With IBM partnership, USC fills the manufacturing skills gap

USC engineering major Andrea Ogunleye, center, works as part of a team of cross-disciplinary students researching how to improve rural internet accessibility in South Carolina.

An education in manufacturing is not what it used to be.

In years past, said Hossein Haj-Hariri, the Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina, aspiring manufacturers learned the fundamentals of mechanics, materials, and machining. More recently, they added robotics to their tool set. But today, he said, “the picture is completely different.” Now, manufacturing environments are more interdisciplinary, and more technologically complex, than ever before. Artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have fundamentally reshaped the way things are made and maintained.

“You can be a world class computer scientist and potentially become a manufacturing engineer. You walk on a shop floor and 80 percent of the work is programming and getting these systems to communicate with each other,” he said. The next generation of manufacturers needs to have experience with new technologies and new ways of working as early as possible to be successful in the modern workforce. Universities, in partnership with technology companies, can provide that competitive edge. “As technology progresses, we still have only four years to take a student from high school and turn them into an engineer. So what do you do as you have to teach them more and more?” he said. “The fundamentals they have to learn. But you want them to get into some impactful experiences.”

In the past few years, the University of South Carolina has made some important steps to provide those experiences. In 2011, it founded the Ronald E. McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research to support industry through aerospace education and research leadership. Five years later, it opened the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics—a public/private partnership between USC and IBM—where university faculty and students, along with IBM researchers and private sector researchers work collaboratively to research industrial applications for cutting-edge technologies.

This September, the university created a whole new set of opportunities when it opened a new 15,000 square-foot Digital Transformation Lab. There, students and faculty will work with corporate partners including IBM, Samsung, Siemens and Yaskawa to develop research projects with an array of real-world industrial and consumer applications. With Samsung, they’ll work on smart home appliances. With Siemens, they’ll create industrial robotic simulations and predictive maintenance projects. With Yaskawa, they’ll apply AI and machine learning to improve advanced manufacturing processes.

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Noble Anumbe, Juan De Filippis Falcon, Natalie Davidson, and IBM advisor Rob Vogelbacher operate a KUKA robot at the Digital Transformation Lab at the University of South Carolina.

Displayed in the lab for potential customers, the projects will highlight the benefits of matching university research expertise with the latest in private-sector technologies. They’ll also present students a leg up as they begin searching for jobs. “The students who work on these research projects are well positioned to find the kind of rewarding, high paying jobs that contribute so much to the state,” said USC Office of Economic Engagement Director Bill Kirkland in a USC release.

Andrea Ogunleye, a civil engineering major at USC, is a student already benefitting from the public/private partnership between the university and IBM. Growing up in Nigeria, she often accompanied her father, a civil engineer, when he did his field work. This summer, she did her own field work—donning a hard hat and inspecting microwave towers— as part of a team of cross-disciplinary students researching how to improve rural internet accessibility in South Carolina. “I actually hadn’t gotten the chance to do on-site work since I went to college,” she said. “It was awesome to be able to get back into that.”

Today, according to the Federal Communications Commission, about half a million South Carolinians don’t have internet access in their homes. In partnership with South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV) and IBM, USC developed a plan to bring those people internet by mounting equipment on old radio towers, water towers and fire towers. As part of their research, Ogunleye and the team correlated a map of areas in the state that lacked connectivity with a map of existing tower infrastructure to determine how to provide coverage for the greatest number of people. Eventually, they’ll be able to use IBM Maximo to manage all the physical assets on a common platform. And ultimately, they hope to use Watson Visual Recognition to identify similar solutions for populations lacking internet access nationwide.

For Ogunleye, the ongoing project is a unique opportunity to engage with the kind of cutting-edge enterprise software she may one day be called upon to use in the workplace. For IBM, meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to apply university research to a pernicious local issue with massive industry applications. In Haj-Hariri’s view, those kinds of mutually beneficial relationships will move both industry and the university forward, and keep them both on the cutting edge as the manufacturing field continues to shift.

“The really long term goal is to create an environment where our college is basically always at the forefront of whatever technology comes to the table. We want to be there in partnership with industry partners, the state government and the federal government to come up with best solutions and come up with the best opportunities for our students,” he said.

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