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University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering

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Building Bridges to Industry — Nascent Partnership with Cummins Yields New Opportunities in Research, Education

By: 

Brian Allen
Dr. John C. Wall, chief technical officer of Cummins Inc., and Matthew Franchek, chairman of the UH mechanical engineering department and director of the biomedical engineering program. Photo by Jeff Shaw.

Cummins, Inc., a Fortune 500 company best known for its world-class diesel engines, is donating an engine dynamometer and engine to the UH Diesel Engine Controls Research Facility in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The company has also recently underwritten a $30,000 fellowship for UH mechanical engineering students, and has played host to two summer interns in its hometown headquarters in Columbus, Ind.

As generous as these gifts are, there is something even more valuable taking shape—a working partnership in research and education with a word-class corporation. Matthew Franchek, chairman of the University of Houston mechanical engineering department and director of the biomedical engineering program, has set out to forge many of these corporate partnerships and, in the case of Cummins, is working with long-time friend and Chief Technical Officer John C. Wall to bring this idea to fruition.

“We feel that we can’t grow our national visibility unless we partner with internationally visible companies, world-class companies,” says Franchek. “If we’re going to be world class, we’ve got to partner with world-class people like Cummins. They help educate us as faculty to relevant problems, they bring issues to light for us, provide funding for our students, provide an education for them on what it is like to build a product. And I think at the end of the day we have a very outstanding student, second to none.”

Cummins already has highly evolved research partnerships with the Purdue University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin. Wall, who has known Franchek since he was a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, sees great potential in the growing relationship between UH and Cummins:

“I expect one thing of a university research partner for Cummins—Be the best!” Wall says. “We cannot develop very many broad relationships—we just don’t have the people and the time. Based on our initial visits to Houston, I am confident that the university can play a key role in our ‘R&D continuum,’ especially in the areas of overall system dynamics and controls and exhaust after-treatment systems. I think Cummins can challenge the university to maintain high standards and can help focus its research work on solving problems that are important not only to Cummins but also to the engine and power systems industry and to the environment.”

Faculty in two engineering departments—chemical and mechanical engineering—are working together to form what Franchek calls an “unbeatable research triangle” that integrates disciplines to overcome the formidable challenges of meeting ever tougher environmental standards.

Michael Harold, chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering, agrees: “This triad works because chemical and mechanical bring different capabilities to the table. Mechanical brings expertise in engine control and diagnostics, and in combustion and engine understanding. Chemical brings expertise in after-treatment technology—in catalysis and reaction engineering—which goes into the catalytic converter technology.”

Harold says meeting the emissions requirements for diesel engines is complex, but well worth the pay off because of diesel’s superior fuel efficiency and durability.

“We need diesel,” Harold says. “It’s the engine of commerce and it’s not going away. If anything, we need strong growth in diesel vehicles because of their higher fuel economy. But meeting the emission reductions on these vehicles is a challenge because the exhaust is more difficult to clean up than the exhaust from gasoline vehicles. The technology that is under development to reduce soot and NOx emissions is highly sophisticated. The engine and the catalytic converter have to work in synergy with the help of sensors and an onboard computer. In fact, it is a case of the tail wagging the dog. ”

Two UH students, Javier Franco and Charudat Mehendale, spent last summer as visiting interns at Cummins, and both were deeply involved in real problem-solving efforts that are underway as the company develops its next-generation of diesel engines.

Franco, a master’s student, worked in the advanced engineering department, where he applied his knowledge of mathematics and physics to help resolve the torque estimation in relation to automatic transmission shifting—a project that will ultimately lead to smoother shifting, better drivability, and improved performance and fuel economy.

“Brake torque is the turning or twisting force available at the engine flywheel which ultimately is imparted to the automated manual transmission,” Franco explains. “One of our main concerns was accessory loading, things such as the air compressor, alternator, cooling fan. Those things take away from the amount of torque that is actually available to the transmission. One of our focuses was: How do we quantify the amount of lost torque from these accessories? Which one is the most important? We analyzed it, part-by-part, to show where they were losing torque and where they needed to improve.”

Charudatta Mehendale, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, worked at Cummins on the engine control module, the brain that controls the operation of the engine. He worked on the development of software that will arbitrate between the engine controller and the after-treatment controller. That process determines the correct amount of exhaust to be sent back into the engine—a process that ultimately lowers the amount of hazardous emissions such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, or soot.

“One thing Cummins does to reduce diesel emissions is called cooled EGR, which is exhaust gas re-circulation,” says Mehendale. “We take part of the exhaust, cool it, and then mix it with the charge going into the cylinder. But you need to control how much exhaust goes back into the charge, and my group developed the control algorithm that determines that amount.”

Both Franchek and Wall agree that a UH partnership with Cummins will produce not just a better progression of research practices for both organizations, but also a better education for the students, and ultimately a better engineer who is ready to contribute to industry in ways that will fuel invention and discovery.

“The key to success in the future is not just to develop new components and combustion systems but also to integrate them into effective systems that deliver customer value, such as better fuel economy, higher performance, and lower cost,” Wall says. “That means system engineering and interdisciplinary engineering skills will be required in addition to—not instead of—specific disciplinary skills in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, catalysis, etc.”

Franchek envisions UH playing a vital role in that process, and adds that the combination of academic and industry research creates a complementary pathway to better engineering education: “We have essentially two major universities that are going to educate students. We have the University of Houston, and then we have ‘Cummins University.’ And Cummins is going to teach students things that we can’t teach them here. Things like how to build a product. At the end of the day, our students are hyper competitive, super employable. From a student’s point of view, I can’t imagine a better education.”

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