Published October 12, 2017
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 businesses and helps them navigate the legal landscape.
Cohen 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 admits.
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” — that 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 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.
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,” says SEAS Dean Liesl Folks. “It really can’t be overemphasized what this can mean for helping people to manage their careers in a modern economy.”
UB entered the land of MOOCs in 2013 when Coursera and SUNY agreed to a system-wide contract giving 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 do so 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,” says 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 led by UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) — 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 from 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 cyber security.
Successfully completion of the whole series earns a Digital Manufacturing and Design Technology certificate.
Courses are delivered by five UB faculty members: Kenneth English, SMART deputy director; Rahul Rai, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE); Sara Behdad, assistant professor of MAE and industrial and systems engineering (ISE); Chi Zhou, 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 says. “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.”
“It’s an interesting area. It’s the thing that companies will be focusing on as the near future unfolds,” van Oss says. “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.”
English notes Industry 4.0 is already here.
“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,” he says. “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.”
Folks agrees, viewing the courses as a springboard for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to keep pace with opportunities. Before joining UB as engineering dean, 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 says.
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 says.
SMART Director Kemper Lewis envisioned the transformational potential of the courses not only for UB, but the entire field.
“Everything I’ve heard — wherever I go — only confirms that,” says Lewis, principal investigator of the project, as well as professor and chair of the MAE.
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:
“When you think of the thought leaders in digital manufacturing, hopefully UB is the top tier of institutions that come to mind,” Lewis says. “Some of that national recognition is definitely happening.”