Industry-academic partnerships key to accelerating 3D simulation use in factories

In partnership with leading manufacturers and Dassault Systèmes, Ohio Northern University prepares students to use the latest technology to solve factory automation issues.

By Paul Nutter
Ohio Northern University

It is counter-intuitive to think a company would look at recent college graduates to find workers with experience; they usually look within their ranks or to the competition to find the talent they need. However, the pace of technological innovation within the manufacturing sector—especially with the growing adoption of 3D simulation—is voiding conventional wisdom.

Advancements in manufacturing technology are 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.

One project in 3D simulation for students at Ohio Northern University is to create and analyze 3D simulations for factory automation to help companies achieve maximum production efficiency, improve ergonomics for plant workers, lower cost, improve quality and reduce time to market. Shown are the before (above) and after (below) of one such project. (Images courtesy ONU and Dassault Systèmes)

There is a manufacturing renaissance afoot in North America where the advanced and sophisticated capabilities of our manufacturing plants are powering the production of high-tech and high-margin goods, as we see most low-tech and labor-intensive manufacturing move offshore. 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.

At the same time, we’re saying goodbye to an old stereotype that factories are dirty places to work that don’t require much skill. 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.

One fantastic way to connect with young people is through industry-academic partnerships; I’ve seen the benefits firsthand as a professor at Ohio Northern University (ONU). A small Liberal Arts institution in Northwest Ohio, ONU offers a highly-unique set of manufacturing technology courses that are built around partnerships with local manufacturers and the software company Dassault Systèmes, 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. Students spend the first half of the curriculum learning Catia, and then Delmia, Dassault’s 3D digital manufacturing software which 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 the parts that make up a shotgun and simulated the assembly. They then modeled and simulated work cells that analyzed ergonomics, and another that modeled 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 analyze 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. The students always perform professionally and knowledgeably and impress company representatives in the process, especially during the question and answer portion of the presentation where the intricate knowledge they’ve gained about their assigned plant or manufacturing cell can really shine.

While the companies are mostly involved with the program as a courtesy—due sometimes to labor 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 relationships 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 modeling 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 & 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 integrator 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 is an Associate Professor in the Ohio Northern University Department of Technological Studies.