Skip to main content
Alumni Magazine

Built with data

New smart manufacturing center provides access to NC State expertise.

Two students working on a industrial device.

With the opening of Fitts-Woolard Hall in 2020, the College’s smart manufacturing research and production facilities, already some of the best at an academic institution anywhere in the nation, underwent a transformation.

On the building’s second floor, visible from the engineering oval outside through floor-to-ceiling windows, the new advanced manufacturing laboratory incorporates an “engineering on display” aesthetic that is an important part of NC State’s newest engineering building on Centennial Campus. The innovative research being done inside is placed front and center with interpretive digital displays nearby, so that visitors have access that wasn’t available in the College’s previous facilities on North Campus.

Students and faculty members in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) are pushing forward smart manufacturing — think of making data an asset to take traditional manufacturing to the next level. Using cameras, sensors and the connectedness and data storage that come with cloud computing, smart manufacturing is allowing remote operation of production lines and sharing of information across facilities to make improvements in real time. Add in artificial intelligence, and machines begin to anticipate those needed changes and they become even more efficient.

New additions in the space in Fitts-Woolard Hall include four new machine tools with the capability to pull real-time information from controllers that can inform process improvements, collaborative robots able to work one-on-one with human partners efficiently and safely and even mobile robots that can move one of these collaborative robots from station to station on the manufacturing floor.

“There are just so many new advanced manufacturing tools coming out of their boxes every day,” said Paul Cohen, Edgar S. Woolard Distinguished Professor in ISE. “It gives us the ability to mimic what people are doing in industry and to be able to add the smart manufacturing overlay to everything.”

Man in short sleeve shirt and face mask working at a computer.

Now, because of a partnership with CESMII, the U.S. Smart Manufacturing Institute, American companies will have more ways to benefit from research expertise, facilities and tools across a broad range of manufacturing areas at NC State.

In 2020, CESMII named NC State as its first Smart Manufacturing Innovation Center (SMIC). Since then, three other such centers have been established around the country to provide a network of resources for the nation’s manufacturers that stretches from coast to coast. The NC State SMIC covers the entire Southeast.

NC State manufacturing expertise has long been an asset for companies around North Carolina and the Southeast. Manufacturers can improve their operations by working with students and faculty members or with Industry Expansion Solutions, the College of Engineering’s extension service. Undergraduate and graduate students benefit from the hands-on experience they receive and take that knowledge into the workforce, helping to push the local economy forward.

Now, through the CESMII partnership, more manufacturers can benefit from such partnerships. Cohen, along with Yuan-Shin Lee, director of the NC State SMIC and professor in ISE, and ISE James T. Ryan Professor Binil Starly, are excited about the additional exposure this will bring to their department, spreading the word about the strength of its programs.

“We are the leading university in the smart manufacturing area,” Lee said.

University-wide effort

The NC State SMIC is unique in the breadth of its offerings. Along with the smart manufacturing work being done in the College of Engineering (COE), the center offers companies access to facilities and manufacturing expertise in the Golden LEAF Biotechnology Training and Education Center (BTEC), part of the COE, along with the paper manufacturing program in NC State’s College of Natural Resources and in textile manufacturing through NC State’s Nonwovens Institute, part of the College of Textiles.

Thanks to a new digital platform developed by CESMII called the SM Innovation Platform, manufacturers around the nation can gain remote access to NC State facilities from wherever they are.

“NC State is a ‘Think and Do’ nationally recognized university for research and innovation,” Lee said. “With this partnership, the NC State SMIC will develop a world-class smart manufacturing demonstration facility through partnerships with industry and regional and national laboratories for sustainable workforce development and educational training. We are very excited about this new opportunity.”

CESMII is the United States’ national institute accelerating smart manufacturing adoption through the integration of advanced sensors, data, platforms and controls to radically impact manufacturing performance. CESMII’s program and administrative home is with the University of California, Los Angeles in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.

This national effort is a vital one, Cohen said, as the United States seeks to maintain and even improve its global standing as a leading manufacturer. As a member of a task force for the American Society for Engineering Education, the need among U.S. companies for a highly trained workforce that understands these new technologies is something that he hears about often.

That needs ranges from the community college level to the advanced work done by master’s and Ph.D. graduates from four-year universities.

“The knowledge that is needed is so broad,” Cohen said. “They need people with an overview of how processes, data and control fit together. We really don’t produce those people, nationwide, right now.”