Distinguished University Professor lecture
Koren to discuss robotics, dreams and timing in talk
By Nicole Casal Moore, News Service
Without proper timing, dreams will remain only dreams. That’s the mantra of a mechanical engineering professor who, in his career thus far, has changed the course of both robotics and manufacturing.
In his inaugural lecture as the James J. Duderstadt Distinguished University Professor of Manufacturing in the College of Engineering, Yoram Koren will discuss his scientific contributions as well as his philosophy. His talk is titled “On Dreams and Timing.”
Distinguished University Professor is the highest professorial title granted at U-M. A reception will follow the lecture at 4 p.m. on March 27 in the Rackham Amphitheatre.
“To realize dreams,” Koren says, “they must be based on realistic foundations and pursued at the appropriate time. You can call it luck. I call it timing.”
Koren cites as an example the founding of the university’s National Science Foundation-sponsored Engineering Research Center for Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems, which he accomplished in 1996.
Industry support was an NSF condition for the prestigious center. Koren turned to the Big Three, which were able to help generously. In the center’s first 14 years, it received close to $50 million from government and industry sources. Many of the tools it created are used in manufacturing around the world today.
“Suppose I was trying to get a center like that in 2008, when the auto industry was in crisis,” Koren says. “You can do exactly the same thing but the circumstances around you allow you to succeed or fail.”
Koren widely is considered the father of reconfigurable manufacturing systems, an innovation that made factory floors responsive enough to adjust to market demands or machine failures. In 1973, long before computers commonly were used in industrial applications, he invented the world’s first computerized real-time adaptive controller for a milling machine.
In the field of robotics, Koren also has conducted pivotal research. In 1988 he and his colleagues made the first mobile robot that could detect and avoid obstacles. Later, he and his graduate student studied how snakes move in order to build the first mechanical one. Outfitted with a camera, it was designed to worm into crevices to aid in searches for earthquake victims.
A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Koren’s scholarly record includes 300 articles and four books that have been cited 12,000 times. He also holds 14 U.S. patents.
But Koren still has unfulfilled dreams. They are big ideas.
Sensors and other small computers could improve equipment for the elderly, he says. Perhaps wheelchairs could help navigate themselves, for example.
Koren envisions reconfigurable car interiors. One person might choose a dog basket instead of a passenger seat. Another might prefer a refrigerator instead of a back seat.
And a project he calls “technology cooperation for peace” would bring together engineers from warring nations to work together toward a technological but humanitarian goal, such as improving irrigation.
“They would become friends,” Koren says. “It would be peace from the bottom up.”
The educator has seen such unlikely friendships take root in his own ERC lab.
Koren has been trying to move these ideas forward for years now. “Perhaps,” he says, “their time is yet to come.”
Koren also is the Paul G. Goebel Professor of Engineering, since 1993.