TEES and Texas A&M work to advance the manufacturing process with new technology

May 26, 2016
| By: Stephanie Jones

From smart phones to automobile parts, virtually everything that we come into contact with has been manufactured in some fashion.  Not only is manufacturing vital to consumers, but it is an important component of the world economy.

 So what exactly is manufacturing?  It is the process of making something of value for people to use.  And for the last 100 years, the United States economy relied heavily on the manufacturing industry and quickly became a leader in the field.  However, in the last 10 years nearly 5.1 million manufacturing jobs have been lost to companies overseas due to lower labor costs.

 Today, as the world becomes more technologically advanced, so does manufacturing.  In support of this resurgence in manufacturing, the Federal government has set a national initiative that is expected to boost manufacturing across the nation.

 With its collective experienced researchers and faculty, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and Texas A&M University are poised to lead the industry in providing research and development of new technology to help improve the manufacturing process and bring it back to prominence in the U.S.

 Texas A&M has one of the largest concentrations of core manufacturing subject matter experts in the country.  The knowledge base is multidisciplinary, with approximately 10 percent coming from the College of Engineering, and the other 90 percent comprised of representatives from various colleges within the university and The Texas A&M University System.  Each member of the group is also a researcher with the Institute for Manufacturing Systems (IMS), a center within TEES that was created to address the immediate and strategic manufacturing needs of industry.

 “Our job is to take technology and put it in the hands of our citizens so they can be economic powerhouses,” said Dr. Dean Schneider, assistant director of the Institute for Manufacturing Systems.  “That is the reason Texas A&M University exists.  It was established as a land grant specifically to set new technologies out to the people so they can improve their lives.”

 In keeping with that mission, TEES researchers work to gain an understanding of what industry problems exist and how to apply the technologies being developed to find solutions.  Currently, one of the biggest issues facing manufacturing in the U.S. is the need for customized products.  According to Schneider, since every manufacturing company produces something different and uses a different method to create those products, it is difficult for manufacturers to customize their products to meet demand.  “This is the number-one problem facing manufacturers today,” he said.  “So to help solve this problem, TEES is doing research in cyber manufacturing.”

 Advanced manufacturing consists of developing new technologies and systems to improve the quality of a product by using the latest advances in information systems and process technologies.  According to Dr. Satish Bukkapatnam, director of the IMS, it allows researchers to control the way the components join and interact to make larger parts and create quality products with a better functionality and performance not seen before.  Cyber manufacturing will allow for those products to be set at an affordable price for consumers and perform better.  “We now have the ability to build components and control the way they interact and come together, even at atomic scales to make larger parts,” Bukkapatnam said.  “Texas A&M is currently one of the few universities in the country that has two or more ongoing cyber-manufacturing projects from the National Science Foundation.”

 A major focus of research in this subject is the growing need for more highly customized parts to be manufactured.  Texas A&M researchers are currently performing research on smoothing surfaces of biomedical implants and using an origami based process to make more complex shapes faster.  Researchers are also working with sensors to achieve the ability to control the way objects get folded, cut and made from a remote cyber (or smart) environment.      

 There are also specific manufacturing challenges that are unique to the state of Texas.  As the second largest manufacturing base in the nation, there is a need for high value, custom manufacturing in the energy market.  Since a majority of the work takes place underground, the question of how to make something that will survive extreme temperatures, pressure and corrosives arises.  The IMS researchers are looking for feasible solutions to this issue.  An eventual solution to this issue will not only benefit Texas, but it will also have a momentous effect on the development of manufacturing worldwide.

 Cyber manufacturing has evolved from a place where people built personalized components by hand on an assembly line into a high-tech position that involves humans operating technologically advanced machine to build those custom components.

 It also plays a major role in creating a new generation of workforce professionals in this field.

The IMS will add to the current workforce by training and educating its students to be equipped with the necessary skillset to begin work immediately.  The center will also develop continuing education for the state’s current workforce who need further training. 

 The less hands-on, human involvement in the production of a material, the less that material will cost consumers.  “And that’s what advanced manufacturing is really about,” said Schneider.  “It’s integrating new technologies into the way we make things so that we do it more cost effectively with less labor, with a higher quality, and so then we can compete with the low touch labor rates.  We’re trying to make it more advantageous for companies to stay in the United States for manufacturing.”

 “It is an exciting time, and there are many opportunities for TEES and Texas A&M to really make an impact on manufacturing in this country, not only with the technologies we can create, but also the impact we can make on the economy and the workforce,” Bukkapatnam said.

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