Automation Alley’s Technology Center leads the way
By Ilene Wolff
Has Detroit lost its rustbelt image once and for all? Yes, according to a 2015 analysis by the Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution, which examined the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas and their concentration of advanced industries.
Portions of the metropolitan area (Detroit, Dearborn and Warren, specifically), where almost 15 percent of workers are employed in advanced enterprises, make up the United States’ fourth largest hub for employment in 50 industries. These advanced enterprises range from manufacturing industries such as automotive and aerospace to energy industries such as oil and gas extraction to high-tech services such as computer software and computer system design.
The report notes the astonishing new technologies — including advanced robotics, 3D printing and the digitization of everything — “are provoking genuine excitement, even as they make it hard to see where things are going.”
Not only is the Detroit area a hotbed of advanced industry companies — unlike places like Oklahoma City, where energy jobs are prevalent, or Boston, which is concentrated with computer and software developers — the Motor City’s jobs are deep and balanced across multiple specialties.
Not all of the news from the study is good: The nation is slipping in terms of innovation and in having enough employees educated and trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that qualify workers for well-paying positions in advanced fields.
“The United States is losing ground to other countries on advanced industry competitiveness,” according to the report. “The nation’s private and public sectors must engage to defend and expand America’s advanced industries.”
Automation Alley is doing its part — working to promote innovation, share knowledge and inspire the STEM workers of tomorrow — through its Technology Center, located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, MI.
The Automation Alley Technology Center has enlisted area businesses focused on 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing), product lifecycle management, simulation, machine communication, data management and other essential facets of advanced manufacturing and brought them together in one spot. Experts are available from the businesses to offer insight on how to incorporate advanced manufacturing processes in a shop. What’s more, visitors can try out some of the technology for themselves or see it in use.
The center also hosts young students — like the group of sixth-grade VEX robotics competitors from Notre Dame and Marist Academy in Pontiac who recently spent a morning there — in an effort to get them excited about pursuing careers in advanced manufacturing.
“Their eyes almost came out of their sockets when Dataspeed showed them its (Lincoln) MKZ that’s controlled with an Xbox,” says Alex Violassi, the center’s director. Dataspeed, of Troy, is developing technology for driverless vehicles, among other projects (see sidebar on page 31).
The center has attracted the likes of global manufacturing businesses Autodesk, Siemens PLM and Wenzel America, along with American companies DASI Solutions of Pontiac and SimaFore Analytics of Ann Arbor (see sidebar on page 32 for list of sponsoring companies). It opened in 2014 with a $250,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and in-kind donations from participating companies.
David Darbyshire, president of DASI Solutions, which supplies Stratasys 3D printers, Solidworks software and support for both, says his company’s participation is part of its philanthropic outreach. He views himself and representatives from the other companies involved as trusted guides operating in a clearinghouse with lots of different technology that they and other firms can learn and share.
“When you collaborate, you can reach more people,” says Darbyshire. “When we’re at the Innovation Lab (in the Technology Center), our business is less important; it’s promoting Southeast Michigan as an innovation and technology hub.”
The Technology Center is open to any business, but Violassi, an expert in product lifecycle management, has his sights set on Automation Alley’s small and medium-size manufacturers.
“Part of my metrics is how many people on a weekly basis are in here,” Violassi says, explaining that his goal is to host up to 10 companies each week. Right now the Center hosts three or four companies per week, he says, but he’s confident the Center offers a service that points to the future.
“We’re here to help Automation Alley members see some of the emerging technologies,” says Violassi. “For example, what should they be aware of as far as technology in 3D printing?”
While 3D printing was invented in the 1980s, and has been used by automotive companies for almost as long, it has yet to become widespread in the mainstream of American manufacturing.
Entrepreneur Joseph Rocca, president of DELRAY Systems, oversees the Center’s 3D printer “farm.” Rocca’s been 3D printing for 20 years, mostly in the automotive industry, and recently started his own company to offer 3D printing services, as well as training and technology for additive manufacturing. DELRAY is a tenant at OU INC, a business incubator in the same building as the Technology Center.
The farm has desktop printers from Stratasys, Makerbot and others. Violassi has ordered an industrial 3D printer.
Rocca is there to educate manufacturers about incorporating 3D scanning and printing into manufacturing. “Even though the technology has been around, there are emerging techniques that can create efficiencies, making jobs quicker and less expensive,” he says.
That’s not all.
“Companies like to bring 3D printing in-house because their confidential information doesn’t get dispersed (to a vendor),” says Rocca. Even so, Violassi says he would like to offer printing services to clients.
Also on the 3D printer farm is a $100,000 industrial CT scanner from Wenzel America of Wixom, used for making sure 3D printers and the parts they produce are up to spec.
“People are used to the idea that you make parts and measure them,” says Giles Gaskell, applications manager for Wenzel America. “Normally, 3D printing isn’t that accurate. Our mentality is that if it comes off the computer it has to be right. They might be accurate, but you don’t know.”
Using an industrial CT scanner is the only way to check whether parts that are too intricate for calipers or a tape measure comply with a computer-aided design, he says. Makers can use “virtual calipers” on a computer screen to compare the CT image of a part with the CAD drawing.
“The CT scanner can show you where the part is out of spec and you can determine if it’s bad enough that you have to redo it,” says Gaskell.
Using Gaskell’s methods can even tell a user if his 3D printer is out of calibration, and help determine which adjustments need to be made.
“If you follow this line of thinking, you’ll have to calibrate your machine periodically,” says Gaskell. “All of this has been done before on conventional machines and is covered by International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards.”
ISO sets voluntary, consensus-based standards covering almost every industry to ensure quality, safety and efficiency.
Gaskell says some startups and established manufacturers want to become suppliers in the automotive, aeronautics and medical industries, but “If they can’t meet the rigorous standards of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Big Three autos, it’s going to hold back not only 3D printing, but a lot of advanced manufacturing.”
Tech center 2.0
Violassi has developed a wish list to make it even more meaningful to his visitors.
On his list is a white-light laser scanner, used to check whether parts are true to their CAD drawings, and for reverse engineering; and computer numerical controlled technology that uses computing to control machining with lathes, mills, routers and grinders. Believe it or not, Violassi had a Schwinn mountain bike on the list, which has arrived. To demonstrate the Internet of Things, his plan is to equip the bike with sensors to offer feedback on when preventive maintenance is needed or when something goes wrong.
Automation Alley’s Technology Center may not compare to an international trade show, but it offers a whole lot of expertise with no need for local companies to book hotel accommodations.
For more information, call 800-427-5100.