The popular teacher heads an annual design contest where student-built robots compete sometimes to the death to push, pluck or pull various objects.
But mechanical engineers build more than robots, and their expertise impacts everything from biology to financial management.
So Antonsson, 48, is well suited for his new job as JPL's chief technologist. For the next two years, he'll learn as much as he can about JPL's myriad research programs. In return, JPL hopes Antonsson's advice will help the lab keep its leading role in NASA.
Antonsson said he is most interested in the fresh challenges offered at JPL.
"In my research, I get exposure to an interesting range of technology, but nothing like the breadth of technologies at JPL," he said.
The chief technologist position involves developing a strategic plan for the technologies JPL should invest in for future missions. Antonsson also will help the lab search out non-NASA funding sources and build relationships with new universities and companies.
Antonsson's ties to industry and JPL, as well as leadership in Caltech's mechanical engineering division, were cited as reasons he beat out national competition.
"Erik left a very favorable impression on many of the people that he interviewed with at JPL. There was a common sense that he was a strategic thinker, (and) he is an active researcher and has strong ties to program managers at the national funding agencies," said Richard Murray, chair of the chief technologist search committee. Murray is chair of Caltech's engineering and applied science division.
Antonsson is a third-generation mechanical engineer. As a kid, he tinkered with appliances and equipment, until he learned not to take apart things people depended on. "Though I could usually put them back together," Antonsson adds.
After earning a bachelor's degree at Cornell University in New York and a doctorate from MIT, Antonsson spent a year at the University of Utah before accepting an offer from Caltech in 1984.
Antonsson's research is literally at the forefront of engineering. Instead of designing machines, he explores how to design.
"What we're working on is developing methods engineers can use to solve design problems," Antonsson said.
This includes creating mathematical methods for the early stages of design that can balance trade-offs such as weight versus power. Antonsson and his students also investigate methods for automatically solving design problems with computers.
But his office is filled with metal bearings, couplings and other parts.
"I think to be a good design engineer it's important for you to see how things work, to understand how they work, even to understand how they're built," said Antonsson, who brings the parts to class.
That philosophy also fuels the year-round work required for a successful design contest.
Despite 18 years at Caltech, Antonsson has never been the victim of a serious student prank, as most popular teachers are.
Just asking about pranks makes Antonsson rub his forehead.
"I hope that streak won't be broken any time soon I hate to even say it. I have lived in genuine fear that there will be some massive prank pulled at the final (robot) contest. You've got to think about the hundreds of hours of work the students have put in, their parents, alumni, members of the board of trustees ... I wouldn't be too enthusiastic about any disruption," he said.
-- Becky Oskin can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org