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Interview: How Mechanical Engineering Powers the World

Returning to the JKU after a professorship in Vienna, Prof. Michael Krommer talks about a new chapter in Mechatronics.

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Prof. Michael Krommer came full circle on February 1 of this year: As a mechatronics student at the JKU, he began his academic and scientific career at the Institute of Technical Mechanics. After a professorship at the Vienna University of Technology, he is returning to the JKU as Prof. Hans Irschik’s successor. This not only marks the beginning of a generational change in the field of mechatronics at the JKU, it also opens a new chapter in Mechatronics, going hand-in-hand with the new academic degree program in Mechanical Engineering. Isabella Staska (head of Research Services and Knowledge Transfer at the JKU) spoke with Prof. Krommer about a new era of Mechatronics and his passion for the broad range of mechanical engineering.

Prof. Krommer, since you are very familiar with the JKU, I can probably spare you the initial question of asking how well you have settled in?

Krommer (laughs): Yes, thank you, I still know many people here - at least in the area of mechatronics – and I have known them for a long time, especially since I studied here, too. I can find my way around the JKU very well. My office currently overlooks the construction of the Science Park 5 building. I feel right at home again because the last time I was at the JKU, I could see construction for the Science Park 2 building from my office... I like the Science Park’s open concept in particular as it facilitates direct interaction with students. I missed this kind of everyday interaction at the JKU when I was at the TU in Vienna as they have a very large student body there.

You studied Mechatronics here at the JKU. Did you find the program difficult back then?

Krommer: I graduated from an AHS school. One might be inclined to think that I would have a certain disadvantage compared to HTL school graduates but I always considered this an advantage. I think if there is a high level of mathematics at an AHS school, you can easily keep up with the HTL school graduates right from the start of the program.

Starting a degree program has changed somewhat since then, hasn’t it?

Krommer: Yes, for engineering sciences - meaning electronics and information technology, polymer engineering technologies, mechanical engineering and mechatronics - the first year is largely the same for all degree programs. This means I am trying to teach mechanics in a way that mechatronics engineering students, mechanical engineering students, polymer engineering students, and medical engineering students not only learn and understand the same basics, but also recognize the important role mechanics plays in their studies. Although this can certainly be quite a challenge, I find it exciting as I consider my view of mechanics to very broad anyway.

I consider myself a layman so how can you best explain the subject of mechanics to me?

Krommer: Mechanics is basically about describing how material bodies move, i.e. bodies with mass, based on laws of physics in mechanical sciences. However, when we’re talking about engineering sciences, these laws are applied to practical engineering problems. For example, this could be steel strips in rolling mills for the steel industry, but also electro-active polymers and elastomers. Departments in soft matter physics and polymer technologies at the JKU are currently conducting research on the latter. It could also be biological systems subject to natural growth as they are also always in motion. The exciting aspect for us is observing how these diverse moving structures behave, how we can describe them as well as how we can efficiently simulate and measure them. New, problem-oriented methods are being developed in both base-knowledge and applied research projects to address specific problems also applicable to other projects. For example, a research project with Primetals focused on developing a new simulation method for axially moving steel strips. These can also be applied to biological structures and their growth.

Can your research approaches only be applied to large-scale industrial projects?

Krommer: No, on the contrary, our method-oriented research allows us to apply our findings to large industrial companies as well as to small and mid-sized companies. We have a well-equipped vibration measurement laboratory that could be great interest to small and mid-sized companies when, for example, there are problems with vibrations and sound radiation that needs to be checked out using technical measuring equipment. In addition to a scanning laser vibrometer, we also have equipment to measure sound and localize sound sources. And - as much as we can say at the moment given the current circumstances - we will also have a project at the upcoming Ars Electronica Festival scheduled to take place here on campus. The project is about making sound artistically visible by combining vibration measurement technology and sound measurement.

What are your main areas of research at the Institute of Technical Mechanics?

Krommer: My interests lie in the entire spectrum of mechanics and engineering, precisely because the field is so broad and especially today, there are many very important areas ranging from high-rise buildings to bridges with several hundred meters of mechanical structures in the nano area. This is why I don't want the institute to maintain a rather narrow focus of research as in the past, but rather keep research and education as broad and open as possible. There are, of course, areas in which I would like to position ourselves a little more strongly than before, for example in the field of smart materials and structures and in the area of computational mechanics so that we can continue enhancing our international visibility.

Are there any special conferences planned at the JKU in the near future?

Krommer: Yes, for example, we have managed to attract the 37th annual Danubia-Adria Symposium on experimental mechanics to our campus this fall. We have future plans for additional international conferences at the JKU, especially in the area of smart materials and structures, in association with my activities as a member of board of directors for the International Association for Structural Control and Monitoring as well as my involvement in several scientific advisory boards for conferences.

How would you describe the way you typically think and conduct research?

Krommer: Interdisciplinary, lively and open, scientifically challenging and always with the thought: how will this benefit society? in the back of my mind.