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The Role of Universities in Power Electronics Innovation

By Posted on November 5, 2015

Keith Evans

Guest Blogger: Keith Evans
President & CEO Kyma Technologies and
President, Power Electronics Industry Collaborative (PEIC)

Global innovation in power electronics involves a broad set of institutions, including large private companies, universities, and government agencies. While the role of private companies and government agencies in the ecosystem is well-defined, the role of universities is more dynamic. In the US, universities play three major roles for the power electronics industry: attracting engineers to the field of power electronics, training power electronics students to become productive members of the workforce, and developing new technology and intellectual property.

In recent years, the university system has fulfilled some of these roles better than others. This question was recently presented to members of the US power electronics industry as part of a survey, which fielded this past August and September on behalf of the Power Electronics Industry Collaborative. As part of our effort to understand the major innovations in the industry and challenges facing the US in power electronics manufacturing, we asked respondents, “What do you think the US universities are currently doing well to serve the power electronics industry?” The results points to the strength of the university system at providing technical and introductory information but with less recognition for its role in more advanced development and education.

Keith Evans Blog
Source: PEIC/NextEnergy

Of the three primary roles of the universities in the power electronics ecosystem, the industry is most positive about the training being provided to power electronics students. However, the number of power electronics programs in the US is waning. Over the past few years, many of the power electronics specialized degree programs have been discontinued. In addition, the limited programs in power electronics are attracting primarily international students. This helps to explain the gap between the perceived strength of providing quality training and exposure to power engineers, but the relative weakness in attracting new interest at the university level.

A concerted unified effort should be made to attract domestic talent into power engineering. The respondents were least likely to mention the universities ability to spin out new IP and new technology. In fact, a recent DOE funding announcement for development of a trainee program corroborates this survey finding. This challenge was further confirmed elsewhere in the survey which revealed that innovation for the industry needs are being met by R&D from private companies fully in house (48% of respondents) or through partnerships with other private companies (24%). Additionally, Zilai Zhao, Secretary and Treasurer of PEIC, states “as an industry consortium, PEIC often hears of the challenge to develop the workforce for the power electronics industry. We recognize that a key part of workforce development is to ensure the pipeline of innovation for the industry remains robust.” As a result, there may be opportunity for increased collaboration between universities and industry.

Overall, universities are an integral component of the innovation ecosystem for power electronics. While there are certain things that the universities are doing well, there is a lot of potential for improvement through increased collaboration with industry to better fulfill the three primary roles. By showcasing the importance and relevance of power electronics to solving important problems in collaboration with the needs of industry, universities can better provide technical training, attract more talent, and help develop new intellectual property in power electronics. By doing so, it can reverse the waning trend of power electronics at the university level.

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