Supporting the future of manufacturing

Every day, Alex Violassi, director of the Automation Alley Technical Center on the Oakland University campus in Rochester, MI, helps make sure the state’s manufacturing industry stays at the forefront of technological innovation.

The center focuses on product lifecycle management (PLM) and modeling/simulation/visualization (MSV) strategies and tools, including 3D printing for additive manufacturing.

“Our mission is to expose manufacturers to the coming technology; to train them on the technology; and give them hands-on experience as part of the center,” says Violassi, who notes the Michigan Economic Development Corporation provided an initial grant over five years to get the center open and to sustain it. A group of major partners also donated software.

Violassi believes the Internet of Everything will have a definite impact on the Technical Center. “Here at the Technical Center, we are working with manufacturers to change the whole design process,’’ he says. “Traditionally, product development was mostly mechanical. Now there is a simultaneous merging of mechanical, electronics and software. The new smart products are equipped with sensors and the intelligence to talk to each other. What that means is that now people have to design the electronics, the software and the sensors on the computer before anything is manufactured. You learn to think about things differently.”

He uses the refrigerator as an example. “Refrigerators are becoming much ‘smarter.’ If your water pump breaks, you used to have to notify the manufacturer for service. They would come out, look at the part, figure out what was needed, order the part, then come back and install it when the part came in. That was pretty typical,” he says. “Now, however, thanks to your smart sensor on your new refrigerator, it will notify the manufacturer, who knows the model and how it was used and they will send a service rep out with the right part, which will have been already requested out of inventory.

“All industries are exploring this smart functionality,” Violassi says, noting that both healthcare and the automotive industries were quick to embrace the concept.

Despite the presence of the Oakland University computer science and engineering students that the Technology Center benefits from, by and large, Violassi says, “This interactivity is new — so new that manufacturers are having trouble trying to find people to fit the new careers. People have taken to recruiting gamers from South by Southwest to get employees who can write code.

“Product lifecycle management and modeling, simulation and visualization is the process we are teaching local manufacturers,” Violassi says. “If you can use your computer to design and simulate before you purchase expensive components and physical equipment, you will save uncounted dollars.”