A manufacturing renaissance: Industry-academic partnerships are key in this new era

Friday September 30, 2011
Written by Paul Nutter
We’re in the midst of a manufacturing renaissance in North America. While we’ve seen most low-tech and labour-intensive manufacturing move offshore, the advanced and sophisticated capabilities of remaining plants enable the production of high-tech and high-margin goods. As a result, the sector is not just surviving, it’s thriving.

Advanced manufacturing continues to be the driving force behind the sector’s growth in North America, and the technology powering it requires a special set of skills that comes quite naturally to many young people. Having grown up in the age of computers and video games, younger people are well-suited for these jobs, as the tools used come almost as second nature to them.

Another factor contributing to the rebirth of our manufacturing sector is the dwindling stereotype that factories are dirty places to work and don’t require much skill. In the recent past, lack of exposure to the sector has painted that picture for people of all ages, but the perception is starting to change. When young people are engaged by industry veterans and shown the realities of today’s manufacturing jobs, many of them develop a keen interest in pursuing a manufacturing career and can almost instantly make a positive impact on the industry.

It’s counterintuitive to think that a manufacturer would look at recent college graduates to find employees with experience. Most companies would look within their ranks or to the competition to find the talent they need. However, the pace of technological innovation within the manufacturing sector is voiding that conventional wisdom. With advancements in manufacturing technology being introduced so quickly, industry veterans often don’t have the opportunity to learn about and gain experience on the tools and technology that are being introduced to the younger generation. Nothing can replace the knowledge and intuition that experienced workers bring to the shop floor, but in some instances, the younger and more tech-savvy generation will be better equipped to use the tools required for today’s advanced manufacturing. This is why industry-academic partnerships are critically important as a means to drive interest in manufacturing jobs, and in the process, enable companies to train their next generation of workers.

Industry-academic partnerships are a fantastic way to connect with young people, and I’ve seen the benefits firsthand as a professor at Ohio Northern University (ONU). A small institution located approximately 145 km northwest of Columbus, ONU offers manufacturing technology courses that are built around partnerships with local manufacturers and the software company Dassault Systemes, which provides digital manufacturing solutions on which the students learn.

Local companies that have participated in the program include a Ford engine plant, General Dynamics Land Systems Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, Honda, and several Tier-1 suppliers for major automakers. These companies understand that the primary emphasis of the program is to provide educational opportunities for students, versus providing service to the company, and they’ve been very receptive to offering their time and resources.

Students spend the first half of the curriculum learning CATIA, Dassault Systemes’ 3D design software, and then DELMIA, its 3D digital manufacturing software that allows manufacturers to virtually define, plan, create, monitor and control all production processes. They have typically worked on basic projects to become proficient in using the software before moving to a real-world setting. For example, last year they learned to model all of the parts that make up a shotgun and simulated the assembly. They then modelled and simulated workcells that analysed ergonomics, and another that modelled and simulated a robotic operation.

For the second half of the curriculum, teams of three to five students are assigned projects where they conduct multiple visits to a company and gather data about a plant’s manufacturing processes, record information about the facility and robots used, and receive a specific assignment from the program sponsor within the plant. They take this information back to the classroom and, using digital manufacturing tools, create and analyse 3D simulations that could help companies achieve maximum production efficiency, improve ergonomics for plant workers, lower cost, improve quality and reduce time to market.

Once the simulations are complete and students have identified potential changes in production processes to improve efficiency at the plant, they create a formal presentation and reveal their findings to plant management. Some presentations include a dozen or more company executives, which can be intimidating, but it allows students to hone their presentation skills and gain poise in a business setting.

While the companies are mostly involved with the program as a courtesy — due sometimes to labour and contract issues that would prevent them from hiring students to do real work — they all understand the long-term value, and in the short-term, many of them use the analysis to implement changes that improve their operations. Essentially, it’s a win-win for both parties. The real-world experience, insight into modern manufacturing processes and professional contacts gained by students are invaluable. At the same time, the companies receive an analysis that could provide innovative ways to improve processes, while training their next generation of workers and potentially finding their next new employee.

Over the past few years, the program’s success has been validated by job opportunities secured by graduates, and by direct feedback and testimonials. Recent program alumni were asked to fill out a brief survey evaluating the program, and their comments provided unique insight about the value their experience has brought to the industry. One former student responded that “there is a need for 2D/3D modelling in industry today. Simulation can be a powerful tool if companies decide to use it.” Another noted that companies are hiring program graduates because they “do not have sufficient experience with CAD and simulation [in-house].” Another said, “the simulation curriculum was the most critical factor in me gaining and maintaining employment.”

These alumni are now employed by organizations like General Dynamics, Grob, Boeing, Global Aeronautica, Lockheed-Martin, and NASA, in addition to several Tier 1 suppliers and systems integrators to automotive OEMs.

With a value that can’t be duplicated, academic-industry partnerships are an important factor that can continue to fuel the manufacturing renaissance. As the economy improves and companies look to their future, they will need workers trained in the highly technical disciplines that are starting to drive the manufacturing sector. By partnering with academia now, they’ll help develop a pool of young, enthusiastic and highly skilled workers.

 

Paul Nutter, MBA, CMfgE, CQE, CQA, is an associate professor, Ohio Northern University, Department of Technological Studies.

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