Laine Mears remembers walking through a factory as a visitor a few years back and seeing a worker stare off into space while screwing fasteners into an assembly, his body at work but his mind apparently elsewhere.

The sight made Mears wonder about the worker’s future: What skills would he need in the age of automation, and what it would take to get him excited about his work?

Laine Mears, far left, works with students in the Clemson Vehicle Assembly Center.

Laine Mears, far left, works with students in the Clemson Vehicle Assembly Center.

The questions led to THINKER, a Clemson University graduate program that has helped shine a global spotlight on Mears and provides a snapshot of what advanced manufacturing could look like in the years to come. 

SME, a professional organization that supports manufacturing, cited THINKER when it named Mears one of the 20 most influential professors in smart manufacturing.

“I was really surprised when they contacted me, and I was really surprised when I saw who the other 19 were,” Mears said. “I know a lot of those people, and they are doing fantastic work.”

THINKER launched in fall 2018 with $3 million from the National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship program. Mears, the BMW SmartState Chair in Automotive Manufacturing, is THINKER’s founder and continues to serve as its leader.

As part of the program, students and faculty conduct cutting-edge research into advanced manufacturing with a heavy emphasis on how human workers interact with machines.

Many of those machines are connected to the internet and are generating massive amounts of data. At the same time, human workers are starting to wear devices that also generate data and are connected to the internet.

All that data going back and forth over the internet opens a host of new possibilities for machines and human workers to communicate and work more effectively with each other. It could make manufacturing more efficient and– for humans– more enjoyable.

For Mears and his team, it’s a research opportunity. Their projects range from developing new manufacturing processes to creating wearable devices that give workers feedback to improve quality.

Researchers run tests at the Clemson Vehicle Assembly Center, an experimental assembly line that opened in 2018 and is co-directed by Mears and mechanical engineering Professor Joshua Summers. The center allows researchers to try their innovations in a realistic environment without disrupting production on a real-world assembly line.

Sixteen students enrolled in THINKER in its first two years and three who participated have graduated. The name of the program is an acronym for Technology-Human INtegrated Knowledge, Education and Research.

Zoran Filipi, chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering, said it comes as no surprise that Mears is among the globe’s most influential smart-manufacturing professors.

“Dr. Mears is working closely with advanced manufacturers to create the research, education and partnership programs that equip students with both technical skills and critical job skills, such as collaboration and teamwork,” Filipi said. “He is preparing the next-generation workforce, which will help ensure South Carolina and the nation as a whole remain competitive. I congratulate him on his recognition by SME. It is well deserved and helps draw attention to the top-flight programs offered by the Department of Automotive Engineering.”

Mears received his Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic and State University and then worked for a bearing manufacturer and automotive driveline maker over a total of 10 years. It was the mid-1990s when he started, and smart manufacturing was still just an idea, something engineers discussed around the water cooler.

 But Mears saw the need to start putting the ideas into practice. It was frustrating, he remembers, that machines were all set up for the worst-case scenario, which slowed things down.

Mears remembers thinking that the manufacturing process could be sped up significantly if information about parts could travel the assembly line alongside the parts themselves.

“That was sort of a precursor to Industry 4.0 and the knowledge revolution,” Mears said. “I’m in no way claiming that was my idea, but everyone was having this same realization.”

Mears decided to go back to school. He received his Master of Science as part of an online program offered through the Georgia Institute of Technology. Then he decided to quit his job and pursue a Ph.D. at the same institution. “Working on a line I could make more parts, but working in research I could make a difference,” he said.

After receiving his mechanical-engineering doctorate in 2006, Mears joined Clemson as one of the Department of Automotive Engineering’s founding faculty members. He played a major role in crafting the department’s curriculum.

To Mears, THINKER is the next step in the evolution of advanced-manufacturing education. A big focus area for Clemson is the exchange of data between human workers and manufacturing systems, he said.

 “When you brought that up five years ago, you heard crickets,” Mears said. “Nobody was talking about people in smart manufacturing enterprises. The focus was on automation. Now manufacturers are putting people back into the system. We’ll see systems that get smarter and more automated, but there are some things you just don’t automate and you won’t be able to in the near future.”

As he looks to the future, Mears sees a big role for artificial intelligence in advanced manufacturing, and he’s starting to work with specialists in the field.

He and his team have also partnered with psychologists to gauge how satisfied people are with their working environments and how they feel about their work. They are asking, for example, whether someone who gets satisfaction driving nails into boards could also be satisfied with overseeing a group of robots.

Mears is collaborating with the University of California, Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tuskegee University.

“I’m going to put myself out there and say it’s a lot more important than people are thinking right now,” he said. “These technologies are evolving and they’re going to keep evolving. If we treat the person in the system right– more than just lip service, but I mean really design around the person– I think you’re going to see some really amazing things.”

 To view the SME article click here