Clemson gets $3 million grant to study simulated factory with Greenville Tech

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Photo by Will Crooks.

Next fall, Clemson University graduate students and Greenville Technical College students will be working together in what the schools hope will be the new national model for workforce development education.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $3 million grant to Clemson University’s THINKER program, which stands for Technology-Human INtegrated Knowledge, Education, and Research.

THINKER places more than 20 graduate students a year at the Clemson Vehicle Assembly Center housed in Greenville Tech’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation to research human interaction with technology on the assembly line, as well as ways to enhance the work environment.

Clemson University student Matthew Krugh works on a circuit board for a sensory glove he developed. Photo by Will Crooks.

Previously, graduate students at Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research would have a small window to test technology at BMW’s plant.

Laine Mears, BMW SmartState chair in Automotive Manufacturing at Clemson, said a student would have about 15 minutes when the assembly line shuts down in the middle of the night to test a piece of equipment he was researching — while being careful not to disrupt production.

“If he were to ever shut down production, that would be a really big problem,” Mears said. “So we said, let’s not worry about that anymore, let’s build a factory that we can actually break and cause problems in and understand how humans can address those problems.”

Matthew Krugh, a student in Clemson’s doctorate program for vehicle manufacturing and quality, has been developing technology to help assembly line workers complete tasks. One of Krugh’s inventions places a small camera at the end of workers’ index fingers that can project onto smart technology so they can see what they’re feeling with their hands when they reach inside a vehicle.

Clemson University student Matthew Krugh poses at Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation. Photo by Will Crooks.

“We were looking at, how can we make the associate’s life easier? How can we also enable them to use a lot of new technology that’s coming out?” Krugh said.

The Greenville Tech students will still be completing their coursework with the school, but through THINKER the graduate students will consult Tech’s students as though they are working in an actual factory.

Greenville Tech’s students will be the first to test some of the technology that comes out of CU-ICAR.

“It won’t work perfectly, but the parts that do work, we want to be able to push out the actual pedagogical lessons or the teaching lessons potentially to other industries,” Mears said.

Assembly lines haven’t changed much in the 105 years since the automobile assembly line was invented by Henry Ford, Mears said.

“In 100 years, there have been no major advances beyond the robot, but now, it’s a time that we can relax here a little bit, and rethink — what does the manufacturing system need to look like for the person to do the best job that they can [and] get the most out of it themselves?” Mears said.

Mears said the idea behind THINKER is not only to invent technology to help industry workers and executives improve the quality of the product, but to study the work environment and improve employees’ quality of life.

“Now we’re able to get to a much higher level of doing data analysis, understanding human behavior in the manufacturing environment, and really developing a new understanding of how people interact with manufacturing systems,” Mears said. “People are an integral part of manufacturing, and you’re never going to empty a factory out and put a bunch of robots in — people will always be in manufacturing.”

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