As an industrial nation, manufacturing in the United States has experienced times of progress, beginning with the Industrial Revolution and continuing with post war booms. It’s also been decimated by the offshoring of manufacturing facilities and, course, jobs. We stand now, however, on the edge of tremendous changes fueled by new ideas, new technologies, and new needs. I spoke to two experts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to understand how the next generation of manufacturing leaders are being trained, and the opportunities that stand in front of them.
Sam Chiappone, Director of Manufacturing Innovation, is responsible for the operation and management of manufacturing and prototyping resources within the Core Engineering Department of the School of Engineering. Asking his impressions of the students who arrive at Rensselaer each fall, he confirms what others in the field have told us, fewer students have hands-on skill.
But Sam sees that as a positive aspect,
Students don’t come here because they know how already, they come to learn. This is an opportunity for the faculty and staff to share the manufacturing knowledge we have, to build new skill sets for our students.
He explains further the value in teaching bright minds coming in fresh,
These classes are opportunities to bridge theory with application, learn about the process, the tools, and see their role as future engineers in manufacturing. The manufacturing classes we deliver are where it all comes together for our students.
It’s clear during our conversation that Sam feels a deep sense of responsibility to provide young engineers the strong foundation they need. "We have to ask ourselves ‘how do we give engineers the resources to apply the important theory?’ At Rensselaer we are educating the next generation of manufacturing leaders."
To prepare students for the world ahead, Sam provides base knowledge and hands-on experience with additive technologies.
The real advantages of a digital world are that we can look at different ways to get to an outcome. For instance, looking at this part, I don’t have to make it by welding, let’s print this as an assembly, with an undercut or as a lattice.
He wants his students to know they are not bound by normal manufacturing limitations and should challenge traditional types of design.
“As a layering technology, how can I make the part more efficiently? How can I use this technology to reduce cost throughout the manufacturing process?”
These are same questions engineers have always had to answer, the difference being that Chiappone’s students have an entirely new arsenal of tools at their disposal.
I don’t know right now the extent of people using additive technologies to manufacture parts, because there are limits when you consider cost, build material, and production numbers. But I know we’re on the horizon of something big that’s happening. Five years from now, the world could be totally different.
Getting students ready for that world involves letting them take an idea from concept to production first hand. As in many engineering programs, his classes use 3D printing for prototyping. Chiappone feels the real value, though, comes when he turns students loose to make the tooling for their projects,
We’re much more functional, making components that are needed for the production and assembly of students’ products, tooling for robots, a machine fixture, a pallet for an assembly system or a mold for a vacuum form.
This, to him, is where the rubber meets the road, creating the instruments that will enable industry to enter a new phase of manufacturing without the traditional material and process restrictions.
Dr. Stephen Rock
I also spoke with Chiappone’s colleague, Dr. Stephen Rock, a Senior Research Scientist in the NYS Center for Automation Technologies and Systems at Rensselaer. He works less with students but is heavily involved in the additive space, having invented and patented a powder-based metal additive manufacturing process.
Dr. Rock says he’s in a unique position, squarely at the intersection of academia and industry, working closely with leading manufacturers. Through an America Makes project, he’s collaborating with GE and others to develop open source controls for metal additive manufacturing that will lead to widespread adoption of the technology. Grants from government and industry partners help fuel the research he and his student assistants are conducting.
When asked what changes digital technologies and additive manufacturing have brought to young engineers, he told us,
One thing I see as particularly beneficial with additive in the educational environment is that it overcomes procurement delay. It really accelerates the process because they don’t have to select and wait for stock to arrive.
This reduction in time-to-output certainly affects students with a short 15-week semester, but does it translate to real-world manufacturing?
Dr. Rock continues, “there was considerable hype around additive early on - that it was going to replace traditional technologies. That couldn’t be further from the truth. While additive offers the chance to tailor part structures and compositions, it complements rather than replaces many established manufacturing processes.”
Why? Because there are just some things subtractive methods do better or quicker than additive ones. Dr. Rock says,
A CNC machine is generally faster at removing material than a 3D printer is at layering it, but the 3D printer is faster when you take the total systems view for students. It’s so easy, there’s a short learning curve, and the machines can run overnight.
The future, according to Dr. Rock, is a hybrid situation where students (as well as engineers and manufacturers) have a bigger toolbox from which to solve engineering challenges.
The more that students are exposed to the principles of additive manufacturing, the better, as this opens up new design possibilities. And as people get more used to the additive paradigm, we will see that we don’t have to design single material homogenous parts. We can tailor the materials and structures to optimize part functionality and achieve performance that can’t be realized using traditional processes alone.
Lastly, he adds that we should look beyond initial product design and manufacturing, but also to the potential to service and overhaul parts. “Think about opportunities to do
Think about opportunities to do part repair with additive. You have the chance to extend the life of a part which has considerable economic and environmental benefits.
To help manufactures solve existing challenges will take the best qualities from both traditional processes and new technology, where they make sense. But more importantly, this merged approach can get us to the next plateau of innovation, creating unfathomable solutions that we don’t have applications for yet. That’s why it’s critical that aspiring engineers have an appreciation for the new capabilities that additive manufacturing can deliver.
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