Engineering Labs Grow through Gifts and Partnerships

Donations from automation vendors to universities are addressing the skills gap and fueling innovation.


Illlinois State University

Illlinois State University's Integrated Manufacturing Lab was established with a grant from Caterpillar Foundation and donations from Bosch Rexroth Linear Motion and Assembly Technologies group, among others. Rexroth aluminum framing and flexible conveyors suport workstations that allow students to learn about fluid and mechanical power systems, analog and digital electronics, programmable logic control, and more.
Illlinois State University

Recently, Dr. Luis M. Proenza, president of The University of Akron, said, “The future of The University of Akron — and higher education as a whole — will be determined by innovative partnerships between universities and corporate leaders.” Some might say the future of manufacturing will be determined by innovative partnerships as well. As Baby Boomers age and staffs shrink, growing the next generation of electrical engineers or automation and control experts is increasingly important. To help with that skills gap, automation vendors are investing in academic programs that prepare and inspire students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Schools and students are getting the help they need, and vendors are getting a crop of well-trained candidates for employment as well as research and development resources they wouldn't otherwise have.

For example, in May of this year, the College of Engineering at University of Akron (UA) received an in-kind gift from Siemens PLM valued at $218 million. The gift includes 300 licenses and technical support for three software packages in the NX digital product development software suite. Already installed on the College of Engineering laboratory computers, the software enables product design, simulation, documentation, tooling, and manufacturing process design, and will support student participation in hybrid electric vehicle and advanced energy systems projects, including the Challenge X competition.

According to Dr. George K. Haritos, dean of the UA College of Engineering, “The software donation will assist the College of Engineering's goal of producing high-quality engineers with vital hands-on experience with the latest advanced technology to reduce manufacturing cycle times and costs in the workplace. This technology also will significantly complement our faculty and student cross-disciplinary research, in consonance with UA's approach to research — augmenting a collaborative environment among our various engineering specialties as well as among the university's academic units.”

Some vendors prefer to partner with universities on specific projects. Omega Engineering, makers of process measurement and control products, donated probes, data acquisition systems, pressure transducers, I/O modules and controllers to the Mechanical Engineering Lab at California State University in Sacramento to build a free-standing HVAC system. Between November 2007 and May 2008, Omega dealt directly with students who have since graduated and entered the workforce. The system remains in the classroom as a training tool.

Sometimes donated products help entire industries. Schneider Electric North America's Automation & Control business unit and its Elau Packaging Solutions group is in the early stages of endowing a Packaging Machinery Knowledge and Resource Center (R&D center) at Purdue University Calumet. Over the past two years, the company also has been helping establish the first mechatronics engineering technology program in the U.S. specializing in packaging machinery.

According to Schneider/Elau global marketing manager John Kowal, the company has donated automation equipment, training, engineering support, public relations, and input into curriculum development as Purdue Calumet has reshaped its Manufacturing Engineering Technology program. The new mechatronics program combines mechanical design, manufacturing, and electrical control within the context of packaging machinery. Using donated machines, students will learn advanced programming techniques, system integration, sensor design, machine design, and troubleshooting.

Kowal says Schneider believes “it is essential for the packaging machinery industry and packagers to gain access to modern mechatronic engineering skills to be more competitive in the world marketplace.” The reason for this investment, he says, is “to bring needed skills to the industry at large.” Schneider also plans to bring in its first intern from the program this year.

Other European-based makers of automation equipment have established partnerships with U.S. universities. For example, the New Berlin, WI, campus of ABB, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, has worked in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Madison for years. The company has a standing relationship with the university's Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electrics Consortium lab (WEMPEC).

“WEMPEC is the world's largest university research center dedicated to the study of machines and power electronics,” said Kalyan Gokhale, director of R&D for ABB low voltage drives. “The link between our organizations is very strong, and we like sharing information back and forth on technical issues and cutting-edge research developments.”

Bosch Rexroth partnered with Womack Machine Supply and Texas A&M University to create the Fluid Power Laboratory, whose goal is to educate students using the newest technology in hydraulics, pneumatics, and advanced control methods. The lab's secondary mission is “to attract industry sponsored projects and to provide professional training or continuing education to engineers, distributors, and managerial professionals working in the fluid power marketplace.”

At the opening of the lab in December 2007, Dr. Walter W. Buchanan, head of the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M, said, “This laboratory models the integrated engineering business environment where multiple technologies converge to solve customers' problems.”

