2016 Distinguished Achievement Award: Q&A with Xingyi Xu

// Electrical & Computer Engineering

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photo of Xingyi Xu

Xingyi Xu

Founding President, Shanghai Dajun Technologies; MSECE ’83, PhDECE ’90 (BSEE ’82, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China),

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Distinguished Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.


How did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

I was a student from January 1983 to October 1990. When I applied, I was part of this government program to sponsor good students to study abroad. I was among the first group of Chinese students who got the chance to study in the U.S. after the cultural revolution. We didn’t know which schools were good and which weren’t. We were able to get access to a Peterson’s Guide on how to choose a graduate school. UW-Madison had a very good reputation in China because there were several famous scholars in China who were from Madison. I knew of that. And also when I looked at the programs, Madison had a pretty good PhD program in electrical and computer engineering. I wanted to do automatic control, so I chose that. One of the universities I also applied for was Ohio University. I went there and quickly found out it wasn’t a good school. Then an advisor suggested I could transfer. Madison is a well-known university in China so I applied for it.


Why did you choose engineering as your major?

I was very interested in automatic control. Engineering was always a good profession for Chinese youngsters at that time. I was among the first group of students who entered university after the cultural revolution. During the cultural revolution there was no college— for 10 years basically. When I entered I chose automatic control as my major and then the continuation of that was I wanted to do automatic control engineering, and ECE has that program. But then I found out that automatic control in the U.S. is more applied math. So I found this program called WEMPEC [the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium]. It’s more practical and more about engineering, and I liked it better. I got my master’s degree in ECE, and I switched to power electronics for my PhD.


Who was your favorite engineering professor?

I had a couple. The first is from when I did my master’s degree. I worked with Professor Theodore Bernstein. I was a teaching assistant for him. He was a funny professor and very kind. … He taught the entry level of control theory. So I was a TA for him for at least four years I think. When I first entered the university it was kind of a difficult time. He helped me to get through that initial difficult period, and we became very close friends. His wife and my wife were also close friends. But perhaps my favorite professor was my major advisor for my PhD studies. He’s a gentleman. Professor Don Novotny. He was the founding director of WEMPEC. He’s very knowledgeable and was a father figure to me. I studied under him and got my PhD and took him as my role model for my work life and in many other aspects. Then there is also Professor Bob Lorenz. He was a student in my class when I started, but he demonstrated what a good engineer is. He was a vice president at a company in Rochester before he entered the PhD program with WEMPEC. He’s also a WEMPEC director now. He was much more knowledgeable than most of the students in the class were. He demonstrated how to be a good engineer on a lot of practical issues. Then there’s Professor Tom Lipo, who is also retired. He’s again a good engineer. He was very knowledgeable and helpful when I had questions, although finding him was sometimes a difficult thing, which turned into a little joke with his name, which is Tom A. Lipo. So the abbreviation is T.A. Lipo, which is what the door of his office said. So we called him Trans-Atlantic Lipo because he was traveling to Europe a lot, and he was difficult to find in his office. One other professor who was a favorite of mine was Deepak Divan. He’s no longer at Madison. He joined WEMPEC a little later, in 1986. He taught ECE 712; it was fundamentals of power electronics, which was also very helpful.


What was your favorite engineering class?

I liked ECE 332 taught by Professor Theodore Bernstein. It was the control theory entry-level for seniors and grad students. I loved that class. The way that he taught it was funny and you learned. That’s how I got to become his TA. The other class that sort of made me stick to motor drive systems is ECE 411 taught by Don Novotny. It encompassed the motor design and motor control basics. That was a very good class.


When you were a student, what was your favorite place to eat or hang out on campus?

The hangout place was Union South near Camp Randall. The house I lived in was 45 Lathrop Street, which was very near to Union South, maybe 5-10 minutes. So for the first three years Union South and the engineering library were basically the spaces for us. We ate at home because it was a lot cheaper. We had to live on a stipend on 1/3 assistantship. I really appreciated the support I was able to get from the ECE department and WEMPEC. Although it wasn’t huge, it was sufficient for us to finish school, and as a result of a very tight budget we mostly ate at home. I remember University Square between University Ave and Johnson Street. It’s a school building now. … Another hangout was the sports arena at Camp Randall, and in particular the indoor track. I remember playing basketball with WEMPEC schoolmates and then in later years when I moved to Eagle Heights we went to the Natatorium a lot and played volleyball and swam. Of course we’d go to Bascom Hall in the fall and look at the beautiful lake.


What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

A fond memory of a totally different experience than my life in China is of the charity activities in Madison. A lot of churches asked us to participate in their activities. I can’t remember specific events, but I remember a very friendly Madisonian invited us—students and spouses—to go to English classes and took us to see farmland. We were foreign students. so that really helped us to mingle into Madison society very quickly. I’m very appreciative to Madison people. You can imagine a young person without any experience with a foreign country and then suddenly coming to a foreign country, it could be very difficult. Mrs. Johnson at the foreign student office and the church community of Madison did an outstanding job to help foreign students adjust. I really appreciate what they did.


How did your experience in the College of Engineering shape your career path?

WEMPEC specializes in power electronics and electrical machines. Electrical machines is an old profession, however during the time I studied in WEMPEC there was a new device: a transistor that revolutionized the entire AC machine. There was a new application called AC modal drive. It’s commonplace now, but at that time it was just beginning to become commonplace. Therefore, there was a lot of research interest in all the new applications that became available. Not only from the electrical machine side but also from the power supply side. Power electronics is an enabling technology: It’s a new energy technology that has a huge potential. I was very lucky: When this new technology became available I was at the top school studying it.

