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Greenville Business Magazine

Webinar: Humans – Plus Machines – Key to Secure Workforce

Oct 28, 2020 03:51PM ● By David Dykes
By L. C. Leach III

The answer was a simple ‘No’ to this question: In the future, will humans be replaced in the manufacturing workplace by machines?

The question was the intended subject of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce’s webinar Oct. 22.

But guest consultant David Clayton, executive director for Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) in Greenville, explained to an online audience of about 30 that the future of manufacturing in the Upstate will continue to involve both machines and humans.

“Automation, robotics, or even artificial intelligence and thinking machines is about precision,” Clayton said. “BMW, for example has hired many, many robots in the last 10-20 years. But they’ve also added many people – so they continue to grow in both ways.”

To illustrate his point, Clayton told of the advancements, technology, and plans of CU-ICAR, with advanced manufacturing being one of its “four main pillars.”

“Manufacturing is such a critical part of this economy and especially the automotive sector here in South Carolina,” Clayton said. “And we’ve continued to hire more people, invest in resources and laboratory space, and create the future of where we see manufacturing going.”

That future is taking shape at CU-ICAR in these four main sectors:

• Alliance with Greenville Technical College. CU-ICAR has collaborated with Greenville Tech for two automotive laboratories.

The first is a Vehicle Assembly Center to test new robotics, new sensors, and new methods for building cars.

The second is a multi-million-dollar, 6,500-square-foot Composite Center to study full-scale automotive components, such as carbon fiber and glass, to make lighter, safer, and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

• New Academic Programs. Clemson now has a School of Computing where students can earn a master’s degree in computer science. It also offers mechanical engineering students opportunities to participate in research through a variety of programs.

• Improved Resources. Clayton focused on an endeavor called Deep Orange, which allows students to create a new vehicle every year in an innovation lab sponsored by AVX Mobility Systems.

Begun in 2008, only a year after the founding of CU-ICAR, Deep Orange is a program that immerses students in an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) setting to produce new vehicle prototypes – such as Deep Orange 12, an autonomous self-driving racecar.

“We’re building the first prototype vehicle that will be copied by 10 different race teams,” Clayton said. “And the students actually get to build them.”

• Expanding the scope of CU-ICAR. The CU-ICAR campus has five sectors on 250 acres, but only one sector has been developed. Plans are to fill the remaining four sectors by attracting new companies.

“We have about 450,000 square feet under roof now,” Clayton said. “But once we finish this development, we could be over 2 million square feet under roof, which could potentially employ 10,000 people.”

He added that this employment will likely be involved with computing, artificial intelligence, new forms of energy and electrification, and new forms of mobility and transportation, such as driverless cars.

“The automotive sector is expanding into mobility,” Clayton said. “And we want to be part of that future where the cars literally drive themselves.”

But with all the planned innovation and changing technology, the original question lingered.

“We hear a lot about robots taking our place,” said Cheryl Garrison, webinar host and director of talent and workforce solutions with the Greenville Chamber. “Is there a place for humans in the future?”

Clayton said in his view, humans are "not even close” to being replaced.

“The goal in most cases is not to replace to replace someone from doing a job but to make their job better,” he said. “It’s about taking those dirty and dangerous and dull tasks and having automation handle those, and letting people do more of the thinking and programming and working on building systems that can customize products.”

And he emphasized that just as the automotive industry has come a long way in the last 100+ years from the traditional vehicle with an internal combustion engine, manufacturing is going use robotics and other forms of automation to bolster and create human jobs rather than eliminate them.

“I think we’re still very secure in getting good jobs in manufacturing and actually better paying and more interesting work,” he said. “And we hope to grow this automotive and mobility hub so we can create opportunities for all of Greenville.”