Brett Nee (BSEE ‘03, MSEE ‘04, PhD ‘07) is an engineering specialist and team lead in the Power Electronic Control System section of the electronics department at Caterpillar Inc., specializing in power electronics, electric machines, and controls.
Nee has always enjoyed building things. Whether it was woodworking, fiddling with little electric circuits or writing simple computer programs, it seems that engineering was always in his future.
As a high school student, Nee recalls taking the Armed Services Vocation Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). “The results basically said I was good at figuring things out—better known as having ‘the knack.’ So I decided to pursue a career in electrical engineering,” he said.
After graduating high school, Nee attended Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, and also Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, California, before heading back to Illinois to pursue his electrical engineering degree at Illinois. During his first years in school, he was fortunate to land an internship at Hamilton Sundstrand. His experience there sparked an interest in electric machines and power electronics.
During the summer of his junior year, Nee did an independent study focused on optimizing the design of an induction machine rotor. “This gave me exposure to graduate studies at Illinois and it didn’t look hard,” he said. So he applied himself in the classroom and the laboratory and was admitted in the fall of 2003 for graduate studies under the guidance of former ECE Professor Patrick Chapman. He completed his PhD in 2007.
Since joining Caterpillar in 2007 as an electronic drive- controls engineer for two Cat® 340-ton large mining trucks, Nee has had the opportunity to work on numerous projects, from embedded software to hardware-in-the-loop simulation for controls development and testing, modeling of electric machines and power converters for real-time simulation, and even involvement with the design and specification of power electronics. Currently, in his position as an engineering specialist, he leads a team responsible for controls software development for Caterpillar’s low voltage electric drive programs.
“My two favorite things about working at Caterpillar are the daily interaction with my co-workers, and testing and tuning control algorithms on the machines,” said Nee. “There’s nothing quite like sitting in the buddy seat on a Cat 795F AC, tuning DC-link voltage regulation for a variety of operating conditions.”
With such impressive educational achievements, one might think Nee credits his amassed knowledge for both his professional success and the fulfillment he finds in his role at Caterpillar. Not so. While he reflects fondly on his time at U of I—with great experiences, friends, and world class professors— when asked about his greatest asset as an engineer, he said, “I would have to say it is my communication and social skills. Eighty percent of my day consists of interaction with my team and other process partners at Caterpillar. Constant communication is key when delivering complex projects and working with new technologies.
This [communication] makes problem solving pretty easy when you (or a team) can approach a problem from different perspectives.”
This focus on the communication and social aspects of his work—fostered in no small part, he says, by his time spent in the laboratory environment at Illinois, learning from and work- ing with a diverse group of friends and mentors—allows Nee to enjoy functioning as a part of the bigger picture, both at Cater- pillar, and globally, as well.
“Caterpillar is committed to sustainable development, and the electric drive programs that I work on play a key part in sustain- ability,” he said. “My team and I are responsible for delivering Caterpillar’s next generation drive trains, which will help those in the construction and mining industry achieve greater fuel efficiency or increase their productivity. The controls software that we develop is a huge enabling factor.”
What’s the next great thing for Nee at Caterpillar? “There exists the typical engineering aspects at Caterpillar, but one thing that is different from my perspective is the focus that we place on getting our software and controls engineers out to the ma- chines and perform testing and tuning for validation. I can’t re- ally divulge anything about current or upcoming projects—but I can say that I always get to work on and with the latest and greatest stuff!”