an alternative to the “antiquated, ineffective professional education system we call graduate studies at the university level.” For professional engineers requiring new skills, one common option is pursuit of a new master’s degree, but that’s a “fairly disjointed” choice, according to Craig.

“They’re eight to 10 courses,” he told Innovate LI. “They cost a lot of money. They take a lot of time. They’re usually on campus or even a distance program, with very little integration, and usually these are professional people with families who might not be able to head to the campus two nights a week.

“And they’re not application-specific, so ultimately, the students are left to try to apply what they learned to their jobs,” Craig added. “So they spend two years and $40,000, and what do they have, besides something to hang on the wall?”

The innovator’s solution is the largely online Mechatronics Certificate Program, which incorporates weekly video chats with professors and monthly half-day laboratory sessions for hands-on reinforcement – also available via video streaming, for busy professionals who just can’t make it.

Broken into monthly modules, the program is designed to give engineers the cutting-edge mechatronics knowledge they need by combining what Craig termed “academic rigor and the best industry practices” with the latest distance-learning technologies – and to do it all in just 12 months, for just $7,200.

“This is for practicing engineers who realize their discipline-specific training can’t help them solve multidisciplinary problems,” Craig said. “They need enhanced training. So, one year and you’re done.”

Craig already has the 12-module course load mapped out. Essentially, the modules will be split between four main focuses – automation, fluid power, automotive sciences and office/home systems – with case studies from each focus area highlighting mechatronics principles.

Like any advanced-degree engineering program, the Mechatronics Certificate Program incorporates plenty of traditional graduate-level know-how, though how the information is disseminated – and how modern mechatronics principles factor in – looms large.

“I took all this content and re-bundled it,” Craig said. “It’s the re-bundling that’s key. You can have the best teacher in the world, but if you’re presenting the same old content in the same old way, it’s ineffective.”

Scheduled to kick off in January with an inaugural class of 12 engineers, the program is now accepting applications. While a dozen students is his “minimum expectation” for the first class, Craig said his goal is not to enroll engineers one at a time, but to have regional companies recognize the value of a fast-track, all-purpose advanced mechatronics training program.

“We don’t want engineers to enroll all on their own,” he said. “We want companies to say ‘Wow, what a great way to elevate our engineering workforce and gain a competitive advantage!’”

Strengthening regional commercial ties is a big part of the Center for Innovation’s strategy. The center is currently working through three-month R&D arrangements with two Long Island companies: Stony Brook-based energy-efficiency startup ThermoLift and the Westbury office of Oerlikon Metco, a Switzerland-based surface-solutions provider.

Hofstra students and professors have been working with ThermoLift engineers on a design that would allow the ThermoLift heat-pump’s pistons to operate more quietly – and ThermoLift has been so impressed, Craig noted, that it recently signed up for a three-month Center for Innovation extension.

“We envision that we’ll be working with ThermoLift for some time to come,” the professor said.

Oerlicon Metco also has a unique design problem. The global spray-coating expert works often with fine powders and inert gases that must blend in exacting proportions – but the cabinets in which the powders are stored, Craig noted, tend to vibrate, mucking up the mixtures.

Just weeks into its Oerlicon Metco collaboration, the Center for Innovation is “looking at vibration mitigation, electronic filtering and cabinet redesign,” Craig added, “so they can tackle this problem very aggressively.”

The innovation center has also been working with Procter & Gamble, an international titan with whom Craig has a prior relationship. The professor previously helped train Procter & Gamble engineers on mechatronics principles – “They were sort of my first long-term customer, in terms of training engineers,” he said – and is now bringing the Center for Innovation’s creative might to bear on the major-league manufacturer’s conveyer-belt quandaries.

“Procter & Gamble gets its competitive advantage from doing things better than anybody else, especially when it comes to their machines,” Craig noted. “Better than Kimberly-Clark or anyone else. So when there’s an interruption in bottle-filling or material-handling, they need to be able to make real-time programming changes so they don’t sacrifice their efficiency.”

It’s a major engineering challenge – and exactly the kind of mechatronic throw-down that gets the Center for Innovation’s blood pumping, the director noted.

That same enthusiasm fuels the new certificate program, which is also designed to strengthen bonds between Hofstra University’s engineering school and the regional employers who will need skilled help later, and a refresher course right now.

“This is where education is going,” Craig noted. “Companies don’t care how many diplomas you have. They want engineers who can get the job done.

“This is all about doing what we can right now to give companies the competitive advantages they desperately need,” he added. “These companies can’t wait. They need their engineers to be effective today. They need them enhanced right now.”

 


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