’I’m a great supporter of open and collaborative innovation’

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Fellow Ton Peijnenburg. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Fellow Ton Peijnenburg. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Fellow Ton Peijnenburg brings together the worlds of VDL ETG and TU/e.

Collaboration with industry is in TU/e’s blood. Together, we reach further and contribute to the innovation ecosystem of the Brainport region, each in our own way. How do we shape that collaboration? What does it yield, and why is it so important? And how do the parties relate to each other? In a series of stories, we highlight the collaboration between the university and industry. This time, an interview with TU/e fellow Ton Peijnenburg of VDL ETG, the high-tech cluster of industrial family business VDL Groep.

Ton Peijnenburg is deputy general manager of VDL ETG Technology & Development. "The engineering office of VDL ETG , you could say. We don’t have machines, we have designers," is how he describes it himself.

He has also been a fellow at TU/e’s High Tech Systems Center (HTSC) for around seven years. This connects several departments: Applied Physics, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Mathematics & Computer Science.

This enables HTSC to take a multidisciplinary look at issues from industry rather than from the perspective of ’just’ one department or field. HTSC also includes people from the industry, including Ton Peijnenburg.

Bringing two worlds together

"I came to TU/e via Professor Maarten Steinbuch, one of the founders of HTSC. I have multidisciplinary insight and an overview of technological fields. I also know the needs of industry and have an affinity with the scientific apparatus of TU/e. So, it was a perfect fit indeed. I’ve noticed over the past years that it’s a lot of fun and a challenge to bring the two worlds together."

About Ton Peijnenburg

With a TU/e degree in Electrical Engineering, Ton Peijnenburg ’s career began in 1992 within the Center for Industrial Technology (Centrum voor Fabricagetechnieken, CFT) at Philips.

In 2010, he joined VDL ETG, which evolved from Philips Machinefabrieken. "Our focus is on (precision) metalworking. This finds applications in Thermo Fischer’s electron microscopes, Philips’ medical devices, or ASML’s machines, for example."

"We now do (precision) metalworking for several companies in high-tech equipment construction. Of the top ten equipment manufacturers for making chips, we count seven as customers."

"We operate in the Netherlands, Singapore, China and Switzerland. VDL ETG now has 5,500 employees. When it became clear that the company wanted to focus on making machines and designing them, I started here as a project leader. I then became the development manager, and I’m now deputy director. By now, we are comprised of 750 designers working from our locations in Almelo and Eindhoven."

"I have a pretty busy job, but I like to make time for my role as a fellow at HTSC for one day a week."

It is not always easy to unite these two worlds, each with their views and needs. But it is enjoyable and valuable.

Fellow Ton Peijnenburg

Building bridges

"As a fellow, I’m particularly active at the intersection in which strategic technology needs from industry that align with TU/e’s research ambitions are made explicit. You must bring two worlds together to get the best out of them."

"I always say: if the industry doesn’t see value in something, they won’t pay for it. And if the university doesn’t see a certain topic fitting into the research roadmap - and finds it difficult to publish on it - they won’t work on it. Bridging that gap is what I do as a fellow."

Combination of TU/e and business

HTSC’s ambition is to establish collaborations between the university and industry, Peijnenburg says. "We want to create a combination of researchers from the university and people from industry, all bringing their perspectives."

Here, he is referring, in particular, to people who can think beyond ’the standard classification.’ "It’s often thought companies only look for quick solutions to their current issues. In my experience, the university and industry can also work together well on long-term matters. Companies are certainly open to long-term research as well."

"Meanwhile, there are ever more professors at TU/e who are externally oriented and can connect a good idea with a research field that seems interesting and a concrete or latent need from industry. It is not always easy to unite these two worlds, each with their views and needs. But, above all, I have learned that it is enjoyable and valuable."

Shared agenda

The research being worked on within HTSC is driven by industry. The scientific perspective on the matters primarily drives the agenda of the PhD students at HTSC. The problem and the angle of approach comes from industry.

