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Connected Systems Institute Geared for Digital Manufacturing

With contributions from private-sector partners, the Connected Systems Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee gives students lab experience with emerging technologies in digital manufacturing.

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The Connected Systems Institute features an autonomous manufacturing line to familiarize students with emerging tech in digital manufacturing.
According to a 2021 study from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, more than 2 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled through the coming decade, which could impact production and cost the U.S. economy up to $1 trillion by 2030. As companies look to autonomous technologies to produce goods more efficiently and reduce supply chain disruptions, several higher-ed institutions across the U.S. have launched skill-building initiatives in recent years to train future professionals for new tech tools — and those yet to be created.

One such tech-ed initiative was the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Connected Systems Institute, established in 2017 to test autonomous technologies, address tech skills gaps and familiarize students with digital manufacturing. According to UW-Milwaukee’s Senior Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships Jennifer Abele, today the 11,000-square-foot space hosts training courses and collaborative programs for students and researchers. She added that the university entered into an agreement with Cisco this week to further build out networking and cybersecurity programming.

Since opening its state-of-the-art labs to students in 2019, Abele said the space has awarded 2,500 credit hours in digital manufacturing courses focusing on advances in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, analytics and Internet of Things (IoT).

“The thing about industrial IoT and digital manufacturing is that it’s interdisciplinary in nature. Because it’s still fairly new, the academic programming around it is often spread between different departments in universities,” she said. “One of the things we’re trying to do here is create a curriculum that combines the business and IT elements that are necessary for somebody to be a leader in a digital manufacturing space.”

Abele said the institute has made use of about $8 million in donations from tech companies such as Rockwell, Cisco and Microsoft to help fund equipment and software needs, as well as to guide programming.

Such ongoing support will be crucial to training professionals for work in a rapidly digitizing global manufacturing sector, according to Kaushal Chari, interim director of the institute and dean of the UW-Madison Lubar School of Business.

“Most small and medium manufacturing companies in the United States still have legacy technologies and manufacturing lines,” he said. “For our nation to compete in the marketplace and produce goods more efficiently, it’s important for small and medium manufacturers to embrace advanced digital technologies to automate the manufacturing process.”

Renee Patton, Cisco’s global director of education and health care, said digital manufacturing could take hold faster than previously expected as companies seek to “move from static to dynamic operations,” to produce products faster and more efficiently. The main problem for companies, however, is finding workers qualified to manage the technology involved.

“We’ll see more around AI, autonomous vehicles, robotics, cloud computing and supply chains,” she said. “I think we have opportunities in all of those areas, and in industrial IoT.”

According to Chari, the institute promises students a chance to work directly with autonomous manufacturing technology to prepare them for advances in robotics, IT systems, analytics and AI that will enable fully automated manufacturing. He said the institute houses a fully automated manufacturing line that produces colored water based on customer orders, to show how digital manufacturing operations work in real time.

“This [manufacturing line] is a technology demonstrator where students can learn about digital manufacturing, and it provides all the bells and whistles to provide that experience for our students,” he said, noting that the lab is an example of how data can optimize operations.

Industry research suggests the work of organizations like the Connected Systems Institute will only become more important over time. For example, a case study last month from Cisco found the Milwaukee metro area could see a 63 percent increase in demand for employees with cybersecurity skills over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, Abele said the institute plans to introduce new programs to train cybersecurity professionals who will need to secure IT networks amid the digitization happening in manufacturing.

“That is in high demand, both in the IT space and the operational technology space, so I think we’ll continue to see [student interest] grow,” she said.

In addition, Chari said, the institute plans to launch a non-credit course program in digital manufacturing leadership by next year, targeting employees and owners of small-to-medium companies who want to learn more about digital manufacturing. The institute also plans to launch new master’s programs in connected systems and digital supply chains, allowing students to gain more hands-on experience with the manufacturing lab.

“Students in some of the courses will work with the test bed to understand how supply chains work, and what kinds of disruptions happen,” he said, adding that the university expects to launch these new programs by 2023.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.