Clemson University partners with Greenville Tech to launch new R&D facility for manufacturing students

The Clemson University Vehicle Assembly Center will feature a full vehicle assembly line, joining lab, sub-assembly lab, embedded devices lab, collaborative robotics center, and autonomous factory vehicles. Photo by Will Crooks.

American manufacturing has experienced remarkable growth over the past two decades thanks to the development of new technologies such as 3D printing, robotics, and advanced analytics. Now Clemson University is working to prepare students across the region for the next wave of manufacturing innovation.

The university has partnered with Greenville Technical College to launch the Vehicle Assembly Center,  a 4,000-square-foot research and development facility that will enable faculty, students, and companies to collaborate in learning and developing advanced manufacturing techniques and technologies.

“We are embarking on a new model where academia and industry can drive compelling research while simultaneously defining a new education paradigm as students at the graduate, undergraduate, and technical college levels collaborate on full-scale manufacturing projects and fortify each others’ learning,” said Laine Mears, BMW SmartState Chair in Automotive Manufacturing at Clemson University.

Mears added that the center’s capital investment of $500,000 came from both private and public investors, as well as BMW Manufacturing Co. and Siemens.

The center, which is part of Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research and located in Greenville Tech’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation, will feature a full vehicle assembly line, joining lab, sub-assembly lab, embedded devices lab, collaborative robotics center, and autonomous factory vehicles.

It will be led by Mears, who has over a decade of experience in the automotive industry and is considered an expert on how manufacturers can use sensors and data to improve quality and build cars more efficiently.

Mears said the new facility may help address some of the automotive industry’s biggest manufacturing challenges. Researchers, for instance, can cause assembly lines to temporarily pause production when conducting tests at local facilities. The center, however, will eliminate that problem by giving them their own three-station assembly line to experiment without the pressure of being on a factory floor.

Left to right: David Clayton, executive director at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation; Laine Mears, Vehicle Assembly Center director and BMW SmartState Chair in Automotive Manufacturing at Clemson University; Joerg Schulte, Manager of the BMW Liaison Office for Research and Innovation and adjunct professor at Clemson University. Photo by Will Crooks.

The center could also help manufacturers across the state combat the ongoing skills gap.

“A highly-skilled, well-educated workforce is essential to meet the challenges of the next generation of vehicles,” said Knudt Flor, president and CEO of BMW Manufacturing Co. “The Vehicle Assembly Center and its project-based learning approach promise to prepare a workforce with the skills needed to be successful in the premium automotive industry.”

More than 1,800 manufacturers currently call the Upstate home, according to Upstate SC Alliance. Manufacturing accounts for $13.3 billion, about 22 percent, of the region’s nearly $60 billion gross regional product.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the industry supports 107,837 jobs regionally, which comprises 21 percent of the Upstate’s workforce not including state and federal government jobs. But the skills gap is widening, and over the next decade, 2 million of the projected 3.4 million manufacturing jobs expected to come online will be unfilled, according to the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting LLP.

The Vehicle Assembly Center plans to initially accept 100 students between Clemson University and Greenville Tech, according to Mears. A large portion of the center’s research will be conducted by faculty and students in Clemson’s College of Engineering Computing and Applied Sciences. Greenville Tech students, on the other hand, will be enrolled in manufacturing training programs.

Mears added that industry partners like BMW Manufacturing Co. and Siemens may also send employees to the center on a regular basis to help researchers develop assembly line improvements and provide an industry perspective for students.

Keith Miller, president of Greenville Technical College, said including tech students in the center’s research will better prepare them to operate state-of-the-art technology on the assembly line so they will need less training once they are in jobs.

“As our advanced manufacturing students work with Clemson’s engineering students on real-world projects, the teams share ideas and collaborate as they will in the workplace. This experience better prepares them for their careers,” he said.

Rethink Robotics’ “Sawyer” is one of several collaborative robots used by automative researchers and students at Clemson University’s Vehicle Assembly Center in Greenville. The single-arm robot is capable of inspecting automotive parts, retrieving tools, checking the security of a spark plug cable on an engine, and more. Photo by Will Crooks.

