Clemson University experts will help develop next-generation robots and play a leading role in training the workers who operate them as part of a $253-million plan that aims to fill 510,000 potential new manufacturing jobs across the country by 2025.
The Department of Defense announced Friday the formation of the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, a project bringing together 84 industry partners, 35 universities and 40 other groups in 31 states.
Among the institute’s 10-year goals are to increase worker productivity by 30 percent and to help make robots more accessible to small- and medium-sized businesses. Organizers said the enhanced productivity will create jobs to build, manage and maintain the robots.
Researchers who are involved envision a future in which robots begin to take over heavy lifting and labor-intensive tasks, freeing up humans to focus on work that requires higher-level thinking. They also want to make robots less expensive and more adaptable to a variety of jobs.
Clemson experts will play key coordinating roles in two areas of the institute:
- One of eight Regional Robotics Collaboratives will be based at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation, the Greenville facility shared by Clemson and Greenville Technical College. The co-leads for the seven-state Southeastern collaborative are Venkat Krovi, the Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation at Clemson, and David Clayton, the center’s executive director.
- Rebecca Hartley, director of operations at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, will serve as the institute’s chief workforce officer, overseeing the creation of programs that teach workers the skills they will need as robots become more prevalent in manufacturing.
The institute will be based in Pittsburgh near Carnegie Mellon University and overseen by the nonprofit American Robotics. It is the 10th institute formed as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, recently renamed Manufacturing USA.
The plan calls for a wide-range of research driven by industry and defense needs in aerospace, automotive, electronics and textiles.
Four specific research projects are already in the planning stages, including one that brings together Clemson, BMW, Bosch and Yaskawa, a manufacturer based near Chicago.
They want to create a robot that can put a nearly 20-pound alternator on a car as it moves down the assembly line. Human workers will use “feather touch” to operate the robot, reducing the fatigue and injuries they risk when they have to repeat the task for hours at a time.
The research will be done on a new four-station, prototype assembly line at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation. The goal is to develop a robot that could be used at BMW’s assembly line in Greer.
It will be part of a new effort to bring together Clemson researchers and Greenville Tech students in what many think could be a new model for education. The idea is that involving the Greenville Tech students in research will prepare them to work with the cutting-edge technology headed for real-world assembly lines so they won’t need as much training once they are in jobs.
Krovi said it was exhilarating to learn that Clemson has been selected to play leading roles in the institute. As home to one of the Regional Robotics Collaboratives, Clemson will be coordinating the activities of several member institutions.
“We’ve been given an opportunity to lead,” he said. “It spreads Clemson’s strength in manufacturing and robotics to regional community members, including universities, technical colleges and industry.”
Hartley said the educational programs will involve virtual and augmented reality and build on the work done by the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development. The institute’s plan calls for the creation of about 20 certification programs for more than 10,000 operators in five years.
“Contrary to a popular misperception, robotic automation in manufacturing is creating jobs rather than increasing unemployment,” Hartley said. “Companies in South Carolina and nationwide tell us the jobs are available but that we need educational programs to prepare operators with the critical STEM skills they need to qualify.
“The trend will accelerate as robotic automation becomes more widespread in advanced manufacturing. Our work with the institute will help keep the pipeline filled with talent.”
The institute’s plan calls for a $253-million budget over seven years, including $80 million in federal investment and $173 million in cost sharing, primarily from industry, universities, community colleges and state economic development associations.
One of the goals is to ensure the United States is not reliant on a foreign industrial base for robotic technologies, which the Department of Defense considers an unacceptable long-term risk. The institute is also expected to empower American workers to compete with low-wage workers abroad.
Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research at Clemson, said the university is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the institute.
“We are geographically located in the heart of the Southeast, an advanced manufacturing hub with strong interest in robotics,” he said. “We also have leading experts in robotics, advanced manufacturing and workforce development. Clemson’s participation in the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute will help ensure the nation is competitive in technologies and workforce training that are critical to the economy and defense.”
Anand Gramopadhye congratulated the Clemson team on its part in the project. He is dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences and was the principal investigator on a separate 2011 grant that that formed the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.
“The Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute will benefit the state and nation by bringing together preeminent scholars, industry and others crucial to economic development to work collaboratively in aerospace, automotive, electronics and textiles,” he said. “All these sectors are critical to growth and ripe for adoption of robotics in manufacturing. Clemson’s participation will help South Carolina and the broader Southeastern region play a leading role in developing and adopting the cutting-edge technologies that keep the nation competitive.”