From electrical engineer to film-maker
In 2007 Michel Franken completed his Electrical Engineering degree at the University of Twente and in 2011 he gained his PhD in the University’s Robotics and Mechatronics department. He is currently working for DEMCON Nymus 3D, a company that uses striking visualizations to make complex subjects, like scientific research studies, easier to understand. Although as a Business Manager Michel is no longer directly involved with the design of electronic systems, he still benefits every day from his training at the University of Twente and the way of thinking he learned there.
Michel Franken has worked at DEMCON since 2011. “Electrical engineers have lots of different possibilities within this company.” As an Applied Research Engineer, Michel was involved in several Research & Development projects that posed a variety of technical problems that needed to be dealt with, so he was a real problem-solver for technical and medical robotics issues. “In November 2012 I moved to the department that handles acquisition and project management, where I was responsible for the Public Private Partnerships. These are the projects and partnerships, such as with the University of Twente, for instance, that are partly government-funded,” Michel explains.
In 2015 he decided to take on a new challenge within the DEMCON group and moved to Nymus3D. Nymus3D makes animations that clearly explain research results, for instance, or how products work. The group’s clients come from all kinds of professional fields, such as the medical world, technical equipment manufacturers, and plenty of researchers.
“My own scientific background helps me to understand, analyse and interpret scientific research reports and products. As an Electrical Engineer you’re trained to abstract problems and make connections, and that’s a huge help when it comes to quickly understand the basics – even if it isn’t your own field. For instance, in recent years I’ve learnt an enormous amount about stem cells. Since I speak the clients’ language and understand what they’re doing, I’m well placed to brainstorm with clients to establish a visualization plan. Then I discuss the client’s wishes with my colleagues in the creative department. It’s very exciting to work in such a multidisciplinary team because you have all these disparate elements – the subject, the storytelling and the visualization – which all have to come together to create a beautiful end result that everyone is going to be happy with,” Michel explains.
The skill set of Electrical Engineers involves a thorough knowledge of electronic systems, but they also learn such skills as problem analysis, abstraction, problem-solving, seeing connections, and pursuing coherence. “As an Electrical Engineer you also have to be able to quickly get up to speed with new projects and new software and programming languages, and you have to be able to understand scientific reports in disciplines other than your own familiar one,” says Michel. “Electrical Engineering is such a broad field that there’s always an overlap with other disciplines, like maths, physics and computer science. Electrical Engineers can work anywhere.”
Michel: “I chose to do Electrical Engineering even though I wasn’t really a handy builder like some of my fellow students. I really liked the idea of being involved with technologies that you don’t always see, but which mean that electronic systems keep working.” He continues: “For instance, when I started taking Control Engineering, Professor Van Amerongen and Professor Stramigioli were a huge inspiration. Control Engineering is so fascinating because you can use it to manage all sorts of systems. A piece of equipment has to do exactly what the Electrical Engineer wants it to. Control Engineering makes our heating systems work the way we want, but it’s also why an F16 doesn’t fall out of the sky and why robots can carry out so many different kinds of tasks.”
For his Bachelor’s assignment, Michel worked on ‘passive dynamic walking’, a robotics technique whose aim is to achieve a walking motion while expending as little energy as possible by exploiting the dynamic characteristics of the leg itself. In walking, it is important that the knee bends during the leg swing phase, because – just like a human – the robot would otherwise trip up. “So you have to make the upper leg heavier than the lower leg, and the distribution of this leg weight is critical. Because we were trying to copy human walking methods, I researched the biological literature to understand how a person actually walks.”
“If you’re looking for a course and you’re not sure what you ultimately want to do, but you really like technology, then Electrical Engineering is a great choice. It’s a pretty tough course, but you get to learn about all kinds of subject areas, and that means you’re employable across a broad set of fields. It’s a course that gives you security for the future. You become a sought-after colleague across a wide variety of companies and professional areas. But make sure that as a student you don’t have your nose in your books the whole time. Join a student society, and be an active member! It’ll give you new insights into your own social skills, and it’ll teach you how to organize activities, for instance, and how to handle what comes up. It’s not just useful – it’s a lot of fun, too!”