Since then I’ve been in the industry. It’s shaped my life. I went to a company that does variable speed drives. For those who aren’t familiar, consider your air conditioning. The old way those functioned was when it was too cold, it would turn off. Then the room heats up and you have to turn it on again. It’s not comfortable because it’s too warm or too cool. Nowadays you don’t use on/off control. You use variable speed control. You don’t need as much cooling effect; you turn the compressor down to the lowest speed. If the fan is too strong, you turn it down. You need to have a variable speed motor, but they used to be very difficult to do because you didn’t have electronics to do this. But it was invented in 1986 and now it’s commonplace.

A lot of applications of power electronics become reality. I went to work at a company called Square D after graduation but lost the job after one year because it was bought. Then I sent out applications and one of the letters went to Ford. They invited me for an interview. I thought, ‘Detroit? Who wants to go to Detroit?’ They actually said, ‘Okay, why don’t you come.’ So I went there. I still remember the head of research told me that the future of the automotive industry is realizing the electrification of power. That was in 1992. I thought, ‘That sounds attractive.’ So I joined Ford in May of 1992 and started a career in electric vehicle overdrive systems. Then I went there and set up teams working on different vehicles: hybrids, fuel cells and future electrical vehicles.

I worked for Ford for 10 years and then I decided to return to China because China has more potential and more needs for power electronics technology. So I came to China and started up my own company for drives for industrial sewing machines and injection molding machines for elevators, textile machines and worked on several applications with motor drive technologies. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to get the funding to work on electric vehicle (EV) drives. I kept working on that and then in 2005, anticipating that EV would become a reality in China pretty soon, I established Dajun Co. That’s the company that I have today. We established the company just to pursue the EV business. Through this many years we’re doing alright because EV and hybrid vehicles is a very strategic focus for the Chinese government and industry. We’ve got a lot of market opportunities. Today Dajun has about 600 employees with a technical staff of about 200 people. We’re just running along with the fast growth of China’s and EV and HV application in markets. We are lucky to have this historic opportunity.


Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

WEMPEC is very strong group for power electronics and motor drives and is very influential in the community. I served as an editor for transactions on power electronics. That’s something that I’m proud of. I spent time to help advance the technology and promote communication among technical personnel.

The second thing I’d say, when I worked at Ford, there was no power electronics group at Ford, so I started a team and at one time our team was at least the oldest among the auto companies. Not many auto companies had a power electronics team in 1992, and as a result I think we were strongest because we were pioneering and accumulated knowledge. Not only that, but also in WEMPEC I’ve recruited many UW-Madison graduates, and now they’re actually key people in their fields: technical specialists and managers. Another thing I can say I’m proud of is I was a recipient of the Henry Ford Technical Achievement Award in 2009. Of 300,000 people worldwide in the Ford Motor Company only 64 people maximum will receive this award every year.

Another thing I still feel good about is the decision to actually come and start companies in China. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. Start-up companies are difficult. You have to deal with all kinds of things: people, teams, money, you worry about whether you have a good product for the market, where you can get enough orders; and when the orders come, you worry about whether your manufacturing capacity is sufficient to supply and make the delivery on time. After you deliver, you worry about quality and that the customers won’t be upset. You worry about all kinds of things. Not only that, but in China it’s especially difficult because it’s not very friendly to start-up companies. A lot of challenges come up along the way. I don’t regret it though, and I’m proud of myself and my team who were able to assist. We had ups and downs. We were almost closed and bankrupted several times. One of the deepest crises was in 2008. We were raising funds at that time and we weren’t able to raise the funds and almost went bankrupt. But we persisted and survived and now I think we’re at the stage where we have a chance to grow. I’m proud of that.


What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

A couple of things. First, when you choose engineering, you choose a very good field because engineers are always needed to solve problems. I encourage them to go into engineering industry. Through manufacturing you turn the idea and raw material into consumer goods and that’s the value-added process. Without manufacturing, how do you get the goods? Manufacturing is the fundamental foundation of the economy. There’s also all kinds of other professions who help in making the manufacturing process more efficient. But without the manufacturing process, there isn’t the value creation process. So I would encourage people to pay more attention and get into manufacturing. Secondly, be persistent. Stick to what you want to do. Through anyone’s life there will be ups and downs. If you duck out when it gets tough it won’t be easier. You won’t live to your full potential. My start-up experience really taught me that. In 2008, China’s EV was really becoming very interesting and we wanted to grow Dajun and raise funds. But because of the global financial crisis I wasn’t able to raise the funds and we had to cut the company from 80-plus people down to 18. We cut our pay and just persisted. Then in 2010 we were able to get the first piece of funding and then we started our fast growth to today. My experience really told us to be persistent and don’t give up. I told that to my daughters.


If you had to do it all over again and pick a major other than engineering, what would you choose?

I don’t think anything. I wouldn’t really tell people what they should or shouldn’t do. To me, my basic value system is not only do what you enjoy, but also try to do good for society while you enjoy it. Then it’s excellent. I tell job applicants that any job will have three elements. First, you have to be able to make money. You have to be able to demonstrate your value. Making a good salary and good money is a good thing. It’s representative of your capability for making value. Second, it has to be interesting. If it’s boring you won’t stay there for very long and your creativity won’t come out. Once you can find a job that demonstrates your value and isn’t boring, if you can also make a positive impact to society then that job is an outstanding job and you should go there.


What are your hobbies/interests?

That’s something that I’m a little bit weak in. I don’t have too many hobbies. I like to play volleyball. Even now I’m 50 years old, I still play with my daughters every once in awhile. I like to travel. I’m trying to record my travel experiences by picture and by writing, but the business of my job doesn’t allow for that very often. I hope that in several years after I retire I can still do those things.

Author: Engineering External Relations