Partnerships between electronics manufacturers and institutions of higher education are helping to prepare the next generation of engineering for real world challenges; this effort presents many benefits for both sides.
While at APEC this year, I became aware that Littelfuse was working with the University of Alabama (U of A) on the development of SiC power semiconductor devices during an APEC meeting with Littelfuse and Sujit Banerjee, CEO of Monolith Semiconductor in which we discussed university partnerships with industry. University of Alabama students are getting hands-on industry training from Littelfuse.
Why is industry working with universities? Universities can take risks that companies cannot. What company is going to dedicate an application engineer to a project for six months that might not have a payoff?
U of A research has resolved some tough problems for Littelfuse, and in exchange the students get solid real-world experience.
How did this partnership happen?
When Andy Lemmon was a PhD student at Mississippi State University in 2011, he worked a little bit with Kevin Matocha, PhD and Kiran Chatty, PhD, ultimately two of the Founders of Monolith Semiconductor, who were then working for a SiC start-up named SemiSouth right across the street from Mississippi State University. A few years later, Matocha and Chatty left SemiSouth and formed Monolith Semiconductor.
In 2014, Professor Lemmon gave a talk at APEC on module characterization work that his team at U of A was doing. Kevin Matocha was sitting in the front row and after the talk, Lemmon went over and shook Matocha’s hand, who mentioned that they had started a Silicon Carbide startup, and needed some help with device characterization. He asked if Lemmon was interested. Well, as a new assistant professor, anything that had the hint of potential collaboration, was extremely attractive. Lemmon later was introduced to the CEO of Monolith, Sujit Banerjee, PhD. A brief time after that, Lemmon had a research agreement to help Monolith do some device modeling and characterizations.
U of A leadership
I recently spoke to Professor Andy Lemmon from the University of Alabama. He is in his fifth year as an assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department there, shaping his students’ careers as well as their lives. Lemmon commented that “…mentoring graduate students is something that is really, really exciting, I suffer no delusions that the flow of the information is one way. I know that these guys teach me every bit as much as I'm teaching them.”
In a university environment, "students will have an inquisitiveness" remarked Lemmon, "they don't have enough experience to know which questions not to ask. And sometimes they ask questions that kind of challenge our preconceptions and make me kind of drop back and think, well why is that the way that this is always done?"
Lemmon told me that students appreciate the industry experience. About two years ago he taught the senior design course sequence, in which they were learning how to execute a project. Lemmon was perfect for this role since he was full-time engineer in industry for 10 years before he became a professor. I commented that some of my best professors, at NYU and Brooklyn Polytechnic University which I attended, were those that worked in the electronics industry.
U of A students participating in these joint projects will gain invaluable real-world experiences and opportunities not typically available in traditional university undergraduate programs. These include:
- Interfacing with industry partners through project update meetings (both in person and remotely) and even daily email exchanges– a critical aspect of any team-oriented project in industry.
- Exposure to practical project considerations that are sometimes overlooked in a university research lab setting.
- The opportunity to peek outside the research lab setting and see mainstream industry practices and trends. This benefits the students by not only exposing them to a broader knowledge base, but it also puts into perspective some of the research they are doing.
- The opportunity to network with an extensive list of industry experts, professors, and other students/peers.
- A chance for employment with the industry partner upon graduation.
- The U of A faculty has an opportunity to sharpen their skills and stay up-to-date on current industry practices.
From Littelfuse’s perspective, benefits of a partnership with the U of A include:
- The opportunity to publish content of a more technical nature than the typical editor articles.
- Insight into very innovative research that may one day give Littelfuse an advantage over competitors.
- Leveraging a team of very knowledgeable and capable engineers to perform a project that may not be necessarily justifiable to allocate resources to within the company.
- U of A students can be “interviewed” over a long period of time for future employment opportunities.
- Some members of Littelfuse may have the opportunity to participate in the educational process (e.g. sit on thesis/dissertation committees, etc.)
How does this partnership help Littelfuse manage the risk associated with emerging technologies?
Levi Gant, a former Applications Engineer at Monolith Semiconductor and now a Technical Marketing Engineer at Littelfuse, told me that SiC is an emerging technology, and because of that, some designers still have hesitation in implementing it into their new designs, in spite of all this technology’s good points and potential. He felt that the main reason was because there was not much in the way of long-term reliability studies. Littelfuse is attempting to ease some of these hesitations by showcasing SiC devices in real-world applications that may appeal to those interested in using this technology in their designs.
Monolith Semiconductor SiC MOSFETs (Image courtesy of Monolith Semiconductor)
Since Littelfuse’s resources were limited in using SiC technology and designing with it, the help of university resources would be advantageous in accomplishing such research. A university partnership would offer some unique perspectives into market trajectories and new designs that industry may be pursuing. One project that Lemmon’s group had worked on with Littelfuse came from a professional relationship that the U of A had with an applications group in the Data Center power supply arena. This effort guided and framed the parameters for the deliverable, which was a 10 kW power converter that Lemmon’s group designed for Littelfuse. This design became a talking point at several shows and in presentations.