December 11, 2018, by Sylvie Couture

Workforce Development in the Learning Factory

The face of manufacturing has changed dramatically since the start of Industry 4.0. McMaster University’s W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology (SEPT B.Tech.) has decided to follow suit by designing and developing a Learning Factory on its campus in Hamilton, Ontario. This modern facility plays an important role in workforce development and introduces students and industry trainees to IoT, IIoT, Cyber-Physical Systems, digital work instructions, and other Industry 4.0 concepts.

Introducing the Learning Factory

Learning Factories represent a new experiential learning model implemented in certain European countries and only found in a few North American universities. Learning Factories are where students get the chance to experience work in an environment similar to the one they will encounter when they enter the job market. “Our Leaning Factory is a place that simulates a modern manufacturing shop.” Said Dr. Ishwar Singh, one of SEPT’s Learning Factory founders. “In addition to having all the traditional workstations, such as assembly, testing, and packaging, we also have access to some of the latest technology available on the market, such as 3D printers, as well as some prototyping equipment.” This access to technology enables students to go beyond traditional practices, preparing them to be part of the future workforce.

Manufacturing Technology Meets Higher Learning

The history of McMaster’s Learning Factory starts with the conception of SEPT B.Tech. Partnership itself. Created in 2005, SEPT B.Tech. was the result of a collaboration, initiated by Dr. Mo Elbestawi, between McMaster University and Mohawk College. The goal of this partnership was to create the Bachelor of Technology program. Through this program, students were able to learn “in 3D” by incorporating theory, practice and experience in education. This approach allows students to gain hands-on industrial experience in addition to traditional learning through lectures and labs, like a true member of the manufacturing workforce. Once SEPT had been established, Dr. Elbestawi reached out to his colleagues, Dr. Dan Centea and Dr. Ishwar Singh. Together they studied and visited existing Learning Factories, in order to create a state-of-the-art facility. After being built at McMaster, this facility is currently used by seven undergraduate degree programs and five graduate programs.

“We wanted to build a modern facility that enabled undergraduate and graduate students to learn about IoT and IIoT technology, cyber-physical systems and all things that demonstrate Industry 4.0 concepts. We also wanted to provide a platform for SEPT graduates to acquire these skills and capabilities so that they can successfully participate in the transformation of manufacturing and related industries, taking them to next level of productivity and performance”

-Dr. Mo Elbestawi

Industry 4.0 and VKS in the Classroom

SEPT wastes no time immersing their students in Industry 4.0 principles. “The students follow an applied communication course in their first year during which they are given a tour of the Learning Factory. They are then asked to use VKS to prepare an assembly instruction for one of the parts currently being manufactured there”, explains Dr. Singh. Due to its strong adherence to Industry 4.0 concepts, VKS fits seamlessly into the Learning Factory. Products assembled there, such as solenoid valves,​ ​​electronic screwdrivers, and IoT boards,​ ​​are accompanied by VKS guidebooks to help students. VKS is also where students go to find the instructions on how to use the Leaning Factory’s 3D printer. This saves both the students and professors valuable time since there is much to learn and teach before the students are ready to contribute to the manufacturing workforce. “We have plans to continue creating VKS guidebook instructions for new equipment in the lab,” confirms Dr. Singh. VKS helps them keep both the students and the equipment safe.

“We consider VKS to be a very useful digital manufacturing software tool that is easy to learn and to work with. The fact that it is web-based not only makes it convenient, but it also makes it meet one of the aspects of the Industry 4.0”

-Dr. Ishwar Singh

A Place of Collaboration and Innovation

In addition to teaching students to use innovative technology and think outside the box, the Learning Factory also contributes to their workforce development by teaching them the value of collaboration. After completing capstone projects in teams of two or three, the students who worked in the Learning Factory are encouraged to reach out to industries to showcase their projects and find partners for further developments of their ideas. “Our program is hand-on, minds-on and spirits-up,” states Dr. Singh. “The Learning Factory is a hub that brings all the laboratories together. We encourage collaboration between students, other departments, and with external companies.” Not only does the Learning Factory have partnerships with companies such as VKS that help provide modern manufacturing technology, it also occasionally partners with companies looking for young minds to help them bring their products to the next level.

“The Learning Factory facility has been an attraction to international visitors interested in developing collaboration projects. Students from three continents developed projects in the learning factory. Our goal is to expand our international exposure in order to provide support to other countries interested in developing similar facilities”

-Dr. Dan Centea

More than Just Manufacturing Technology

Any member of the manufacturing workforce will agree that there is more to manufacturing than tools and technology. SEPT kept that in mind, and students following its programs are likely to see courses such as Management Principles and Introduction to Health and Safety in their list of required courses. These and other areas touching on the administration logistics of a manufacturing plant are also a part of the Learning Factory experience. “Another of our goals” mentioned Dr. Singh, “is to demonstrate different technologies. Since VKS is easy to use, our future plan is to implement all of its features the same way one would use a Manufacturing Execution System (MES). We are currently planning to assemble a group of students that will be tasked with implementing VKS into all of our learning factory processes.”

Taking the Future Workforce to the Final Frontier

Future Workforce

SEPT sees their relationship with VKS move forward while they tackle their next big project; Space. SEPT is one of Canada’s learning institutions participating in the Canadian government's Canadian CubeSat Project (CCP). The CCP ​is providing professors in post-secondary institutions with an opportunity to engage their students in a real space mission.​“What McMaster University hopes to accomplish with its cube satellite project is to monitor the background radiation in space. With more and more space travel over the past few years, we want to know the impact of the background radiation”, elaborated Dr. Singh. “The Learning Factory would be used to build the prototype satellites as well as the ground communication station.” Due to the highly sensitive nature of these assemblies, Dr. Singh confirmed that each assembly will be accompanied by a VKS guidebook.