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Greenville Business Magazine

For Clemson’s Center for Workforce Development, VR is a helpful tool in training students to work with robots

By John Jeter

Rebecca Hartley happened to be sitting next to an HR exec for a Columbia steel plant. The subject of automation came up—as in, robots, which many fear will replace human workers. This was interesting since Hartley works at Clemson’s Center for Workforce Development, which won a $1.8 million grant to address just that.

“One of the jobs was to take the temperature of the steel when they were melting it down. People used to do that. That’s dangerous,” says Hartley, the CWD’s director of operations.

Um, yeah—steel melts at around 2,600 degrees, give or take a few hundred degrees, so perhaps it’s not such a bad idea for a robot to do the job. But, as Hartley points out, “It doesn’t mean there’s not somebody that’s not programming it, fixing it.”

Fact is, that “somebody” may be getting harder to find.

“Robot workers replacing human jobs—the debate of the decade,” ManpowerGroup Global says in a February report, “Humans Wanted: Robots Need You.” Of the 1,500 U.S. employers surveyed, 91 percent “plan to increase or maintain headcount as a result of automation for the third consecutive year,” according to a summary of the workforce-solutions company’s report. The study also says just 4 percent of employers predicted job losses from automation.

“There’s a huge shortage,” local automation expert Tony Wallace says of workers with skills sufficient to handle the rising robotic workforce. “The industry’s going up about 15 percent every year for automation.”

Wallace founded Automate America, a Greenville-based firm that places robotics programmers, technicians, engineers, and builders with companies that need them. And they do.

“There are 3.2 million robots in circulation,” he says. “Now, every two years they’re retooled, every five years a major change, every 10 years they’re replaced.”

Hence Clemson’s TIME for Robotics initiative—or Technology In Manufacturing Education for Robotics—which teaches students through virtual reality manufacturing environments, most of them involving robots. The three-year grant from the federal Office of Naval Research Manufacturing Engineering Education Program is one of only four nationwide and launched last October.

“It would be more practical to stand next to somebody and point at a robot and tell them what to do, but in a virtual world, we can include representations of real robotic elements,” says Laine Mears, an automotive engineering department professor. “We can also do things you wouldn’t be able to do, like cut a robot in half.” 

Mears is also BMW SmartState chair in automotive manufacturing at Clemson, and he says that with VR training, “You are allowed to program the robot yourself, and, ‘Oops, you made a mistake,’ or the robot whacked you in the head. It doesn’t hurt as much in virtual reality.”

Some currently operational modules include, among others: removing a battery from an electric vehicle, itself a dangerous operation; using a grinding machine; and snaking a borescope down a turbine—call it an endoscopy on a jet engine.

“That is a skill that requires people to have an understanding of what it looks like,” says Kapil Chalil Madathil, director of technology operations at Clemson’s CWD. “If they’re doing it in a real system, it could break—the cost would be in the thousands.”

Another bonus, Hartley and Chalil Madathil say: The VR/AR curricula will be fully accessible nationwide over the next three years to two-year, four-year, and post-graduate programs. Anyone anywhere with a computer and a mouse with access to the site can rock a robot—virtually, anyway. 

When the software’s rolled out later this year, Greenville Tech students will be the first to use it, including at the testbed vehicle assembly line at its Center for Manufacturing Innovation on the CU-ICAR campus.

“We’re playing a major part in helping develop that,” says Kelvin Byrd, Greenville Tech’s associate dean of industrial manufacturing programs. “Students today understand video games; they understand virtual reality.”

Not only will the new tool “tap into what they’ve grown up with,” he says, “When this whole curriculum is rolled out, think about it, it’s going to generate a spark.”