The University of Maryland, College Park plans to announce Tuesday the receipt of a software grant valued at $750 million from a division of Siemens Corp. — the largest donation of its kind for both the electrical engineering giant and the state's flagship university.
The software — used for product design, manufacturing and management — has already helped NASA develop the Mars rover "Curiosity" and helped the Callaway Golf Co. improve its clubs. At the university, it will enhance school entries in racing and robotics competitions, but also give engineering students and staff the streamlined ability to create the machines they dream up, some of which could save lives.
"This is very significant to us and our students," said Patrick O'Shea, a university vice president and its chief research officer. He envisions the software, which the school has already recieved, being used to bolster current efforts in fields including medical device development.
"We're in the business of educating explorers who will help us create a new world," O'Shea said, "and the key in that is to get beyond just the theory of the classroom to the work in practical applications in the real world."
University officials declined to rank the grant's value, determined by adding up the list price of the software, against prior cash donations. The College Park school announced in February that a six-year fundraising drive brought in roughly $1 billion.
The Siemens' grant is part of its broader effort to strengthen the relationship between the company, which moved its U.S. headquarters to Washington from New York in 2011, and the university. The entities already have worked together in areas including fire safety and transportation, among others, and they have a "master research agreement" governing projects in the health care field.
Siemens is looking to expand the collaboration.
"What we said was, 'Look, we want to do more research with you, you're a leading research institution. We want to recruit more University of Maryland people for our businesses, and we also want to get more of our technology on campus,'" said Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens Corp. USA.
"We thought this was a good way to jump-start that relationship," said Spiegel, who serves on the UMD Energy Research Center Advisory Board.
Siemens Product Life Management Software has made hundreds of these grants of varying sizes to universities around the world.
For a company, universities are often a good source of fresh talent, ideas and innovation. They typically take a long-term approach to research that reaches beyond incremental advances, and they offer a potential workforce in new graduates, analysts said.
Perpetually resource-strapped universities also benefit from grants — cash or products — and real-world training in the classroom for staff and students, creating project, internship and job opportunities.
"Universities and corporations have different strengths, which is one of the major reasons they like to work together," said Melba Kurman, an author and technology analyst based in upstate New York.
The partnerships have a long history, Kurman said, noting alliances between farmers and colleges in the 19th century. But they're not without controversy, particularly today as universities try to balance their missions to disseminate information with businesses' competitive need for secrecy.
"This is actually a very difficult and tricky issue," Kurman said.
O'Shea said the school's partnerships are governed by various policies and vetted by committees for conflict-of-interest issues. And Kurman didn't see any cause for concern.
"I think Siemens is actually being very visionary in terms of making connections with talented people," Kurman said. "This sounds like a really good partnership."
The software brings all the components of a complex product — a car, for example — under one development program, O'Shea said, so the mechanical and electrical engineering are done in concert.
Thirty years ago, those parts were developed separately, then merged at the end, leading to an unreliable vehicle that sometimes started, sometimes didn't, he said.
"It results in a lot more efficiency and much less waste in the manufacturing process because the products can come off the assembly line with a very high probability of them working for a very long time," O'Shea said.
He praised Siemens as "having a tremendous track record of technological innovation in a broad array of areas."
This software is capable of "handling very complicated problems on the earth and space. This is exactly what the leading industries use right now to help design and test the most complicated products," O'Shea said. "This is a big deal."
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