Shop-floor Sabbatical

This beloved Marquette professor knew exactly what to do with the year waiting in front of him. Bypassing Europe and ivy-covered institutions, he headed straight for the front lines of a major power systems manufacturer, where he found lessons galore to bring back to campus.

By Guy Fiorita

Dr. Philip Voglewede in his work home for a year, Eaton Power Systems in South Milwaukee.

“Just let me be an engineer again.”

That’s the thought that kept running through Dr. Philip Voglewede’s head as his sabbatical approached.

Normally when professors take yearlong sabbaticals, they work on research projects, teach unique courses at other institutions or write books. What they rarely do is go back to work in an entry-level position in their field. But that is exactly what Voglewede did last August, after eight years at Marquette. For 10 months, the popular associate professor of mechanical engineering worked full time as an engineer for Eaton’s Power Systems Division in South Milwaukee.

During a time of year when Voglewede otherwise would have been in a classroom teaching sophomore dynamics or graduate-level robotics — or advancing prosthetic ankle design in his research lab — he was getting a taste of real-world engineering. “When I first petitioned Marquette, I said I wanted to get back to work as an engineer,” he recalls. “I wanted to see where my students go and find out how engineering is done today to be a better teacher and better my understanding of engineering.”

Read more stories about the Opus College of Engineering and its partners doing Better Together — from support for start-ups and university-industry workshops to a high-placing Baja car, a new joint department with the Medical College of Wisconsin and a student-led effort to turn a foreclosed home into rainwater storage for a homeless shelter’s urban garden.

Once the school agreed, Voglewede approached four local companies; all were receptive to the idea. His offer was too good to refuse. Whoever took him would get a doctoral-level engineer for a price similar to that of a new grad. He chose Eaton, which designs and manufactures devices and systems for electric utilities, because of the work they do with motion. “When I first came on I told them, ‘Don’t put me in a management role. Let me be an engineer again. Let me be down in the trenches,’ ” says Voglewede, who served several years as a resident engineer at Whirlpool Corp. in Ohio before earning his doctorate at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Back on the front lines in South Milwaukee, he worked on modeling, designing, and testing of an electrical switchgear, specifically reclosers, which detect if a fault has occurred and will restore power automatically if the fault is temporary, like a tree branch hitting a power line. Many times this will prevent a costly and time-consuming visit to the device by a utility worker. How does this kind of work compare to academia? “The speed of industry is more exciting. Things happen at a pace you can’t recreate in academia. If a test fails, we have to figure out what is wrong right away,” he answers.

A doctorate-level engineer for a price similar to that of a new grad: For area companies, the offer was almost too good to refuse.

As a member of the Eaton team, if something needed to be done, Voglewede did it. Soon he was leading the testing of all of the project’s pilot units and working as a research engineer in the modeling portion. “I used my academic training to best model an electromagnetic actuator, which we successfully launched. It is more efficient, better performing and is easily integrated into the existing system, all for the same price,” he explains. “In engineering, success is getting a quality product out of the door. In academia you can get by with being 75 percent right. Here it needs to be 100 percent right. These experiences invigorate me.”

As these shopfloor sojourns become less rare than they used to be, other engineering professors are following suit. Dr. Mark Nagurka, P.E., associate professor of mechanical engineering, for example, is in the planning stages of a sabbatical he hopes to spend in the trenches at Milwaukee Tool. “My objective is to further my expertise in mechanical engineering and gain experience in industrial design and then bring back real-world experiences that will be highly valuable in teaching developing courses.”

His Eaton experience behind him, that’s essentially the role Voglewede is now playing back at Marquette, an approach that suits the three-time Opus College of Engineering teacher-of-the-year honoree and recipient of the university-wide Teaching Excellence Award. “I have a long list of lessons I can use in the classroom. I have tons of examples that are going to make some great homework problems.”

In a larger way, Voglewede relates the sabbatical to the Jesuit teachings of Marquette. “The missionaries knew that the key to success was understanding the people they encountered. I need to understand industry because I am sending forth my students into this world. I have to go out into the field first and then bring back that knowledge. It is this idea that fuels the fire and gives me energy.

“Marquette is unique because we have a lot of industry right in our backyard. Fostering these relationships and understanding what industry needs from Marquette and what Marquette needs from industry is important,” he concludes. “And I know that when they need a young engineer they will call me, and because of my experience here, I will be able to recommend the perfect person for the job.”

Adapted from the 2016 isuue of Marquette Engineer, the annual magazine of the Opus College of Engineering. Read the entire Better Together issue and learn how the college is being the difference for students, industry partners and the community.