The same technology that adds a sense of realism to video games will soon help teach students across the country about robotics in advanced manufacturing.
Virtual reality is the centerpiece of a new program, TIME for Robotics, that will be created at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.
It's aimed at reaching a generation of students who grew up on smartphones and tablets, while dispelling fears that robots will take away jobs and shattering the myth that manufacturing is dirty, miserable work.
The reality is that manufacturing has gone high-tech and that many decent-paying jobs are available for those with a background in science, technology, engineering and math, researchers said. A key focus of the program will be on how people and robots can work together, they said.
The new approach will be particularly helpful in attracting groups that might otherwise bypass advanced manufacturing, including women, groups underrepresented in STEM fields, veterans and people with disabilities, researchers said.
Clemson President James P. Clements announced to a crowd of advanced manufacturing executives on Tuesday night that TIME for Robotics will be funded with $1.79 million from the Department of Defense Manufacturing Engineering Education Program.
"The changing landscape in manufacturing calls for new and innovative approaches to providing the workforce of tomorrow with the skills needed to succeed," said Clements. "TIME for Robotics is aimed at deepening and diversifying the pool of workers who are ready for jobs in advanced manufacturing."
The program is helping address industry's call for workers with the skills needed to qualify for jobs in advanced manufacturing. A skills gap could leave as many as 2 million manufacturing jobs unfilled by 2025, according to a study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.
Plans call for researchers to develop curriculum tracks for students pursuing high school diplomas, associate's degrees, baccalaureate degrees and master's degrees. Greenville Technical College will be the first to use the curriculum.
Courses will be divided into modules that are designed to supplement traditional classroom lessons. Instructors will be able to cherry-pick which modules to use in their classes.
The modules will be made available at EducateWorkforce.com, which gives students the freedom to study at times of their choosing. It's a feature particularly attractive to students who also work full-time jobs, researchers said.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, is leading the project as principal investigator of TIME for Robotics and the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.
"Advanced manufacturing education will be innovated and strengthened through personalized learning and virtual reality, two of the grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering," he said. "This project will assure technological superiority through the transformation of the technical education paradigm."
David Clayton, the executive director of Greenville Technical College's Center for Manufacturing Innovation, said he and the technical college's faculty will provide subject matter expertise about what a technician would need to know.
"We'll develop that curriculum jointly with Clemson, and Greenville Technical College will be the first institution to offer these learning tools and curriculum," he said. "The idea is that other technical colleges, community colleges and universities use the content as well."
Rebecca Hartley, director of operations at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, said the courses will help dispel fears that robots will take jobs.
"So much is moving in the direction of robotics and automated processes," she said. "There is a fascination with it and a terror when people think about losing jobs. TIME for Robotics will allow us to showcase the critical skills that students need to know. That takes away a lot of the fear. Most of the courses we are looking at focus on where the human interaction is so important."
Kapil Chalil Madathil, the director of technology operations at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, said the team will create a series of courses that include online lectures and videos, along with lessons in augmented and virtual reality.
The curriculum could include lessons on programming robotic systems and how multiple robotic systems can work with a human, he said. One augmented-reality module that could be included would allow students to walk through a manufacturing plant from a first-person viewpoint to acquaint students with various operations.
"The overarching goal is to support the needs of students entering the advanced robotics industry," said Madathil, who is also an assistant professor of industrial and civil engineering. "We want to provide a plug-and-play system that allows students and instructors to use this content in a seamless fashion."
The Vehicle Assembly Center, an assembly line built for research, will serve as a testbed to validate the curriculum the team develops, said Laine Mears who is BMW SmartState Chair in Automotive Manufacturing at Clemson.
"We will have technicians and technical college students trying out the materials as they are developed," he said. "We will see how they work in terms of training and how you might integrate those materials into a manufacturing enterprise. The Vehicle Assembly Center is an ideal place to do that because we have people and robots working together."
One of the researchers contributing to the project, Yue "Sophie" Wang, is an associate professor of mechanical engineering whose research focuses on collaboration between people and robots.
Robotics is advancing rapidly in the market, she said.
"TIME for Robotics will prepare our future workforce and help make students aware of these new technologies in robotics, especially in manufacturing applications," she said. "When they graduate and go into the job market, they will have the necessary skills to work with this new technology."
Venkat Krovi, Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation, said mystery surrounds what robotics is, what robotics can do and what skills people need to enter the field.
"Our goal is to look at educating the workforce to go one level deeper-- to give them greater insight into what robotics can do and what it cannot do easily," he said. "There is a lot of fear about robots replacing humans, and a lot of it is unfounded. In fact, what a robot can do is make dull, dumb, dirty, dangerous jobs easier. By doing that, they leave the human to pursue more stimulating jobs."
Funding for TIME for Robotics lasts three years, and plans are in the works to sustain the program beyond the grant period.
The robotics curriculum will be the latest addition to EducateWorkforce.com, the online platform for courses developed by the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development. The center's courses range from soft skills to manufacturing processes and production.
The Clemson University Center for Workforce Development is part of the Clemson University Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
Mark Johnson, director of the Clemson University Center for Advanced Manufacturing, said TIME for Robotics is a key component in the center's leadership in the educational, research and partnership programs that are critical to industry success.
"TIME for Robotics is an innovative program that will be key in transforming robotics education in South Carolina and beyond," he said. "The program will help introduce and prepare students for jobs in advanced manufacturing, thereby widening the talent pipeline and closing the skills gap."