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Amplifying UB’s “Industry 4.0” expertise worldwide

Engineering school marks completion of nation’s first comprehensive ‘specialization’ on digital manufacturing for Coursera online learning platform

By Tracy Puckett

Release Date: October 4, 2017

“Broadening education by making it available to people all over the world is a powerful concept. It really can’t be overemphasized what this can mean for helping people to manage their careers in a modern economy.”
Liesl Folks, dean
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Ari Cohen’s role as director of business and trade development for the Israel Economic Mission in Chicago is a natural fit for his background. With a bachelor’s degree in international relations and master’s degree in microbiology, he introduces expansion-seeking Israeli life sciences startups to American companies and helps them navigate the business landscape.

The 30-year-old was less than thrilled when his matchmaking duties were broadened to assist manufacturing-related suppliers.

“I was a little out of my comfort zone,” he admitted.  

Cohen knew that having a grasp on the advanced manufacturing sector, and where it is heading, was paramount to sparking any meaningful conversations with Israeli clients and their potential American partners. He found the antidote to his unease in a “101” level series of massive open online courses, aka MOOCs, that explore manufacturing’s shift to a fourth industrial revolution — often called “Industry 4.0” — which uses data to make factories more efficient and competitive.

Cohen’s learning vehicle is the Digital Manufacturing and Design Technology specialization, a 10-course bundle created by the University at Buffalo (UB). It is backed by funding from the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), part of the Manufacturing USA network of public-private institutes developing manufacturing technologies and workforce solutions.  

The specialization developed through the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) is one of the largest available on the Coursera platform. The online educational company serves 25 million registered users with courses from 50 of the world’s top universities and educational institutions.

In the words of Lisa Stephens, liaison to Coursera for the State University of New York (SUNY), the specialization is further proof that UB and SUNY “can be players in a new, innovative style of educational delivery.”  

As of mid-September, there were just over 8,000 total enrollments across the specialization, representing learners from 80 countries. The first three courses debuted in January, with subsequent courses released one per month. The final course went live in August.

“Broadening education by making it available to people all over the world is a powerful concept,” said Liesl Folks, UB SEAS dean. “It really can’t be overemphasized what this can mean for helping people to manage their careers in a modern economy.”

Creating MOOCs

UB entered the land of MOOCs in 2013 when Coursera and SUNY agreed to a system-wide contract enabling all 64 campuses access to the delivery platform. Several SUNY campuses have since contributed to the platform. Career Services was the first UB unit to make a splash with “How to Write a Resume” in March 2016.  

UB seized the opportunity to widen its Coursera presence when DMDII released a project call to support its workforce development strategy of training and educating the current and future workforce in digital manufacturing and design applications. UB is a Tier 1 academic member of DMDII, a public-private partnership aimed at transforming American manufacturing through the digitization of the supply chain.

“Recognizing it’s a broad technology space, the potential impact [of digital manufacturing and design] can’t be summed up in a single hour or a single article,” said Michael Fornasiero, program manager of workforce development at DMDII. “It really takes effort to dive into the content and introduce the topics. We see this specialization as a way of getting someone up to speed very, very quickly, and establishing their understanding of the breadth of technologies and their interactions in this space.”

The university’s submission was masterminded by UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE), which is the business outreach arm of SEAS, with support from  UB’s SMART (Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies) Community of Excellence.

DMDII and its parent organization UI LABS chose the proposal, leading to a U.S. Department of Defense grant of $380,000.  

Course creation spanned one year under the direction of TCIE’s project management team. Expertise from engineering faculty, as well as partners Accu-Solve and Siemens PLM, was leveraged. Feedback of local and national industry partners was solicited. Extensive production and editing were provided by UB’s Center for Educational Innovation and Full Circle Studios.

The result? Forty hours of video instruction, complemented by reading materials, assessments and peer interaction opportunities. Topics range from the digital thread and the internet of things to big data and cybersecurity.  

Courses are delivered by five UB faculty: Kenneth English, PhD, SMART deputy director; Rahul Rai, PhD, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE); Sara Behdad, PhD, assistant professor of MAE, and industrial and systems engineering (ISE); Chi Zhou, PhD, assistant professor of ISE; and Shambhu Upadhyaya, professor of computer science and engineering.

“The approach that UB took was very efficient for both curriculum development and feedback,” Fornasiero said. “It was not completely dictated by an academic institution; they have done the work to make sure the content was resonating well” with industry.

