As executive director of Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), I have found that one of the joys of this job is welcoming middle and high school students for field trips. Over the last year, we’ve hosted more than 3,000 kids, showing them the exciting technology and interesting careers in advanced manufacturing.
Inevitably, as we walk through the mechatronics lab, an astute student will pose questions such as, “Why are you teaching robotics? Won’t they replace all the jobs?” The easy answer is that someone has to fix the robots, but if we dig deeper, there is much more to the story.
It’s an exciting time to work in manufacturing. Over the last decade, we have witnessed the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, with the blending of digital and physical technologies opening the door to new methods of manufacturing, distribution, and product maintenance. In particular, automation, additive manufacturing, and artificial intelligence will have a profound impact on industry in the near future. The convergence of these technologies will accelerate the pace of change in our lifetimes.
The most mature of the three is automation. The rise of industrial robots, particularly in automotive and electronics manufacturing, began in the 1960s. As fans of Transformers and Voltron know, peak hype surrounding automation and robotics hit in the mid-’80s. Several factors have sparked a renaissance in the automation and robotics industry: the popularization of internet-connected devices, cost reductions spurred by the economies of scale realized with the advent of smartphones, and the development of collaborative robotics that can work safely with people in close quarters.
At Greenville Tech’s CMI, we are preparing students in our mechatronics program for these technologies using state-of-the-art industrial robots, programmable logic controllers, and other automation equipment. Thanks to our partnership with Clemson University and the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, we will work to industrialize new technologies and expose students to the future of robotics. These new technologies include autonomous guided vehicles on the factory floor, collaborative robots that work side-by-side with associates, and the application of advanced sensors and programming of industrial robots.
Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is another technology with the potential to upend manufacturing and supply chains. Parts for aircraft engines, medical devices, and dental implants are already being manufactured at scale through 3-D printing. With an expected reduction in price and increase in speed, 3-D manufacturing will revolutionize how products are made and shipped, allowing for the mass customization of products and simplified supply chains.
CMI is home to the only metal 3-D printer in the Upstate dedicated to training and prototyping services for area businesses. We train students on the best applications for these tools and how to operate them. Through our partnership with Renishaw, experienced faculty and applications engineers are onsite to further enhance our capabilities.
Finally, artificial intelligence, or AI, is among the least mature of technologies reshaping manufacturing. Manufacturing processes have long relied on structured data from operators, sensors, or other inputs to control the flow of goods, the speed of a machine tool, or other operations.
The power of AI is its ability to drive a process or make a decision based on large amounts of unstructured data. For a simple analogy, a computer can easily recognize when a temperature reaches a threshold based on reading a digital thermometer. This is structured data. On the other hand, Apple’s Siri requires large unstructured datasets of sound along with advanced AI algorithms to work properly. While manufacturing is largely a structured environment, we can see numerous potential applications, including monitoring the vibrations of a machine to detect impending failure, using vision systems to guide autonomous vehicles across a factory floor, or predicting disruptions in global supply chains.
This brings us back to the question of robots replacing people. Will these technologies evolve to the point of making us so productive that jobs are eliminated?
Just as ATMs have not eliminated bank teller jobs, manufacturing associates will always be needed, in large numbers, to manage increasingly complex industrial processes.
I would argue that the survival of the regional manufacturing economy is critically dependent on investments in advanced technologies and training skilled workers needed to program and maintain these systems. As companies look to where they can continue to invest and expand in the future, the ability of the workforce to rise to the challenge and embrace these new technologies is a prime factor in their decision-making process.
With the constant evolution of manufacturing technology, graduates must be prepared with the foundational knowledge and problem-solving skills necessary to adapt, while also learning the state-of-the-art technology of today. At Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation, we are ready to rise to the challenge.