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Art Erdman

Throughout his career, Art Erdman has applied his ingenuity to many vexing mechanical engineering problems, and he's obtained more than 30 patents along the way.

Technology matchmaker

Mechanical engineering professor Art Erdman has a knack for connecting pure research and marketable discoveries

By Judy Woodward

Nov. 15, 2006

Mechanical engineering professor Art Erdman calls himself a Cupid, but his matches have nothing to do with romance. Rather, he's a catalyst for fruitful liaisons between pure research and entrepreneurial know-how.

Holder of more than 30 patents, Erdman has applied his expertise to areas as disparate as the mechanics of high-performance sports, the design of dental crowns and the development of remedies for macular degeneration, a leading cause of age-related blindness.

"I've worked on all the 'ologies,'" said Erdman. "There's a great benefit in being at a world-class university with a medical school and a dental school. You have access to many experts, laboratories, equipment and top-notch students."

Over the years he's pursued collaborations that have the potential to enhance both the University and made-in-Minnesota manufacturing. "It's a service to the state," he said of his efforts to create new products that generate start-up companies and strengthen Minnesota's economy.

He's also motivated by a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and the challenge of solving complex mechanical engineering problems.

A runner who completes four or five marathons a year, Erdman has long been interested in applying standard engineering techniques to the analysis of athletic performance in winter sports. In 2001, he and a student were working on a way to optimize the biomechanics of the start used in the luge. News of that research prompted the U.S. women's Olympic bobsled team to ask Erdman if he could develop an off-track start system.

"The bobsled practice track was very crowded, so they needed another way to practice," he explained.

It was just the kind of challenge Erdman relishes--solving a recurrent problem that requires the combined efforts of multifaceted specialists.

"It was one of those Cupid things," is the way he describes his ability to assemble "Team Minnesota," a group of his former students, and to attract corporate support from Aspen Research, a subsidiary of Andersen Corporation; EnduraTEC Systems Corporation (now a part of Bose Corporation); and Acceleration Minnesota, a manufacturer of high-end treadmills for the professional athlete.

The group devised a treadmill-based simulated start system, and the athlete who completed its first test run was amazed to discover that "she improved her performance by 20 percent on her first try," Erdman said.

With the new training system in place, the U.S. women's bobsled team went on to win a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"It would be nice [to make money from inventions], but that's not the goal," Erdman said. "The idea of helping in a situation where somebody is losing their vision--well, you'd feel proud of your career."

Throughout his career, Erdman has applied his ingenuity to many vexing mechanical engineering problems. His team developed the Linkage Interactive Computer Analysis and Graphically Enhanced Synthesis (LINCAGES) software package for mechanical design and analysis. LINCAGES has been licensed to more than 80 universities and companies and has produced more than a half million dollars in revenue for the University.

A few years ago, he worked on a system to digitize the standard technique for fitting a dental crown. As anyone with a bad tooth knows, fitting a crown can be a time-consuming ordeal involving several unpleasant appointments. Erdman and his colleagues worked out a way to truncate the whole process.

"We used a laser to digitize the 3-D coordinate system of the tooth [needing repair], and then the idea was to mill out the restoration," he said.

More recently, Erdman and retinal surgeon Timothy W. Olsen have been working to improve retinal surgery procedures. Together with Ph.D. student Paul Loftness, they developed a scleral depressor, an automated device that will allow surgeons to see more of the retina during operations. The instrument will replace a century-old procedure in which a surgical assistant presses a crude, pen-like tool against the sclera (the outer membrane of the eye) to move the peripheral retina into the surgeon's view.

The team's work on macular degeneration is in an earlier stage and is still awaiting a patent, but a new start-up company named Macular Regeneration Inc. is set to market the researchers' invention.

Although the potential for royalties always exists when an invention is brought to market, Erdman says that isn't the driving force behind his creativity. "It would be nice [to make money from inventions], but that's not the goal," he said. "The idea of helping in a situation where somebody is losing their vision--well, you'd feel proud of your career."

From Inventing Tomorrow, summer 2006, a publication of the Institute of Technology. Further reading: An eye on the future: U hopes to commercialize research to treat macular degeneration