The Vehicle Assembly Center will house various research projects that explore advanced sensing systems, autonomous driving, human-robot interaction, intelligent manufacturing, and more, according to Mears.

One such project will seek to create a robot that can install a nearly 20-pound alternator on a car as it moves down the center’s three-station assembly line. It could reduce fatigue and injuries caused by repetitive motion.

Another project will look to continue the development of an autonomous robot that’s capable of transporting an individual’s belongings as they navigate the factory floor. The robot, which resembles, a miniature shopping cart, was created by graduate students at CU-ICAR. It was first unveiled to the public in November 2017.

“Our focus is developing robots and wearable devices that help workers on the assembly line. It could be a robot following a worker around with tools or a robot that’s capable of double-checking the worker’s job. This is the new robotics for advanced manufacturing,” said Mears. “A lot of people are concerned about robots taking their jobs. But an assembly line will never be fully automated.”

Industrial robots have long been used by manufacturers to perform repetitive tasks with consistency and precision. There are currently more than 1.5 million robots in factories and warehouses across the globe, with about 260,000 in the U.S. alone, according to a report by the Manufacturing Institute and Pricewaterhousecoopers, a multinational accounting research firm based in London.

Global robot sales hit 294,312 units in 2016, according to a recent report by the International Federation of Robots. The automotive industry brought in more robots than any other industry in the U.S., accounting for 70 percent of North American industrial robot shipments in 2016, with $1.2 billion dollars spent on the machines.

Annual shipments of industrial robots are set to see double-digit growth globally through 2025, when nearly a million units are expected to ship, according to ABI Research. But more robots could mean fewer jobs for humans.

Clemson mechanical engineering graduate student Doug Chickarello demonstrates a wireless EEG headset that researchers plan to use for a cognitive study of assembly activities. Photo by Will Crooks.

For every new industrial robot that was introduced into the workforce between 1993 and 2007, six human jobs were eliminated, according to a study released earlier this month by the National Economic Research Bureau.

Luckily, an increasing number of manufacturers across the globe are beginning to outfit their assembly lines with collaborative robots, which are designed to improve production by physically interacting with human workers.

From 2016 to 2025, the global revenue of collaborative robotics shipments are expected to hit a compound average growth rate of 49.8 percent, compared to 12.1 percent for industrial robots and 23.2 percent for commercial robotics, according to a report by ABI Research. Global revenues for collaborative robots hit $292 million last year. However, by 2025, that figure is set to exceed $1.23 billion.

“Industrial robotics has been a critical component of advanced manufacturing for many decades, but with collaborative robotics, automation and cooperation between man and machine will move out of production onto the factory floor and into the warehouse,” said Rian Whitton, a research analyst at ABI Research.

Mears said researchers at the Vehicle Assembly Center may also get the chance to test out virtual reality and augmented reality systems.

Augmented reality superimposes computer-generated holographic images on a user’s view of the real world through smart glasses. Virtual reality projects immersive images that users can interact with through a headset. Both systems have exhibited a wide range of capabilities on the assembly line, according to Mears.

BMW Manufacturing Co., for instance, has run a pilot program at its facility in Spartanburg since 2014 to see how Google Glass can improve the quality control of its pre-series vehicles as they make the transition from prototype to full production.

An employee with BMW Manufacturing Co. demonstrates a pair of Google Glasses. Photo provided.

The company’s analysis center usually runs a complete check of each pre-series vehicle to ensure the required premium quality of all vehicles in the subsequent series production. The glasses, which use augmented reality, now allow staff members at the center to add photos and video sequences to their written reports.

“Efforts toward process automation are driving demand for new skills. The industry is looking for a workforce with information and systems integration experience,” Mears said. “The human element in manufacturing is not going away: It is getting smarter, more agile and increasingly plugged in to this evolving Internet-of-Things.”

In addition to robotics, Clemson University and Greenville Technical College also plan to build a small research and development space for composite materials at the Vehicle Assembly Center. Composites are used as alternatives to traditional steel frames to make cars weigh less and get better gas mileage, according to Mears.



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