We say: this is where we lack knowledge. At the university, there is the attention and space to work on that together with industry. Fellow Ton Peijnenburg

"We say: this is where we lack knowledge," Peijnenburg notes. "At the university, there is the attention and space to work on that together with industry." He emphasizes that this does not mean that industry is setting the university’s agenda. "That is far too narrow an interpretation. We’ve seen a lot of corporate business research disappear in recent years. In the Netherlands, but also internationally. This has created a gap in the whole innovation system. I think that the university has an important role in this. You can’t dismiss that as ’the industry agenda.’ This is a national agenda of innovative capacity and strength that you need very much."

Engaging the outside world

"Together with an idea and technology-rich environment like TU/e, you can accelerate and support many innovations. As a university, you should not be afraid to include ideas from the industry and the outside world. Don’t sit in an ivory tower with the attitude that you have better ideas than someone else. Collaboration between industry and the university works best in an open environment."


A concrete example of the collaboration within HTSC is ACCESS: Active Contamination Control for Equipment and Substrates. Within this, three TU/e groups (two from Applied Physics and one from Mechanical Engineering) have worked together over the past five years to understand the generation of tiny particulate matter that causes contamination in high-tech machinery.

"We’ve focused on the questions of why and how those particles get there, how they move, and how we can make sure that we can neutralize those particles during the design phase of such a machine so that they no longer cause problems," Peijnenburg says.

"The first part of the research was completed early this year, and we have now started the second part. So, the research continues. This research is conducted by three PhD students with help from two engineering doctorates. The PhD candidate develops a piece of theory; the engineering doctorates make a test setup."

"From industry, we exchange experience for the PhD assignments, expand with thesis assignments, and supervise engineering doctorates."

Deepening knowledge

Peijnenburg sees that the collaboration within ACCESS works very well. "TU/e is deepening knowledge in this area, and we are using that new knowledge at VDL ETG."

"Thirdly, those who have completed their assignment at TU/e often come to work for us. The research is an interesting way to make ourselves known to the TU/e population. It’s not only the big names that are interesting for alumni; we also have much to offer as a company."

Symposium to share knowledge

To conclude the first part of ACCESS and share insights and results, HTSC held a mini-symposium in February in collaboration with VDL ETG. "About 80 people from industry attended that. We find it important to share the knowledge we have now gained around this topic."

We face big tasks together; why reinvent the wheel everywhere?

Fellow Ton Peijnenburg

"I’m a great supporter of an open innovation model. We face big tasks together; why reinvent the wheel everywhere? The university has a nice role in sharing knowledge about innovations; ACCESS is a good example."

Giving the design profession more space

In addition to his role in research, Peijnenburg is also looking at education and how the design side can be given a more prominent place in this. "I believe TU/e has started to lean very much on the scientific axis: a piece of analysis, understanding things, publishing. Designing - coming to a finished whole in which compromises have to be made - lags behind."

Professor of practice

"I strongly advocate further involving some experienced industry people in education. You see good examples of that in America. There, much of the teaching that has to do with the design side is taught by what they call a ’professor of practice’. This is someone from the industry with a bucketload of relevant experience to technical university students."


"I believe that would also be highly valuable for TU/e, especially in design education. The industry could pay for the appointment of these professors of practice because there are great benefits for them too, given that more and more well-trained designers will enter the job market."

"The big companies like Philips and ASML already realize this, but smaller suppliers could also play a role in it," Peijnenburg believes.

Resting point

So, there are plenty of good experiences and new ideas for Ton Peijnenburg. Is it sometimes difficult for him to wear two hats? "No, they complement each other. The pressure from VDL is always to be there, especially when we are about to deliver to a customer."

"From TU/e, the pressure is less. I work there with colleagues from other companies, leading to a different type of discussion than in my daily work. I’m not only concerned with the operations there; we also look together at our profession and the future of our profession. In that sense, my role at TU/e is a resting point for me. It’s nice to be able to organize your thoughts now and then."He concludes: "This collaboration offers a great deal to me, TU/e, and VDL ETG."

From our strategy: about collaboration

TU/e is one of the global frontrunners in academic collaboration with industry. We collaborate intensively with large high-tech companies, top clinical hospitals and other organizations. In doing so, we ensure knowledge transfer and societal impact. We also contribute to economic growth and the creation of opportunities for students and for science.

Through close collaboration, we respond to current, relevant issues. Together, we create new knowledge and technology that has a greater chance of actually reaching the market. In this way, we work together on solutions to societal challenges.

Read more about collaboration in our Strategy 2030 .