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SIUE Unveils New State-of-the-Art Mechatronics, Robotics Lab

Building upon its collaboration with industry partner Enterprise Holdings Foundation, the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's new facility includes state-of-the-art industry tools for engineers.

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(TNS) — Thursday was a night to remember for the School of Engineering (SOE) at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

An SOE ceremony unveiled the renovated Enterprise Holdings Foundation Atrium in the Engineering Building, adjacent to a new state-of-the-art robotics lab. The redesigned space is the product of $1.5 million donation from the Enterprise Holdings Foundation.

"Enterprise Holdings Foundation is one of our collaborating industry partners," said Lisa Smith, SOE's Director of Development. "Their donation has made it possible for us to update the atrium with the necessary power outlets so people can be plugged in at all times.

"We now have collaboration seating so our students can work together in teams and study together more effectively, and we have the new robotics labs," she said. "We have a relatively new mechatronics engineering degree program and those folks, as well as all of the other engineering disciplines in the school, will be able to have exposure to robotics courtesy of the Enterprise Holdings Foundation gift."

"When you walk through this space, it's hard to not imagine what will happen there," said SIUE Chancellor James T. Minor. "It's great for our students to know they're going to have an experience here that rivals any top university in the country.

"The robotics lab is going to prepare students for industry and we're doing that with an industry leader and industry partner in Enterprise Holdings," he said. "The overwhelming majority of SIUE alumni stay within a 50-mile radius after they graduate, and the idea that we're going to powering the work force of the future is very appealing for our industry partners."

One of the highlights of the event was a demonstration of the LR Mate 200iD, a state-of-the-art industry-grade robotic arm. The robot was donated to SIUE by H-J Family of Companies. On Thursday it was picking up and moving the "I" in a set of "SIUE" block letters.

"It's a machine that's used in industry, and they gave it to us so we can teach our students how to use it," said Dr. Jagath Gunsasekera, lab manager and an instructor in the Mechanical and Industrial engineering department. "We also have a camera taking pictures and, based on the product and the location, the robot can pick it up using the camera.

"We also have a Delta robot, and we purchased another one of these to go with it," said Gunsasekera. "It's a faster robot, but it's more limited. It can be used for sorting small items such as almonds. In industry, you have the almonds on a conveyor belt and the robot can sort the light ones for eating and the dark ones for milking."

SIUE also purchased 13 ViperX 300 robot arms for teaching students the basic levels of robotics programming. Several other robots were on display Thursday.

"I've been using this lab for the last month for our specialized classes in mechanical and industrial engineering," Gunsasekera said. "Tonight's event is a chance for us to show the capabilities of this lab, especially to our donors, to show them what we used their money for."

Dr. Cam Karacal, a professor of Industrial Engineering and Dean at SOE, was ecstatic about the potential for the new facility.

"First of all, we're thankful to Enterprise Holdings for coming forward to support the School of Engineering," Karacal said. "We did a major renovation, and we did not have a lot of spaces for our students to get together and collaborate on their projects.

"It was always a question of where and when space was available and now, they have these great reconfigured spaces to have project discussions and share their ideas. The workspace has easily tripled, and it enhances their experience significantly."

Karacal said the was formerly an underutilized computer lab.

"We did major renovation work and removed the ceiling and totally redid the inside," Karacal said. "It was all done so our students can have a hands-on experience in robotics. Tonight's event is a chance to share what Enterprise did for us and what we are planning to do with the facility."

Enterprise is recognized as one of the largest college recruiters in the U.S., largely for hiring into the company's renowned Management Training Program. Locally, Enterprise hires for its team of more than 2,000 IT professionals who work to build tech solutions that are redefining how customers buy, rent and share vehicles.

It has partnered with the SOE for several years to connect students and graduates with career opportunities in its IT department. The partnership has created an ongoing talent pipeline to meet changing demands for technical talent.

The Enterprise Holdings Foundation was established by Enterprise founder Jack Taylor in 1982 to give back to the communities where partners and employees live and work. Since then, the foundation has contributed more than $592 million to thousands of local nonprofits focused on community improvement, education and environmental stewardship. Commitments range from global philanthropic initiatives that advance social and racial equity to projects focused on critical conservation challenges.

Dr. Chris Gordon, Associate SOE Dean, shared Karacal's enthusiasm for the new robotics lab and atrium.

"We're happy to have this moment to celebrate our strong partnership with Enterprise Holdings," Gordon said. "This is a phenomenal lab and a way to showcase our students' creativity and efforts and some of the technological developments that are happening every day in the School of Engineering.

"Our students are known for having great hands-on knowledge and ability and this new robotics lab is another way that we can achieve that. This is an opportunity for anybody who comes into the Engineering Building to see the magic that happens in our labs. The robotics lab is designed to open to the community so you can see as you walk by robots that are in construction and robots that are being used, and it's very inspiring."

Huan Phan Van, an SIUE graduate student, demonstrated an omnidirectional robot which he designed and built. Sensors or tracking cameras are used to help program the robot and keep it from colliding with other objects.

"It's omnidirectional because it can go linear and rotate at the same time," Phan Van said. "I can program it to move one meter and not rotate and I can program to go backwards one meter and rotate so it faces in the other direction.

"When I first built the robot, it was just for research purposes only. But I kept on using it for teaching students."

Dr. Mingshao Zhang, Associate Professor in Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics, demonstrated a small autonomously guided vehicle that was running on a course marked on the floor of the lab. The vehicles are part of a course project for Zhang's MRE 320 class for engineering students.

"It detects the center line, and it will stay on it," Zhang said. "The vehicle has a camera and every time it's grabbing new images and based on the image, it decides where to go next. That's how you train it to follow the path.

"Not every robot is built perfectly, so you have to tune it to correct any problems," said Zhang. "I painted the track to be sharp with a lot of distractions. The students start off running it at slower speeds, but each student has their own robot and they'll be able to race against each other using their own strategies and figure out how to tune to operate at its best."

Seth Walker, Vice Chancellor for University Advancement, said the new facility enhances SIUE's reputation as a destination for engineering students.

"It helps reinforce our efforts for everything being about students and having more resources they can utilize for collaboration space and real-world experience in the robotics lab," Walker said. "Students are also getting to know a great local company in Enterprise Holdings and having a great entry into having employment with them.

"It's a brighter, more welcoming space for students to work together, and group work is an essential part of the college experience. This event is a chance to recognize Enterprise for their generous gift," he said. "It was given to us a couple years ago, but because of COVID and everything else, it took us a while to get all of the aspects done and ready to cut the ribbon."

©2022 Edwardsville Intelligencer (Edwardsville, Ill.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.