Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Manufacturing the next generation: A look at the tools some Canadian schools are using to develop the future workforce

January 20, 2011
By Mary Del

What do an interactive training simulation system, a web-based analytical tool and an innovative co-op program have in common? They are all being employed by Canadian schools to better prepare the next generation of skilled workers.

The way students are being taught is evolving, as industry and academia collaborate to attract youth to the skilled trades, and better prepare students for the workforce with hands-on experiences. Take a look at how the next generation of skilled workers is being taught in Canada.

Game on: 3D simulation

Precision DBS has found a way to bring an industrial plant into the classroom. The Mississauga, Ont.-based company has developed a technology called ITS PLC – an interactive training simulation system for PLCs, PACs and PC-based control systems that brings immersive games-based technology to learning, research and development.


Westlane Secondary School, in Niagara Falls, Ont., is the first high school to implement the technology, which is designed to engage the students and introduce them to applications within an industrial plant in a way that they can relate to – in 3D.

The system consists of a piece of software and a piece of hardware. The software provides the animation for the student to be able to visualize the process, and the hardware makes the connection to the programmable controller of the user’s choice. In Westlane’s case, it’s an Allen-Bradley MicroLogix 1100 PLC.

ITS PLC provides visual simulation of five applications common in an industrial environment – pick and place, automatic warehouse, sorting, batching and palletizing – using virtual sensors and actuators controlled by the user’s PLC, PAC or PC. Users program their PLC/PAC/PC to control each virtual system as if it was a real system.

Roy Smith is using the simulation program in the electricity course that he teaches, which is part of Westlane’s Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program, a ministry-approved program that allows students to focus their learning on a specific economic sector while meeting the requirements for the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Six grade 12 students are using the system this semester.

This is a unique approach for a high school, but a necessary one, explains Bill Valedis, manager, automation and training, at Precision DBS.

"I think to prepare students for the workforce, one of the elements that’s missing today is the ability to show them, to visualize what a manufacturing environment looks like," says Valedis. "Students will actually be able to, not only learn about a technology…but what does a process look like? What is sorting a large box versus a smaller box? What does that mean? What is a conveyor? What is a palletizer? These are the things that they’re going to stumble on once they become employed or go to a higher level of education. So it provides the visualization to prepare them as far as the process is concerned," he says.

Smith is recently out of industry himself, following a 20-year career as an electrician, so he is very familiar with the workings of an industrial plant.

"Every simulation that’s on there is a true-to-life experience," he explains. "So the first time I saw it [the simulator], it was a hit, and I knew that this was the direction that students need to go in to get to that higher level of thinking."

The school’s principal, Carol Purcer, says that this new teaching tool is a welcome addition to the classroom.

"It addresses the different kinds of learners you have in your classroom," she says. "There are some kids that you can just talk about something and they get it. But you often have kids that need to live it, to feel it…Because of the visual piece that goes with it, it addresses all of the kinds of learners in the classroom, and it gives a fuller experience for them."

Smith says that, in addition to giving the students exposure to electricity in an industrial environment, it will prepare them for their next step, should they decide to pursue this in post-secondary school.

"There are a number of colleges around the area that are using the same kind of system. When they graduate, if anyone wants to go to college, it’s going to be something that they’re familiar with. We’re not going to teach the same material, but it will give them some insight into what they’re going to be doing."

One of those schools is Niagara College, in Welland, Ont. Niagara College uses 16 ITS PLC units in its Electrical Engineering, Electronics Engineering and Photonics programs in the core course that teaches students about PLCs. While each system can be customized to the user’s needs, Niagara College uses the training stations to familiarize students with what a PLC is in the fourth term of both the technology and technician programs.

"It gives them an overview of how a PLC interfaces in the real world," says Paul Jiankos, an electrical technology teacher at Niagara College. "In the past, PLC training was more or less limited to inputs and outputs like flashing lights. And so we were asking the students…to take our word for it that this flashing light represents a motor or a conveyor or a valve," he explains. "Precision has developed this software that emulates a virtual plant. So they can actually do their programming here and watch it on the screen, and at the same time they can see how their programming is driving a conveyor, moving boxes, operating elevators, making use of the troubleshoot and so on."

Sarah Mann is a teacher in the electronics engineering faculty at Niagara College. She spent most of the Fall programming the units for the labs she will be teaching this Winter. A graduate from the college’s electronics engineering technologist course, Mann can speak from experience that this new approach will make a huge difference in how the student’s learn.

"This is a move to bring them into the factory, into the plants, to be able to see what that actuator looks like and what they’re actually controlling," she says. "They’re not learning just the fundamentals anymore; they’re learning skills that are going to help them out in industry."

