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ROBOTIC RESOURCES

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Testing of Products or Processes: A Low-Cost Option

by Jim Devaprasad, Director of Robotics and Automation Center
Lake Superior State University

A primary objective of manufacturers and system integrators is the design and development of innovative products and/or processes. 

In product development, typically one or more prototypes of the product are made before the full scale manufacture of the product.  The prototypes are then subjected to many tests in order to fully understand the product so that it will meet  all necessary specifications when manufactured for sale.  

Likewise, processes are developed to effectively manufacture products.  Before a process is fully implemented, it can be tested through simulation using computer software or by testing a prototype of the entire work cell or part of it. 

In both these situations, universities with applied engineering programs can provide product prototype or process testing services and present useful outcomes at a low cost. 

This feature article explores the benefits realized through university partnerships for product and process testing, why a university can offer a low-cost option for such testing or development work, and how to go about establishing a partnership.  Expectations that may be encountered are also discussed. 

Product Testing Using University Partnerships
There is clearly a need for thorough product testing so that performance specifications can be determined.  Most often the testing of products is done within the industry that develops it.  In other situations, particularly for smaller businesses, the capability for in-house testing may be limited.

Whether large or small, a company could benefit from product testing done in a university setting at a low cost for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Universities can provide third party unbiased data on the performance of the product for marketing and publication.  For example, Lake Superior State University (LSSU), Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, completed detailed testing for a company involving the wear of suction cups under various conditions of operation – pull, shear, torque, and fatigue. 
  • An inability or a desire not to invest in expensive equipment or personnel to perform the tests.  For instance, a new robotic tool changer can be tested for functionality and durability using existing robots in a university.
  • Clear and detailed documentation with diagrams, charts and pictures can be developed relatively easily and at a low cost at a university setting.
  • Additional viewpoints could provide appropriate suggestions for improvement in product design as tests are being conducted.
  • Comparative studies and performance evaluations can be conducted in the university setting where products from the competitors can also be tested.  One example: End-of-arm tooling from vendor X can be compared with the same type of tooling from vendor Y and the results published.  The university is named as the unbiased third party evaluator.

In addition to testing the products, universities are well equipped to help an entrepreneur or a small business take a small scale idea or design from conception to actual build of a prototype, which then can be put through a variety of appropriate tests.

Process Testing Using University Partnership
Processes, particularly those involving robotics and automation, are constantly updated and reviewed critically for optimum results.  Whether an enhancement is being made to an existing process or a new process is being developed, it is preferable that the process be tested, validated, and verified before expensive investment and actual implementation of the process. 

Universities, particularly those with manufacturing simulation capabilities and industry-like lab settings, can provide excellent results that involve one or more of the following:

  • Feasibility studies on whether automation is applicable to certain tasks.  A university can develop and implement a prototype robotic work cell, using most of its existing equipment, to determine if the assembly of two complex parts is possible in a reliable manner.
  • Verification on the use of a new technology in a particular application. For example, verifying whether a new machine vision detection technique can be applied in determining the quality of a robotic application of glue on automotive windshields.
  • Performance of simulation studies including discrete event manufacturing simulation, robotic work cell simulation, etc., using the latest software packages to validate and optimize processes before factory floor implementation.
  • Development of new automation processes and ideas.  This could include assisting a busy company, that has no time or ability to invest in equipment or people, in process or idea verification.

The previous examples have been actual projects conducted by LSSU for its industrial partners.   Excellent results were produced, partner’s acceptance criteria for the projects were met or exceeded, and costs were kept considerably lower than would have been the case if a typical consulting or testing facility was involved.

Why Universities Offer a Low-Cost, “Win-Win” Option
There are several universities around the nation and in Canada with excellent engineering facilities, students and faculty. 

In addition to the educational mission, many larger universities typically focus on large research projects involving sizeable budgets, whereas some small- to mid-size universities have a focus on applied engineering projects.  At these smaller institutions, equipment, such as robots, vision systems, rapid prototyping machines, digital measurement devices, etc., are not purchased and committed to specific research projects.  This makes them available at subsidized rates for use in applied engineering projects with industrial partners. 

The expensive and often state-of-the-art equipment and software is only used in student course work involving lab activities.  This provides ample opportunities for use of this equipment in external projects. 

In addition to cost savings through the use of existing equipment in universities, the testing/development projects can employ low-cost talented engineering students and the supervision of their qualified faculty members.  The students gain valuable real-life experience while working on the projects at student rates of about half the rate of typical starting engineering salaries.  The skill sets that these students bring to a project are outstanding. 

