It’s not uncommon for a University of Illinois engineering professor to bring a class to tour the Caterpillar’s Champaign Simulation Center. It’s also not uncommon for one of the tour participants to later join the Center’s crop of student interns.

“We make a promise to them that we’re going to teach you how Caterpillar uses these technologies that you’re learning about in class to develop our product,” says Walter Lohmann, Center manager.

To address strong demand for virtual product development and simulation from various business units, in 1999 the Peoria-based company opened its Champaign Simulation Center in cooperation with the UI’s National Supercomputing Center. The vision of the CSC was to cost effectively provide advanced analysis, design, and simulation services for the company.

“The mission is to use computer-aided engineering to develop products,” Lohmann said. “The cost of building a prototype of building a car or a tractor is very expensive. You want to use the computer before you commit to build.”

The Center’s “customers” are Caterpillar Design Centers, primarily in North America. Wherever product development is occurring in the company, the Champaign Simulation Center could be called in.

Over the years, Champaign Simulation Center has developed new methods and filled gaps in the virtual product development tools it uses. Although the operation has evolved, increasing the level of sophistication and problem solving, one thing remains consistent: the center is focused on mentoring student interns.

Caterpillar offers students a unique opportunity – a relationship that starts with a full-time summer internship and continues as year-round employment. The Center offers a flexible learning environment with a heavy emphasis on mentoring. Often there is a 1:1 ratio of interns to full-time employees on projects. Students are sometimes sent to work temporarily in other Caterpillar locations, including Decatur and Peoria, so they can see first-hand where the heavy machinery is made and to learn more about the company.

More than 300 interns have worked at the Center since it opened, and the facility serves as a recruitment pipeline for Caterpillar. The company has successfully hired 65 percent of students offered positions, and they have gone on to work at Caterpillar sites all over the world.

“Caterpillar has stayed at the University of Illinois Research Park for the past 11 years, “Lohmann says, “because of the engineering students and the talent that they represent both to help us execute our programs and as future employees of Caterpillar.”