CLEMSON — Clemson University experts will help develop next-generation robots and play a leading role in training the workers who operate them as part of a $253-million plan that aims to fill 510,000 potential new manufacturing jobs across the country by 2025.

Venkat Krovi, the Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation, is helping Clemson University play a leadership role in the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute.

Venkat Krovi, the Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation, is helping Clemson University play a leadership role in the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute.

The Department of Defense announced Friday the formation of the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, a project bringing together 123 industrial partners, 40 academic partners and 64 government and nonprofit partners.

Among the institute’s 10-year goals are to increase worker productivity by 30 percent and to help make robots more accessible to small- and medium-sized businesses. Organizers said the enhanced productivity will create jobs to build, manage and maintain the robots.

Researchers who are involved envision a future in which robots begin to take over heavy lifting and labor-intensive tasks. Adding intelligence to robots on the production floor will free up humans to focus on work that requires higher-level thinking, researchers said.

They also want to make robots less expensive and more adaptable to a variety of jobs.

Clemson experts will play key coordinating roles in two areas of the institute:

  • One of eight Regional Robotics Collaboratives is slated to begin operations in the space shared by Clemson and Greenville Technical College at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation in Greenville. The co-leads for the seven-state Southeastern collaborative are Venkat Krovi, the Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation at Clemson, and David Clayton, the center’s executive director.
  • Rebecca Hartley, director of operations at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, will serve as the institute’s chief workforce officer, overseeing the creation of programs that teach workers the skills they will need as robots become more prevalent in manufacturing.

The institute will be based in Pittsburgh near Carnegie Mellon University and overseen by the nonprofit American Robotics, which was founded by Carnegie Mellon. It was the 14th institute formed as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, recently renamed Manufacturing USA.

The plan calls for a wide-range of research driven by industry and defense needs in aerospace, automotive, electronics and textiles.

Four specific research projects are in the planning stages and serve as examples of work that could be done as part of the institute. One proposal would bring together Clemson, BMW, Bosch and Yaskawa, a manufacturer based near Chicago.

They want to create a robot that can put a nearly 20-pound alternator on a car as it moves down the assembly line. Human workers would use “feather touch” to operate the robot, reducing the fatigue and injuries they risk when they have to repeat the task for hours at a time.

The research would be done on a new four-station, prototype assembly line at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation. The goal is to develop a robot that could be used at BMW’s assembly line in Greer.

It would be part of a new effort to bring together Clemson researchers and Greenville Technical College students in what many think could be a new model for education. The idea is that involving the tech students in research will prepare them to work with the cutting-edge technology headed for real-world assembly lines so they will need less training once they are in jobs.

Krovi said it was exhilarating to learn that Clemson has been selected to play a leadership role in the institute. He described it as “helping to stand up the Southeast Regional Robotics Innovation Collaborative.”

“We’ve been given an opportunity to build upon Clemson’s expertise in manufacturing and robotics to enhance quality and productivity on the shop floor,” he said.

Hartley said the educational programs will involve virtual and augmented reality and build on the work done by the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development. The institute’s plan calls for the creation of about 20 certification programs for more than 10,000 operators in five years.

“Contrary to a popular misperception, robotic automation in manufacturing is creating jobs rather than increasing unemployment,” Hartley said. “Companies in South Carolina and nationwide tell us the jobs are available but that we need educational programs to prepare operators with the critical STEM skills they need to qualify.

“The trend will accelerate as robotic automation becomes more widespread in advanced manufacturing. Our work with the institute will help keep the pipeline filled with talent.”

The institute’s plan calls for a $253-million budget over seven years, including $80 million in federal investment and $173 million in cost sharing, primarily from industry, universities, community colleges and state economic development associations.

One of the goals is to ensure the United States is not reliant on a foreign industrial base for robotic technologies, which the Department of Defense considers an unacceptable long-term risk. The institute is also expected to empower American workers to compete with low-wage workers abroad.

Clayton said, “As a co-lead of the Southeast Regional Robotics Innovation Collaborative, I am excited to partner with Clemson University, the Department of Defense and the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute to further the research and application of robotics in manufacturing environments. This collaboration will position Greenville Technical College students and industry partners at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation as leaders in intelligent manufacturing and automation.”

Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research at Clemson, said the university is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the institute.

“We are geographically located in the heart of the Southeast, an advanced manufacturing hub with strong interest in robotics,” he said. “We also have leading experts in robotics, advanced manufacturing and workforce development. Clemson’s participation in the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute will help ensure the nation is competitive in technologies and workforce training that are critical to the economy and defense.”

Anand Gramopadhye congratulated the Clemson team on its part in the project. He is dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences and was the principal investigator on a separate 2011 grant that that formed the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.

“The Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute will benefit the state and nation by bringing together preeminent scholars, industry and others crucial to economic development to work collaboratively in aerospace, automotive, electronics and textiles,” he said. “All these sectors are critical to growth and ripe for adoption of robotics in manufacturing. Clemson’s participation will help South Carolina and the broader Southeastern region play a leading role in developing and adopting the cutting-edge technologies that keep the nation competitive.”

Clemson will be working closely with local, state and regional partners, such as Greenville Technical College, the University of South Carolina, Auburn University and Savannah River National Laboratory to further manufacturing activities in the region, according to Krovi.

He added:  “We are also very fortunate to have engaged various Clemson industry partners as founding industry members that are actively involved with the proposal development. We are looking to continue to grow the industrial member partnerships from the Southeast region as we form teams to pursue ARM institute-funded, pre-competitive projects and workforce development efforts.”

Zoran Filipi, chair of the automotive engineering department at Clemson, said, “The automotive engineering team based at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research will be involved in setting up the assembly line for research at CMI. We will be leveraging the cutting-edge automotive engineering research we do to further the aims of the institute.”