James van Oss, aerospace and defense product lifecycle management strategist and architect for Moog’s Space & Defense Group and its Aircraft Group, was among the industry representatives tapped for their feedback. He called the development process a “cutting-edge experience.” The group included Lockheed Martin, the Association for Manufacturing Technology, SAE International, Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), Buffalo Manufacturing Works, and the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM).

“It’s an interesting area. It’s the thing that companies will be focusing on as the near future unfolds,” he said. “More and more companies are thinking about how to create a digital thread… many are in transition from a drawing-based paradigm to this more modern-based paradigm.”

The change to Industry 4.0 is already here, as mentioned during the specialization’s introductory course.

“We deal with it every day as we listen to music and take pictures with our ever-present phones, and share information via social media,” English said. “Large organizations have already made the shift, and in the end smaller organizations are going to need to shift as well, whether required to as a condition of a contract or by realizing the competitive advantage they can gain.”

The learners

Technologies of the 21 century demand greater accessibility to flexible education, as workers are expected to continuously adapt and acquire new skills. Thought leaders in higher education realize that students – especially those of the post-traditional sector – want autonomy in learning. After all, adult learners are busy people.

Coursera is available 24/7 to anyone with an internet connection. Learners can freely view videos and reading materials of any course, including those of the specialization. There is a charge to access an entire course, which includes all assignments. Successfully completing the whole series earns a Digital Manufacturing and Design Technology certificate.

Folks, UB SEAS dean, views the courses as a springboard for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to keep pace with opportunities. Before her engineering dean role, she worked in large corporations where scientists armed with knowledge and data were just a phone call away. Now as a university leader, her relation-building initiatives with SMEs have fully exposed her to the struggles of staying current with a much smaller budget.

“I hope that courses like these, and the DMDII itself, will bring to SMEs the kind of intellectual resources that large corporations have had in their research divisions traditionally – the forward thinking, forward planning, and strategic analysis,” Folks said.

Van Oss believes the courses are appropriate for entry-level engineers discovering career routes, like Mohammad Shahbaaz of Visakhapatnam, South India.    

The 23-year-old has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He is voluntarily working as a design engineer for a manufacturing company – a common practice in his country – while searching for his first full-time job after college. He signed up for the specialization because it aligns with his plan to pursue a master’s degree.

Shahbaaz hopes that the knowledge he gains will support his cause for landing a permanent, paid position. The company for which he is donating his services has invested in new infrastructure and machinery, and will require a team to implement digital technologies.   

And then there are learners such as Cohen, who were never captivated by or involved in manufacturing, but recognize a professional need to invest in the subject.

“It’s given me a lot of things to think about in terms of how the life sciences industry is going to change when Industry 4.0 mechanisms start getting adopted outside of heavy industry,” Cohen said. “And I’m looking forward to having the skills and know-how to help the industry navigate that changing landscape.”

He characterizes the courses as being accessible. “You don’t necessarily need to be very well-versed in manufacturing lingo to understand these courses. And you don’t need to have copious amounts of time to devote.”

The opportunities

The specialization is opening UB SEAS to new audiences, and allowing it to move beyond the traditional university model of solely degree programs to one that encompasses certificates.

“As the economy shifts more rapidly, people need access to training on an ongoing basis, to allow them to stay current and competitive,” Folks said.

SMART Director Kemper Lewis, PhD, foresaw the transformational potential of the courses not only for UB, but the entire field.

“Everything I’ve heard – wherever I go – only confirms that,” said Lewis, the principal investigator of the project as well as professor and chair of the MAE department.

Through speaking engagements across the country, he receives positive feedback from both academic and industry sectors. The courses are catching the attention of different groups, catalyzing conversations and developing relationships:

  • Lewis recently addressed the SUNY Research Council, which influences strategic and operational planning at SUNY and the SUNY Research Foundation. Council members acknowledged UB’s leadership in digital manufacturing and design, and indicated that state investment is integral to expanding impact.
  • A binational nonprofit organization and technical college in Querétaro, Mexico contacted TCIE to guide development of similar Industry 4.0 courses targeted for manufacturing company employees and university students. Moreover, news of the relationship traveled 350 miles across the country, reaching a coalition of companies and a technical university in Durango, Mexico. The group has approached TCIE for assistance to establish a training center for manufacturing courses.
  • The principal of MOT Charter High School in Delaware is engaging with UB SEAS, exploring the development of a for-credit course.

“When you think of the thought leaders in digital manufacturing, hopefully UB is the top tier of institutions that come to mind,” Lewis said. “Some of that national recognition is definitely happening.”

To learn more about the specialization and register, visit the Digital Manufacturing and Design Technology specialization page.

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