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Smart Manufacturing: How Universities Are Meeting the Moment

Colleges and universities are training more students in subjects such as robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing to prepare them for changing workforce demands in manufacturing due to automation.

Smart students using a 3D printer and a laptop, engineering and prototyping concept
As manufacturers adopt autonomous technologies to produce goods more efficiently and address supply chain issues, universities are focusing on preparing tomorrow's tech workforce for new jobs in smart manufacturing — where emerging tech and processes in machine learning, data science and advanced 3D printing will change how things are made over the coming decades.

According to a study last year from Deloitte and a nonprofit called The Manufacturing Institute, over 2 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled over the next decade as new demands add to an existing tech talent shortage, where employers across industries have struggled to find qualified applicants for vacant IT positions. The research said such changes could lead the U.S. economy to lose up to $1 trillion by 2030.

Nathan Hartman, director of the Purdue University Digital Enterprise Center, said digital manufacturing will not only require more tech professionals but also more advanced technical knowledge. He said workers with specialized skills in additive manufacturing, robotics programming, artificial intelligence and data science will work together to reshape the future of manufacturing.

“Whether it’s for machine diagnostics, quality control or predictive maintenance, it’s starting to become a little more common than it was,” he said, adding that advancements in emerging tech are ushering in a fourth Industrial Revolution, which some have called "Industry 4.0."


Seeing the digitization happening across other industries during COVID-19, students across the U.S. have enrolled in accelerated training courses for skills in coding, web design and other IT-related fields. Schools such as Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana have even added 3D-printing training courses to their programming to familiarize students with tech tools that will play a role in Industry 4.0.

Though much of the focus has been on how to get students employed within months through fast-track certification courses such as these, Hartman said many still opt for traditional degrees in programs such as Purdue’s Smart Manufacturing Industrial Informatics to gain advanced skills in AI, material sciences and other subjects that will define Industry 4.0.

“There’s a lot of conversation these days about reskilling or upskilling the workforce, but there are options at most universities for a minor or a certificate type of experience, even while they do their undergraduate degree," he said. "It really depends on the university in terms of how they tackle it."

Hartman said data analysts will have among the most crucial roles as autonomous technologies take on new roles in production. As these technologies get more complex, so too will the knowledge needed to operate and manage production processes.

“A lot of what was automated [in the past] was human physical labor. I think what we’re seeing today are the beginnings of the automation of decision-making, which historically was left to humans that were part of the manufacturing process,” he said. “Before, our goal was to automate or alleviate or reduce the human labor involved. Now it’s moving beyond the physical sense and toward the cognitive and decision-making sense.”

The complexity of these tasks means fast-track certification programs won't be a silver bullet for smart manufacturing, at least not for upper-level positions requiring more advanced specializations. Danielle Cote, an assistant professor in the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Materials Science and Engineering Program whose research focuses on additive manufacturing, said Industry 4.0 professionals will need transdisciplinary skill sets not often found in accelerated training programs. In addition to gaining specialized IT expertise for their positions, she said, smart manufacturing professionals must also be able to collaborate with others handling different processes in the workplace.

“We’re seeing this great demand for data scientists, computer scientists, robotic programmers, material scientists, and of course mechanical and manufacturing engineers,” she said. “Students can’t just be trained in their narrow fields. You can’t just have a mechanical engineer go off and do this by themselves. They have to either work and collaborate with others or have [additional] skills themselves.

“Most of our engineers have some component of programming, but to really understand it and have that full background in it is so important,” she said. “For a lot of the autonomous controls we want to do, that’s another role for computer scientists and/or data scientists to help with.”

Cote said IT professionals in smart manufacturing will also need to be adaptable to rapid technological changes as their fields advance. She noted the newest 3D printers and the means through which they are operated, for instance, have changed rapidly in the past decade, noting "things are changing hourly” today in terms of their capabilities and manufacturing applications.

“We buy 3D printers for our lab and then we find out a couple of weeks later that there’s a new model out there,” she said, adding that course materials must be continuously updated to stay relevant.

Cote said waitlists for her metal additive course have grown recently, as students take more interest in smart manufacturing jobs and in advanced 3D-printing technology that will play a role in streamlining production and supply chain operations.

“Our students are so excited about it,” she said, adding that this growing interest in digital manufacturing will ultimately serve to keep the U.S. competitive. “Converting a lot of traditional jobs to smart jobs makes us more efficient, and that’s where smart manufacturing is going to help. It’s going to make us more efficient as a nation and how we produce things.”


As advancements in autonomous tech look to radically change manufacturing, companies still working with legacy technologies will also need to increase their focus on cybersecurity protocol more than ever before, according to Krystel Castillo, a professor of energy and mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).

Castillo, also director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute, a renewable energy technology company, said smart technologies will boost profits and production numbers for manufacturers while reducing their carbon footprint in the fight against climate change — but not without some IT security risks.

Castillo said smart manufacturers could unknowingly open themselves up to new cybersecurity vulnerabilities involving IT and OT systems through the rapid adoption of digital technologies and bigger networks handling more responsibilities. She suggested companies should “harden their systems to be secure by design” and employ IT security personnel to manage networks — two main focuses of UTSA's cybersecurity research efforts and course catalog.

“We are working to secure manufacturers' digital operations from cyber threats, and we’re bringing together three very unique and very different communities," she said. "We need to have [insights from] cybersecurity experts and manufacturers, and the people in charge of operations, devising processes and minimizing energy consumption."
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.