The software also allows them to bring failures in, so that the students can learn how to troubleshoot.

"It’s really important that they learn how to troubleshoot a process," explains Jiankos. "And that’s what Sarah is going to be doing. She is going to write labs that induce failures and they’re going to be the lucky students that have to find them."

In the past, when they covered troubleshooting, Mann would have to flip a switch right in front of the student. As a result, they knew exactly what they were looking for. With this simulation approach, she is able to program in the failures beforehand.

By the end of the semester, students will know how to program the PLC for the applications taught, as well as add in the failures.

Niagara College student Dave Mettler took the PLC course last year before ITS PLC was installed. He helped Mann test the system this past Fall, so he has experienced the different approaches.

"From testing the labs, I learned a lot more than I did in the previous course. It’s very effective; it’s very helpful; and it’s very good, visually, for helping students learn," he says.

Jiankos is confident that the students will not only learn a lot about PLCs, but also have fun at the same time. His only concern is: "I just hope that this course doesn’t detract or take away from their other courses."

Valedis is currently in talks with various other secondary and post-secondary schools regarding ITS PLC, but he is also introducing it to schools across the globe. He recently installed 16 units at the University of Panama, and quotes one professor from a recent trip: "You brought visualization, you brought gaming into the classroom, and that is going to connect with the learners at a different level."

Operation Critical Thinking: BCIT’s approach to hands-on learning

The Business Operations Management Diploma program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) emphasizes business process improvement. The two-year program includes general business courses such as finance, economics and marketing, through to specialized courses in business process improvement, quality management, materials management, information technology, project management, supply chain management, Lean synchronous systems, production management and management of business operations.

In the third and fourth terms of the program, all students are required to participate in an industry project as a condition for graduation. The students spend one day a week in the third term, and three days a week in the fourth term, working in small teams with a client organization on their industry project. This project is intended to allow the student to identify an opportunity, research related information, analyse it, develop and recommend effective solutions, or to identify a concept, investigate its potential and develop implementation plans. Examples of the types of projects completed in the past include: reducing assembly labour time for an electronics company; developing an inventory management system for a saw mill; developing recommendations for ISO certification; reviewing and recommending methods to reduce materials shortages for production operations; improving shop floor output; and developing a system to monitor work-in-process quality for an aerospace company.

"There’s absolutely no way we can give [the students] this type of interaction in the classroom," explains Richard Ranftl, an instructor in the BCIT School of Business’ Business Operations Management program.

The industry project, he says, allows students to be "more comfortable with operating within a business. So after doing the project, you’re really focused on looking around you and challenging what’s going on and saying, ‘There must be ways to do this better.’"

Critical thinking is one of the traits that Ranftl says that the graduates of this program acquire that helps them out in the workforce.

"They’re looking at what the organization is really trying to do and then how the activities going on within that organization support those goals. So from the operations management program’s perspective, that’s where a lot of our training and educating is focused. Take the time to understand what the company is really trying to do, then look at the business processes that are going on to see how they need to be changed to leverage that competitive force that the company has got…A lot of what we do is root cause analysis; it’s driving to the core issue, and then what are you going to do within that company to actually get the decision makers to go along with you."

Since roughly half of the projects are in the manufacturing sector, Ranftl says that "a fair proportion" of the graduates begin their careers in the manufacturing sector, typically in the purchasing or materials management part of the business, or in production planning.

Angus Liao, a planning and demand analyst at Molson, is a graduate from the program. For his industry projects, he designed a cycle count program for a heavy duty winch manufacturer, and created procurement standard operating procedures for a new retail division of a seafood company. Both projects were carried out in teams of two, beginning with the negotiation of a contract and closing with a presentation to a board of stakeholders, as well as providing deliverables such as reports, data and action plans.

Within a month after graduating, Liao was offered a job as a procurement specialist at the winch manufacturer that he did his project with.

"I carried on the implementation of the cycle counting program that I designed and it had a significant impact on inventory accuracy, which allowed the company to bypass an annual physical inventory count that required a freeze on production," he explains. 

"The industry project approach exposed me to a position where I had to walk into a company and an industry I was not familiar with and apply the problem-solving skills I was taught in school to learn as much as possible regarding the business processes and where challenges existed. From there, my team formed alternatives and decided on a solution to overcome the challenges," Liao says.

