College Training For the Factory of the Future

National Science Foundation’s simulations using automation, IoT

Three American universities, all of whom have excellent credibility in the fields of engineering and technology, are organizing a platform to prepare students for the factories of the future.

Researchers from Purdue University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Indiana University—supported altogether by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation—will spearhead a program called Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier. The program is designed to develop new technologies through simulations involving robots, human workers, and the Internet of Things. It intends to prepare students on a timeline of five to ten years from now, Purdue’s Kayla Wiles wrote in a university news release October 10.

The program is one of the government-commissioned, National Science Foundation’s 10 Big Ideas, alongside research programs such as “Harnessing the Data Revolution” and “Growing Convergence Research”. These programs are advocated by the Alexandria, Va.-based NSF as areas of future investment.

Future factory

(Purdue University C Design Lab image/Luis Paredes and Ke Huo)

The Purdue-led collaboration will help manufacturers to realistically simulate how workers, robots and machines will work together to improve productivity in the “factory of the future.” 

Simulating factory settings with new technologies before they are available would help manufacturers assess business success and risks, offset costs, scale efforts for training workers and stay competitive.

The work aligns with Purdue’s Giant Leaps celebration, acknowledging the university’s global advancements made in artificial intelligence, algorithms and automation as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. This is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

“Any time you introduce a technological advancement or a new piece of equipment, the learning curve is pretty steep until you get comfortable with the technology and how it interfaces with the human,” said Doug Mansfield, the president and chief operating officer of manufacturing at Kirby Risk, an Indiana-based private enterprise that specializes in electrical supply, wiring harness and control panel assembly, precision machining and motor repair and power transmission.

The simulation platform would involve artificial intelligence and “augmented reality,” which means that objects in the real world are “augmented,” or enhanced, by what a computer helps the user to perceive. The platform will also use the “Internet of Things” to wirelessly connect machines with humans and robots, allowing them to communicate and collaborate with one another. Watch a YouTube video at https://youtu.be/RHYQJNf7BEY.

“Augmented reality and the Internet of Things would allow robots to extend the mind and hands of a worker, so workers could do much more challenging tasks that robots cannot do, like repairing a compressor, with minimal training,” said Karthik Ramani, the project lead and Purdue’s Donald W. Feddersen Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Factory technology Researchers at Purdue have begun developing technology that would allow workers to easily instruct robots to perform tasks involving objects, machines and other robots. (Purdue University image/Karthik Ramani) Download image

Simulations could be of an entire factory, warehouse or of a specific new workflow, such as simulating how robots working with humans would pick up packages and deliver them to a conveyor belt.

The simulations would also serve as a way to pre-skill workers for collaborating with the robots that would not only take over routine tasks, but also share work with other robots. A team led by Kylie Peppler, associate professor of learning sciences at IU, will contribute expertise on helping engineering students to become interested and engaged in what factories of the future will involve by developing the skills needed at the same time.

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