Automation, which includes the use of robots and other high-tech means, has had a significant impact on the nation’s manufacturing industry. With its ability to improve quality and speed and decrease costs industrywide, automation is the present and future of manufacturing. And while it has displaced working class production jobs, automation has simultaneously created a shortage of qualified manufacturing engineers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual deficit is between 50,000 and 100,000, and growing. This shortage is creating a ripe opportunity for students enrolled in RIT’s mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology programs.
Two yellow, heavy-duty industrial robots, donated to RIT by General Motors in 2015, loom large in one of several manufacturing labs filled with a variety of robotic equipment. The two Fanuc R-2000iA/210F robots are among a collection of manufacturing assembly and production systems that are used to instruct students on an assortment of manufacturing and automation processes.
The GM donation adds an important piece to the larger manufacturing system at RIT. With the addition of the GM robots, the university has a complete, in-house manufacturing production and assembly system.
“There’s nobody in the world that has the robotics system, the surface-mount assembly system, the metrology lab system, and the CNC manufacturing system that our department does,” said Robert D. Garrick, professor and acting chair of the manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology department.
The value of this comprehensive, hands-on system is twofold. First, it is preparing students to embark on in-demand careers as manufacturing engineers, process engineers, or quality engineers in an industry that is rapidly changing. Second, the all-encompassing system is providing research opportunities, including those that explore intelligent systems, which extract data from manufacturing robots that is used to inform productivity, quality improvements, and more.
The impact of having an entire manufacturing system available to students is powerful. It gives them the rare chance to engage in all phases of manufacturing, automation, and production, said Garrick.
The manufacturing process entails a number of steps between product concept and the fabrication of a final product. Ideas often begin as a solution to a problem. Research on the current needs of the market confirm whether a concept could be in demand by consumers and whether an idea has the legs to endure product design and development.
Once an idea is fleshed out and a final design takes shape, students use CAD (computer-aided design) software to visualize a 3D model of their product, which also enables them to break down the individual components into smaller parts. Once theoretical problems are identified and analyzed, and the design is altered to accommodate these potential roadblocks, a product design moves into computer-aided manufacturing, or CAM. This is where a product leaps from a computer-visualized design to a three-dimensional, physical prototype with individual working parts.
Using metrology machines, the object’s parts are measured to verify the quality of the parts down to the level of microns. This type of measurement is essential to assess the quality of precision parts, such as those used to build automobiles, airplanes, and electronic devices.
Prototype testing follows, with improvements made as needed. If a product passes tests for functionality and performance, it moves to fabrication, where it may be produced in small quantities first before being manufactured on a larger scale.
Most higher education institutions specialize in one or two phases of the manufacturing process. RIT’s manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology department houses this entire manufacturing system.
“Students see the production process of designing a product, making it, producing it, controlling it, and then measuring it,” said Garrick. “Then they make parts that actually interface. Students get a feeling for how complex manufacturing is, rather than talking in the abstract.”
This comprehensive approach is creating graduates who are in high demand. With a year of work experience from required cooperative education placements and an education that’s supported by extensive lab experiences at each phase of the manufacturing process, students are entertaining job offers from companies such as GM, General Electric, Tesla, Toyota, Apple, Fisher-Price, General Dynamics, Harris Corporation, and Honda before they graduate.
Because the department specializes in advanced manufacturing, automation and robotics, and electronics assembly and packaging, research into these areas is expanding. According to S. Manian Ramkumar, interim dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology, research focuses on the industrial implementation of robots and controls, and the research associated with electronics and photonics manufacturing and packaging. The college is also wading into Industry 4.0, the current trend of extracting data from robots and other manufacturing technologies. It’s the introduction of the “smart factory,” where computers and automation come together. The result is data collected at every level of the manufacturing process.
How companies handle this data and how they utilize it to quickly take action with these advanced systems is what will improve manufacturing processes, said Ramkumar. “The future is going to become the implementation of robotics to make life easier. And to improve productivity and to provide quality and timeliness,” said Ramkumar.