Bosch Rexroth partnered with Womack Machine Supply and Texas A&M University to create the Fluid Power Laboratory. Rockwell Automation engineers routinely meet with faculty and students at Case Western Reserve University to discuss challenging customer sensing needs. The jointly developed fluid sensor and fluid sensor ASIC is shown above
fluid sensor and fluid sensor ASIC is shown above
Bosch Rexroth partnered with Womack Machine Supply and Texas A&M University to create the Fluid Power Laboratory. Rockwell Automation engineers routinely meet with faculty and students at Case Western Reserve University to discuss challenging customer sensing needs. The jointly developed fluid sensor and fluid sensor ASIC is shown above
Bosch Rexroth partnered with Womack Machine Supply and Texas A&M University to create the Fluid Power Laboratory. Rockwell Automation engineers routinely meet with faculty and students at Case Western Reserve University to discuss challenging customer sensing needs. The jointly developed fluid sensor and fluid sensor ASIC is shown above

Benchtop tools, product discounts

Many vendors will work with colleges and universities on less elaborate partnerships, supplying product samples and discounts on new technology. AutomationDirect, for example, “has made significant donations to over 50 North American schools in the past year, and we are always fielding requests for more,” says spokesman Chip McDaniel. Its most significant donation was a $100,000 grant spread over four years to endow a professorship and establish the AutomationDirect Automation Lab at Northern Illinois University DeKalb; however, the company usually focuses on donations of products, as opposed to cash.

“We offer a standing 15% educational discount to qualified educational institutions for equipment that will be used in the classroom or lab,” says McDaniel. “We typically work with each professor to determine what equipment is appropriate for each lab station. Once we know the bill of materials for a single station, we donate or discount one such setup, and ask that the school assemble the equipment, and put together their course materials. Once we see that they are serious, we move forward with multiple stations to outfit the entire lab.”

Recently AutomationDirect has been working with several schools that require every student enrolled in a particular course to purchase one of the company's Click PLCs and C-more Micro HMIs for their use during the course. “The cost for the student is less than some textbooks,” says McDaniel, “and the free downloadable programming software for these two products is a huge advantage. The students are free to load the software on their own laptops or home PCs, and because they own the hardware, they are no longer tethered to the lab to work on their projects. As an additional incentive, when the students at these schools provide us with proof of purchase, we are offering them a free stand.” (See photo.)

Universities as R&D partners

Rockwell Automation has partnered with numerous colleges and universities each year for decades, donating nearly $1 million in the past two years alone, according to Keith Lester, public relations manager. All donations are approved by Rockwell Automation's Charitable Corporation's board and administered by an employee champion (usually the campus manager). Whether the donations are software, hardware, and/or other products, they all come from Rockwell's Control Products & Solutions or Architecture & Software business groups.

Most donations are given to Rockwell Automation's 14 key schools, says Lester: Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, Florida A&M, Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, University of Wisconsin - Madison, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Marquette University, The Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Michigan, Purdue University, and North Carolina A&T State University.

Some schools require every student in a particular course to purchase their own AutomationDirect PLC and HMI. Student benefit: No more shared lab stations, and the cost is less than some textbooks.
Some schools require every student in a particular course to purchase their own AutomationDirect PLC and HMI. Student benefit: No more shared lab stations, and the cost is less than some textbooks.

Rockwell's partnership with Case Western Reserve University is an example of a particularly unique and valuable relationship that has “helped the company both technically and commercially, as well as provided a rich source of interesting and challenging problems for faculty research and student education,” says Lester. “We treat Case faculty and labs as a seamless extension to our internal laboratory and technical staff.” This relationship has resulted in numerous joint publications, co-inventorship on patents, joint project awards, collaborative proposals receiving outside funding, joint lab testing programs, and joint customer visits to address new and challenging sensing, control, and signal processing needs, he says.

Development of a fluid sensor is one example of how the relationship with Case has turned a general statement of industry need into an effective and novel solution. Lester explains: “After establishing a prioritized list of critical fluid sensing requirements for oils, greases, and hydraulic fluids, we met with faculty and staff at Case who are experts in microfabrication, microelectronics, and sensors. The program objective was to see how close we could come to determining all the critical fluid parameters with a single sensor (with multiple sensor elements) without having to invent or develop a new sensor element.

“Case faculty identified existing sensor technologies to minimize development risk and speed time to market. It turned out that five sensing elements met all the critical sensing needs with the exception of particle detection (and particle detection systems already exist). This [knowledge] was followed by a preliminary design, collaborative analysis with Rockwell staff, and university fabrication of several candidate sensor designs.”

Author Information
Renee Robbins is senior editor of Control Engineering. Reach her at .

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