Staff and faculty members working on the projects also view them as a means to maintain connections to real industrial world applications.  Such activities are frequently recognized in universities for promotion and tenure decisions and therefore their costs/rates are kept low, too. 

Apart from undertaking projects with low overheads, universities offer other benefits which include:

  • Limited or no cost access to other valuable resources such as a machine shop, electronic and  engineering computing labs, and the related equipment and personnel needed for a project.
  • Providing high quality documentation of procedures and results of the projects.
  • A focus on the successful application of technology and related recognition for the university, especially at not for profit State institutions.  
  • Providing companies an opportunity to recruit bright young engineers from their university partners after observing them working on the projects.

How to go About it
Engineering programs in universities, especially those accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), are required to have dynamic relationships with industry.  This could be in the form of an advisory board consisting of practicing engineers and businessmen, providing input to the programs, and/or by interactions through projects.  Thus, a staff or faculty member in an engineering program would be responsive to a contact being made by industry regarding a potential project.

Steps that could be helpful in establishing and understanding a project relationship between an industry and a university include:

Step 1:   The initial contact, by phone or e-mail,  should be made to get an idea on the capabilities available at the university and the procedures in place for external projects.  Initial contact person could be the dean or department chair, with more information typically available at the university’s Web site.
Step 2:  A brief project proposal that minimally contains the following information should be submitted:  Definition of problem, specific outcomes expected, timelines, and technical resources available.  A university may have a format or form for project proposals that could be used for this submission.
Step 3:   If the project is feasible, a visit to the university should be scheduled to tour facilities and discuss ideas.  A contract should then be developed and signed by the appropriate responsible individuals on both sides.  The contract should have a detailed list of measurable acceptance criteria with a timeline, budget, and payment scheduled clearly defined.
Step 4:   It is important that an understanding is reached for timely communications between the partners while the project is progressing.  If face-to-face meetings are prohibitive, most universities have capabilities to facilitate meetings via web casting or Interactive Television (ITV).
Step 5:   Issues related to patent rights and liabilities need to be addressed and agreed upon by both parties.  At Lake Superior State University, a form releases the university, its students and staff from any liability issues that may occur after the completion of the project as the result of the eventual use of the process or product that was tested. 

The form further releases the industry from any liability claims from the university.  Also, LSSU does not claim any rights to the process, product, or methods used in the project or any intellectual rights.

It is to be noted that even though the students play an effective assistive role, the project responsibility and direction lies with a full-time qualified staff member.

Managing Expectations
Excellent outcomes, with low costs, can be achieved through industry-university partnerships in product/process testing projects.  There are, however, some expectations that need to accommodate the fact that the universities’ primary mission is education.

Typically, even though a university can effectively develop designs/prototypes, design experiments for testing, run tests, and provide data, they cannot certify a product or process.  And, a university may not be able to complete a project within a short timeframe.  Projects undertaken by some universities may need to be limited in scope and the number of projects that can be handled may be low. 

Finally, universities have processes and procedures that do not always mesh with the corporate world.  For example, the purchasing department in a university may not be able to expedite the purchase of a piece of special equipment.  To avoid the bureaucracy, details and methods have to be worked out ahead of time to circumvent possible delays.

Conclusion
Whether near or far, there are universities with excellent facilities and personnel interested in partnering with industry.

Usually, it is assumed that universities conduct only research type projects.  But, there are schools and colleges with a focus on applied engineering with an interest in solving day-to-day practical engineering problems.  Industries can utilize these facilities to address their need to conduct projects in product and process development or testing. 

Through these projects, universities provide access to impressive equipment, technology and personnel which very often go underused and therefore are available at a low cost.  The projects, when clearly defined with contracts and timelines, result in meaningful outcomes that could be applied immediately or developed further in industry. 

Partnerships with universities serve as an excellent means to extend the capabilities of industry, and  several companies have already benefited from this relationship.  The low-cost option for the development or testing of prototypes or processes at universities is worth serious consideration by a wider cross-section of industries.

About LSSU and the Author
Lake Superior State University is a comprehensive university and one of the fifteen State universities of Michigan.  It is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Sault Ste. Marie.  LSSU offers undergraduate programs in Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering (EE), Engineering Management, Industrial Technology, Manufacturing Engineering Technology, and Mechanical Engineering (ME).  LSSU is one of only three universities in the nation to offer a specialization in robotics and automation in its engineering programs.  The author, Jim Devaprasad, is an associate professor at LSSU and serves as the Director of the LSSU Robotics and Automation Center.  He can be reached at 906/635-2131.

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