Last November, Jan van Eijk received the 2021 ASPE Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society for Precision Engineering (ASPE). As one of the driving forces behind the Dutch mechatronics industry in recent decades, Van Eijk has left his mark on the Americans as well. In this first of two articles, we look back at how he gained a foothold in the US with Dutch knowledge and knowhow. Jan van Eijk is co-founder of Mechatronics Academy, providing all mechatronics trainings for High Tech Institute.

 

Jan van Eijk typically reacts soberly when Mechatronica&Machinebouw congratulates him with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the ASPE. “During the award ceremony, I pointed out that I see it as a token of recognition for the quality of mechatronics and precision technology in the Netherlands. I was sent to the US as a delegate about twenty years ago to develop relationships. This award is an appreciation from that professional group in the US that we have achieved considerable quality and effectiveness in that area in our region. I just had the pleasure of representing the Netherlands.”

Van Eijk is downgrading his own achievements a little bit. After all, it is by no means evident to convince the Americans of our qualities in mechatronics and precision technology. Van Eijk still remembers his first presentation at an ASPE conference in 2001. “On behalf of Philips, I had to ensure that we would play a role in that community.” Van Eijk bought a three-piece suit for the occasion. “In the American technical world that is very unusual, so everyone knew straight away that there was a weird guy walking around”, he laughs.

 

“Dare to climb out of your foxhole and explain yourself”, advises Jan van Eijk. “It will give you a valuable view on your own work.”

 

In his presentation, Van Eijk emphasized the differences between the Dutch and American cultures. “At that time, KLM was negotiating a possible merger with an American airline. They didn’t get anywhere because the styles and cultures clashed. The focus on quick money with the Americans against the long-term vision at KLM”, says Van Eijk, who then dropped a bomb in his audience. “I said, “I was sent here to cooperate with you, but I think it’s a mission impossible because Americans and Dutch can’t do that at all.” Van Eijk had made an unforgettable first impression.

He hastens to say that it is not all so black and white. “Of course there are executives and engineers in the US who prefer the long term over the fast buck. We sometimes have that image of Americans in the Netherlands, but in practice it turns out that it is not too bad.”

However, Van Eijk’s deliberately provocative comment does make sense. He based himself on research by the Dutch organizational psychologist Geert Hofstede, who mapped different cultures in the world along six dimensions. One of those axes revolves around long-term thinking. The most recent data from research agency Hofstede Insights shows that the Netherlands scores 67 out of 100 points in this area, and the US only 26.

Alpha males

An important reason why the Dutch excel in mechatronics – “no, that isn’t arrogance”, according to Van Eijk – is linked to one of Hofstede’s other dimensions: masculinity. “The way in which we work together in the Netherlands is fairly unique in the world”, explains Van Eijk. “Norway and Sweden are pretty close, but otherwise most countries score much higher on the masculinity axis.” Hofstede Insights gives the Netherlands a 14 on that axis, compared to a 62 for the US. “It’s about behavior within companies, about wanting to be the main guy. In American companies, it is appreciated when a boss is masculine, decisive and self-aware. It must be a macho, maybe even a bit of a bastard. In the Netherlands, soft elements such as empathy and a collaborative approach play much more important roles. In this, we are drastically different from many other countries. If someone here calls me “Mr. Professor” I think I’m being tricked, when even across the border, in Germany, that’s common practice.”

The typical polder approach, the consensus-oriented way of solving problems, is an excellent starting point for mechatronic design, says Van Eijk. “When you want to find the best solution, you have to work together at a high level because of the multidisciplinary character of the field. You need specialists in electronics, control engineering and mechanics. But when they all want to be the alpha male, it won’t work.”

“When you want to find the best solution, you have to work together at a high level because of the multidisciplinary character of the field.”

It is a wise lesson that Van Eijk learned from another Dutch mechatronics guru: Rien Koster. In the mid-eighties, Koster started an ambitious project at Philips. His idea was to pull the super specialists from the various disciplines out of their cubicles and have them work together on a mechatronic system. Fast and Accurate 86 (FA86) the project was named. The plan seemed a guaranteed success, but in practice the top players from mechanics, electronics, control technology, software and metrology only quarreled. “They all wanted to be the top dog”, says Van Eijk.

After a year, Koster pulled the plug and started over, but this time with a much better awareness of the challenge that when you put all those alpha males together, cooperation does not come naturally. In the end, FA86 delivered the FAMM robot, a two-armed system with gigantic direct drive motors that you would normally find in a submarine. The FAMM (‘fast and accurate manipulator module’) was so strong and so fast that other robots were pale in comparison. Unfortunately, the industry was not waiting for such an expensive solution to a problem that they could also solve with twenty small robots.

Out of your foxhole

Despite the technological success, Koster took that experience to heart and made it one of his missions to change the culture. “The general trend in the Netherlands at the time was already moving towards collaboration, but top technical specialists were eager to show that they were the best. That is how they were trained”, says Van Eijk, who still wholeheartedly endorses Koster’s vocation.

A result of the mission work is the mechatronics training that started at Philips in 1989 – and the mechatronics trainings can still be followed at the High Tech Institute. “The main message of that course is that if you want to do proper mechatronics, you have to collaborate closely”, says Van Eijk, who has instilled that idea as a teacher on nearly two thousand students. “In the introduction I always say that I have no intention to turn a mechanical engineer into a control technician, or vice versa, but that I hope that afterwards they will respect each other’s field of expertise, be curious about the challenges of the other, and dare to climb out of their foxholes to explain themselves, and thereby do the valuable exercise of looking at their own work from a distance.”

This Dutch approach is also highly valued in the US. According to Van Eijk, knowledge sharing is one of the main contributions of the Dutch high-tech industry to its American colleagues. “Of course you have a lot of American super specialists in the field of mechanical design, but they are really interested to hear that different approach”, says Van Eijk. “In the US, it is not customary to take courses such as our mechatronics trainings. It’s starting to happen a little around ASML’s San Diego and Wilton locations now, but other tech companies won’t be sending their employees to a course on a regular base. Tutorials are therefore given prior to an ASPE conference, for example, in which many Dutch specialists have already transferred our approach in bits and pieces.”

Along this technical axis, Van Eijk – with the help of various other delegates such as Adrian Rankers, Theo Ruijl, Ton Peijnenburg, Dick Laro, Leon Jabben, Dannis Brouwer and Piet van Rens – has managed to build up good relations with the American mechatronics sector. Van Eijk: “They became increasingly curious about what is happening here in the Netherlands, visited us, attended conferences and now there are many partnerships with companies in the region.” Van Eijks Lifetime Achievement Award is a token of appreciation of that sector for the knowledge that American mechatronical engineers can get here.

This article is written by Alexander Pil, tech editor of Mechatronica&Machinebouw.  Trainer Jan van Eijk. 

Jan van Eijk is one of the founders of Mechatronics Academy. Check out the mechatronics trainings here.