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Photo of Robert Lorenz
January 29, 2019

Robert Lorenz, pioneer in controls engineering, passes away

Written By: Adam Malecek

Robert Lorenz, a longtime professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, passed away on Jan. 27, 2019, after a battle with cancer.

Lorenz was a pioneer in the field of physics-based controls engineering. A mechanical engineer with feet in electrical engineering, Lorenz was unique in pursuing highly interdisciplinary research since early in his career, at a time when blending disciplines wasn’t the norm. A brilliant researcher, he worked to advance the practical use of modern control and estimation theory in electric machines and power electronics.

His colleagues and students knew him as extremely dedicated, sincere and caring. He had an unrelenting commitment to perfection in his work and, as anyone who spent time with him knows, he was a whirlwind of activity with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

“He was a larger-than-life personality who had an effect on everyone who touched his path,” says colleague Giri Venkataramanan, an electrical and computer engineering professor. “Bob didn’t seem to be bound by the mortal limitations of space and time in what he was able to accomplish.”

Lorenz received his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in mechanical engineering from UW-Madison and an MBA from the University of Rochester (New York) Executive Development Program. He joined the UW-Madison engineering faculty in 1984 after working 12 years in industry on high-performance drives and synchronized motion control. As a longtime co-director of the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC), he played a vital role in growing WEMPEC, a technology center at UW-Madison that supports innovative research to benefit its corporate sponsors and educate the next generation of engineering leaders in power electronics and electromechanical power conversion.

Today, WEMPEC has a network of 86 corporate sponsors and more than 80 faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and international scholars who research and develop the technology foundations necessary for products five to 10 years from commercial availability.

“Having this ability to do long-term research and make good decisions about it, while not having to worry about funding, we can come up with a solution that the companies are really going to like,” Lorenz said in a 2016 interview.

Venkataramanan says Lorenz’s legacy will include his innovative work on integrating the discipline of control squarely into education, research and practice in the field of energy power conversion through WEMPEC and its industry sponsors.

Lorenz holds 26 patents, and through his groundbreaking research, he has made many significant contributions in a variety of areas. For example, his development of self-sensing motor drives has provided one of the most important concepts in advanced machine control. Lorenz was considered the leading expert in self-sensing machines methods, where the sensing functions are fully integrated on a drive to detect key operating characteristics including rotor position, torque, speed, temperature and motor/load diagnostics.

Among the many ways he will leave a legacy at UW-Madison is through the Robert Lorenz Professorship in Mechanical Engineering, which he established soon after he was diagnosed with cancer. Recognizing that he was nearing the end of his life, he said he hoped the professorship would support the work of an exceptional mechanical engineering faculty member and encourage growth in the controls research area.

Mechanical Engineering Chair Jaal Ghandhi says the professorship provides a highly valuable resource for the department to recognize outstanding faculty members and enhance the impact of their work.

Lorenz was active in the engineering community abroad, including serving as a guest professor at universities in Belgium, Germany and Japan. Outside of work, for more than 30 years he played an active role in the Medical Benevolence Foundation (MBF), which supports the U.S. Presbyterian Church’s worldwide medical programs with funds, equipment, medical supplies and volunteers. With MBF, Lorenz participated in medical missions in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Mexico, Cameroon, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Kenya, sometimes staying abroad for three weeks or more.

He authored more than 300 technical papers and won 34 IEEE prize paper awards. He also held the Elmer and Janet Kaiser Chair and was Consolidated Papers Professor of Controls Engineering at UW-Madison.

Lorenz was an elected member of the IEEE board of directors 2005-06, the IEEE Industry Applications Society (IAS) president 2001, and a distinguished lecturer of the IEEE IAS 2000-01. His numerous honors include receiving the 2003 IEEE IAS Outstanding Achievement Award, the 2006 EPE PEMC Outstanding Achievement Award, the 2011 IEEE IAS Distinguished Service Award, the 2014 EPE Outstanding Achievement Award from the European Power Electronic Conference, and the 2014 IEEE Richard Harold Kaufman Award. Lorenz retired from the university in November 2018.