Skip to main content
Robert Lorenz
February 7, 2019

Sensing and controls pioneer Lorenz named to National Academy of Engineering

On Feb. 7, 2019, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) posthumously named Robert Lorenz, who was a longtime University of Wisconsin-Madison mechanical engineering professor, to its 2019 class of fellows.

The academy recognized Lorenz’s contributions to modeling and control of cross-coupled electromechanical systems for high-performance electric machines and drives. He is among 86 new members and 18 foreign members elected to the NAE in 2019. The designation is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer, and membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice or education.

Lorenz passed away on Jan. 27, 2019, after a battle with cancer.

After joining the UW-Madison engineering faculty in 1984, he immediately got involved with the then-new Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC), an academic-industry partnership he helped to grow into one of the largest and best-known university consortia in its field today, with more than 85 company sponsors. The UW-Madison consortium, which includes more than 80 faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and international scholars, supports innovative research to benefit its company sponsors and educate the next generation of engineering leaders in power electronics and electromechanical power conversion. Lorenz, who co-directed WEMPEC for 22 years, was internationally renowned as the world’s leading authority in the field of physics-based control of electric motors and adjustable-speed drives.

Lorenz received his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in mechanical engineering from UW-Madison. Before beginning his PhD program, Lorenz worked in industry for 10 years at Gleason Works in Rochester, New York, where he honed his engineering skills by developing high-performance motor controls for machine tools that were ahead of their time. He also served two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, developing new gun-aiming controls at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Always known for his infectious enthusiasm and high energy level, he passionately pursued his unique research vision for 35 years at UW-Madison, where he supervised more than 200 graduate students, authored more than 400 technical papers with his students that resulted in 34 IEEE prize paper awards, and earned more than 40 U.S. patents.

Lorenz’s many original contributions have significantly improved the performance of electric motors in nearly every conceivable application ranging from paper mills to electric vehicles. He was globally recognized as a pioneer in the development of robust “self-sensing” control algorithms that eliminate fragile rotor position sensors from electric motors in many high-performance applications, making the motors smaller, less expensive and more reliable. He also invented a new motor control scheme that makes motors respond more rapidly and accurately to commands while simultaneously improving their efficiency. These valuable features are highly appealing to motor drive manufacturers who are now adopting this breakthrough control scheme in their newest generation of high-performance factory automation drive products.

Lorenz earned numerous prestigious awards during his academic career, including the IEEE Richard Kaufmann Technical Field Award in 2014, and was named an IEEE fellow in 1998. He was very active in IEEE, including service as president of the IEEE Industry Applications Society during 2001 and an elected member of the IEEE Board of Directors from 2005 to 2006. He also held the Elmer and Janet Kaiser Chair and was Consolidated Papers Professor of Controls Engineering at UW-Madison.

In addition to his impressive academic achievements, Lorenz always reserved time to be actively involved in a wide range of civic and humanitarian volunteer service activities that included the Madison Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity of Dane County, and international medical mission work in several parts of the world extending from Africa to Guatemala. Lorenz received the College of Engineering Ragnar E. Onstad Service to Society Award in 2002 in recognition of his many years of dedicated public service.

Two members of the UW-Madison Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics advisory board also were among those elected to the NAE. Mary Baker (BSEMA ’66), president, chair and one of the founders of San Diego-based ATA Engineering Inc., was recognized for computer simulation methods for structural mechanics problems and engineering leadership. And the NAE recognized Kathryn A. McCarthy, vice president of research and development at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, Chalk River, Ontario, Canada, for leadership in research and data analysis in support of licensing extensions for light water nuclear reactors.