Why Patrick Hillberg Became an Engineer

By Dora Smith

engineering as a career

If you’ve heard the name Patrick Hillberg before, perhaps it’s from the press release we did earlier this year on Oakland University’s (OU) new PLM course. Patrick is designing that course. Siemens PLM Software provided $34 million worth of software last year to Oakland, and another $12 million to OU’s Industrial and Systems Engineering department this year. That software, along with a new engineering building that will be complete in 2014, will develop future engineers and PLM solution architects.

Here is an artist drawing of OU’s new engineering center:

Oakland University

If you haven’t heard Patrick’s name before, but have attended school in Michigan, you may have seen him on campus. He has a passion for education. He has a bachelor’s in computer science from Michigan Tech, a master’s in industrial engineering from University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in systems engineering from Oakland University. He works for our company but is also an adjunct professor at Oakland University, and an advisor to the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

How did you get into engineering?

“When I was in high school in the late 70s, computers were just coming on. It was still a few years before the first personal computer. As an undergrad, I was a computer science major and got interested in robotics. This was long before they had classes in this, so as a senior I did an independent study course to learn what I could. When I graduated, I worked for a company that built machine vision (MV) and robots for a variety of automotive applications. In vision-guided robotics, a camera takes pictures to locate a target, and then tells the robot how to move with respect to that target. We would sometime use lasers to create targets for the vision systems, and I thought it was really cool to be developing laser-guided robots. When I was in high school, this thought was purely science fiction, and 10 years later I was actually working on it.

“A year or so after completing my undergrad, I entered an after-work graduate program in Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Michigan. I was so intimidated that first day of class, but suddenly I was 18 months into the program and half-way done, so I figured I might as well finish it off. What was really cool was that I would learn something at night and use it the next day at work.”

What is an ISE?
“An industrial and systems engineer (ISE) solves problems from a system-level perspective to include people, machines, materials, energy, technology, information and software. ISEs must design solutions that consider all of a system’s components so that everything works together to improve overall system performance. There are about 300,000 ISEs nationwide. Other engineering disciplines apply skills to very specific areas but ISE takes a broader, business-based approach. This includes distributing products worldwide, manufacturing superior automobiles, or streamlining the procedures in an operating room. ISEs are the only engineering professionals who are trained as productivity and quality improvement specialists. They are leaders in lean systems initiatives and six sigma quality methods.”

What is your day job today?
“Well, I worked in vision-guided robots for 17 years, but then was looking for a change. I stumbled into an OU fellowship, which would not only pay for my Ph.D., but would provide some living expenses as well. This led to my new, but related, career in PLM.

“I am now a PLM solutions architect, currently working with a shipbuilding customer. We’re replacing their existing technology with Teamcenter, which implies both technical and cultural change. ISEs look at the entire system, and in this case it’s the technology and its impact on people. I enjoy being in a customer-facing role, where I can learn about ‘as-is’ business processes, and help define the new ‘to-be’ processes, based on Teamcenter. In fact, this is the focal point of the class I teach at OU.

“PLM gives a much larger view of the overall system than I saw in robotics. In my class I talk about the create/build/sustain/dispose phases of each product’s lifecycle. ‘Create’ runs from identifying requirements to designing the parts in 3D. ‘Build’ is planning for and the manufacturing the product, converting from “bytes to atoms”, i.e. from designs to something physical. ‘Sustain’ is all the activity that happens to the product after manufacturing; in the case of a ship, the 40 years of changes that occur after it first leaves the dock. Finally ‘Dispose’ is the phase in which we think about how to either return the product to the earth, or reuse its components in other products.”

What was your dissertation on?
“Opportunistic preventive maintenance. It was the combination of MES and ‘Discrete Event Simulation’. The reliability of the machines in a production system defines the throughput that can be achieved by that system. But there are always some machines that cause problems and three engineers will have five ideas on how to solve those problems. My dissertation described how reliability data, collected by MES, can create accurate reliability models using Discrete Event Simulation. The value is two-fold; we could place an accurate simulation model on the desk of every manufacturing engineer, to allow him to ‘play’ with his virtual system, or we can collect that data, and using discrete event and neural networks, predict opportune times for preventive maintenance.”

We know the Michigan economy has undergone a lot of change. Tell us about what is happening now.
“It’s interesting to see the economy rebuild after a collapse. There are 15 universities in the state of Michigan and a little less than 10 million people. It’s not quite one university per 1 million people but it has a strong academic base. Universities did not experience the large headcount decreases that industry did during the collapse. There were fewer students, and master’s degree programs were hurt since employers couldn’t pay for them. Now we’re seeing four times the enrollment, but we still need to make it easier to find graduates. There is a need for talent and the right skillset. Looking forward, we will need more graduates with ergonomics and robotics experience. They will need more skills in virtual simulation and systems engineering. You can’t do these without the software.

“It’s interesting to see that only 30 percent of the jobs need graduates with a four-year degree, and universities can pretty much keep up with that demand. It is the community colleges where we need to see growth. Fifty percent of jobs require a two-year degree but only 20 percent of workers/graduates have one. The community colleges provide strong tool-based training.”

How did you get into teaching?
“As a systems engineer, I look at the system, and what I see as the greatest limitation to our worldwide economic system is a workforce not sufficiently educated for today’s jobs, and a lack of pathways to achieve that education. For example, a year or so ago I was in a Teamcenter class in Livonia, when I met a fellow student. He was in his late 50’s, unemployed for 18-months, with decades of experience as a designer, but a skillset that was two versions behind. There were no community college programs for him in his home state, and he was facing significant expenses trying to achieve the skills required to thrive in his next job. Simultaneously, I work with employers who are struggling to find the talent they can use.

“Oakland University intends to be a world leader in PLM education, and I’m happy to help. I’m also working with Southeast Michigan business leaders to build other pathways through high schools and community colleges. My course is for grad students, and we’ll reach some thought leaders, but there’s more work to do.”

What advice would you give future engineers?
“Engineering is much more interpersonal than you realize. Henry Ford fully understood his Model T, but beginning with the television, no one fully understands an entire product. Working in isolation isn’t sufficient. And you’ll find that you spend much more time working with people than you might have thought because the projects are so big and complex. So work on your soft skills too – they are every bit as important as technical skills.”

Here’s a picture of Pat inspiring a future engineer, his niece, at OU’s robot lab.

Pat, thanks for sharing why you became an engineer.

If you liked this post, check out more in our engineering as a career series.

– Dora

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at