3° with John Wen

by Michael Mullaney on August 30, 2011

John Wen is director of the Rensselaer Center for Automation Technologies and Systems, and a professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering. We ask John about his work:

Q:  The first question is easy: So how much fun is it to work with and build robots?

A: Robots bring mathematics and theory to life. They are a wonderful embodiment and integration of many disciplines—from kinematics, dynamics, vision, estimation, and control, to planning, reasoning, and learning.

This question is tougher. Your research interests include nonlinear control. What exactly is nonlinear control?

Systems are either nonlinear or linear.  A nonlinear system changes its behavior depending on where it operates. For example, a robot with its arm folded up close to its torso moves faster than when its arm is outstretched, because the inertia is smaller in the arm-folded configuration. Nonlinear control tries to achieve consistent performance for such systems, by compensating for differences created by the nonlinearity.

As director of CATS, you work with many local and state businesses. What are your thoughts on the decline of U.S. manufacturing over the past 20 or so years?

Manufacturing is the anchor of a healthy economy. Like everyone, I have seen a steady flow of manufacturing jobs move to other countries. Commodity manufacturing, for example, is all but gone from the United States. However, in working with many companies through CATS, I have also seen how companies can use technological innovation and a focus on quality to maintain manufacturing competitiveness, create U.S. jobs, and grow business. For many companies, particularly start-ups, government R&D funding together with private investments are crucial for taking ideas to the prototype and then production stage.

Say a little more about this.

I am gratified to see recent federal and state government initiatives in forming public-private partnerships, with leadership and participation from [Rensselaer President] Dr. Jackson. Many of these efforts aim to propel advanced manufacturing, particularly related to clean energy and advanced materials.  Such renewed national and state commitment can also generate excitement in the general public and motivate students to pursue science and technology as careers. Sustained commitment like this will be needed to rejuvenate U.S. manufacturing.

You invented a very cool microscope. Tell me a bit about it.

The Adaptive Scanning Optical Microscope was motivated by a key limitation of conventional optical microscope that everyone is familiar with—the trade-off between the size of view and image resolution.  We had worked with a company on laser scanning, and it occurred to us—why not use the same scanning technology for imaging? This was a true opto-mechatronics project—combining optics, mechanical design, electronics, and control to achieve new overall outstanding system functionality.  This technology has received two patents and has been licensed to Thorlabs. It is particularly useful for viewing motile organisms, analyzing pathology slides, and inspecting on assembly line.

Along with being a professor and center director at Rensselaer, you’re an alum. What has changed here since you received your doctorate in 1985?

The campus has been transformed, with gleaming new buildings such as EMPAC, Biotech, and ECAV. Downtown Troy is also a lot nicer, with good restaurants and the fabulous farmers market. What has not changed:  the sense of collegiality and camaraderie that is the hallmark of Rensselaer.

What’s the last good movie you saw? How about a book recommendation?

For movies: The King’s Speech, and The Social Network. For books: Rhythm of Life, a wonderful introduction on circadian rhythm—accessible but not dumbed way down.  Also, Lost City of Z, a harrowing account of adventure and passion in the Amazon jungle.

To see more about John and CATS, click here and here. And definitely click here, too. (Okay, one more here.)