"Traditional co-op placements have a focus on familiarizing students with day-to-day activities of a job, and often end up with the student filling in for wherever there’s a lack in capacity. While it is still a great way to get comfortable with [a] work environment, I find that this method misses opportunities for students to demonstrate leadership and complex problem-solving skills. The way that the BCIT model prepared me, and the advantage of this approach over the traditional co-op, is that it put me in a place where I had to go beyond the daily transactions and constantly see the big picture of the business to understand how every process contributes to the success of the company, rather than a task-based co-op position," Liao explains. "This immediately puts the new graduates in a leadership position, with or without direct report, because they are able to own a process and guide it towards improvement."

Over the years, companies have realized the benefits of hosting an industry project. In fact, according to Ranftl, "What almost always happens is that we have more interest from hosts than we have teams available."

Ranftl says that at least 50 percent of the host companies end up implementing the students’ suggestions. And five to 10 percent of the students are hired by those companies to either do the implementation or work there upon graduating from the course.

"These industry projects became far more than grades on school projects and line items on my resume," says Liao. "The concept and methodology that I brought with me to industry is still core to how I manage my responsibilities."

Search and ye shall find: Web-based analytical tool

Knovel is a web-based application integrating technical information with analytical and search tools to deliver answers to engineers – and engineers in training. With more than 600 customers worldwide, the subscription-based search engine is used in industry and academia to gain access to engineering reference content sourced from societies, publishers and authors. It’s also a tool designed to "bring content to life" by making tables, charts, equations, plotters and graphs interactive.

Knovel’s collection includes more than 2,000 reference works and databases from more than 70 technical publishers and professional societies. The content collection includes material properties, process and design information, best practices, equations and formulations for specific industries and engineering disciplines, in 25 subject areas. More than 300 academic institutions across the globe subscribe to the service, which has more than 60 Canadian customers.

How is Knovel contributing to developing the next generation skilled worker? "I think the ability to be a good researcher is of increasing importance and, therefore, being aware of the tools and how to use them and having them available to you…is incredibly important," says Chris Forbes, the company’s CEO.

"The immediate benefit is speed to solution. But at the same time, the reason that we have such a large customer base and the reason that we have something approaching a 95 percent [subscription] renewal rate… [is because] the information that we provide is vetted and is very high quality, so that you can be confident that you’re speeding toward the quality solution," says Forbes. "We deliver validated content; our search is optimized, so the ability to access the information is optimized for engineers and engineering, and it’s wrapped with a series of data analysis tools that allow people to pull specifically the data they may require, and pull it into their work in an easy way."

The company has also started to partner with publishers of engineering text books to provide problem sets to students. The problems are in the text book, and students are encouraged to go to Knovel’s website to interact with the resources and tools in order to solve the problem.

"They have interactive problem sets that they can solve on the web, which makes the learning experience hopefully that much more satisfying and interesting," says Forbes.

For the last four years, the company has run the Knovel University Challenge, which requires participating students to use Knovel’s online technical references and interactive tools to correctly answer at least three questions across multiple engineering disciplines in order to be entered into a random draw for prizes. Participation introduces students to the resources and tools that many professionals use to complete technical projects.

"Our Nation’s economic viability, the overall quality and competence of our engineering workforce and their ability to innovate are interconnected," says Forbes. "It’s important to ensure the next generation of engineers has the knowledge and experience required to succeed in a global economy. Knovel supports engineering competitions and other programs that develop problem-solving skills and encourage the use of tools and resources that young engineers will need throughout their careers."

As a research services librarian at the University of Alberta, one of Knovel’s heaviest academic users, Randy Reichardt teaches engineering students how to use the search engine. He says there are three qualities that an engineer needs to be a valuable contribution to the future workforce: technical skills, soft skills and the ability to do research. The latter is where Knovel helps.

"Why do they need good research skills?" Reichardt asks. "There are lots of different examples. Often engineers are going to be tied into a firm, and as the junior engineer, they’re going to be the ones that are told to go out and find information about the project that they’re working on for their company. And the company might ask them to do things like develop new products or upgrade existing ones. They might be asked to improve a process. Maybe there was an equipment failure and they’re going to be asked to do a root cause analysis for that. The company might say, ‘We’re thinking of integrating different types of technology into our existing products. Can you see what’s out there that we might be able to use?’ They might be asked to find recognized experts in one of the fields that they’re working in, locate licensable technologies. They might be asked to create intellectual property," he explains. "They need to be able to create what a colleague of mine called a mosaic of information from what’s available. And it’s essential for them to stay on top of external technical developments, so that the company can stay competitive. If they don’t know how to create that mosaic of information, then they need to know where to begin looking. So they need to be aware of appropriate databases. Knovel is one of those critical databases."

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