Reimagining manufacturing: Penn State campus paving way for industry's future

Penn State New Kensington leads smart manufacturing project in partnership with MIT and Arconic
Joseph Cuiffi wiring conveyor belt in lab

Joseph Cuiffi, Penn State alumnus and current assistant teaching professor and program coordinator of electro-mechanical engineering technology (EMET) at Penn State New Kensington, works in a campus lab. Cuiffi is leading a CESMII grant-funded project team working on creating a smart manufacturing educational toolkit and curriculum that will be utilized in his classes and for external industry workforce development. Building upon a machine already being developed by MIT and consulting with Arconic for industry expertise, Cuiffi will introduce the toolkit in an educational setting with EMET and business students in an integrated spring 2019 class, but the project has potential to go beyond a classroom for industry workforce development.

Credit: Rebecca Dietrich

NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. — Rapid advances in technology have not only affected the field of information technology or computer science, but also have affected almost every business and industry, including manufacturing. The propulsion of things such as artificial intelligence, robotics and data analysis is fueling the proverbial flame of what some believe will be the next industrial revolution, known by some as “Industry 4.0.”

“The big issue right now is that we need a closer relationship with industry, not just on the research side, but also on the education side,” said Kevin Snider, chancellor of Penn State New Kensington. “We are in the process of finding what it is that business and industry need for Industry 4.0, and more importantly, what skill sets students need for success over the course of their entire careers in a world that will keep changing.”

Snider, along with faculty and staff at the New Kensington campus, has been exploring with local and regional business and industry leaders, government officials and school districts ways to increase awareness of the need for an Industry 4.0 mindset that is predicted to span every sector and generation.

It was this ongoing discussion that spurred a partnership between the campus’ four-year electro-mechanical engineering technology (EMET) program, Arconic and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The triad has now become a grant-funded team, led by Penn State alumnus Joseph Cuiffi, assistant teaching professor and program coordinator of EMET at the New Kensington campus.

The Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII) recently announced the selection of just 10projects, including that of Cuiffi’s team, related to smart manufacturing initiatives throughout the United States. CESMII is investing approximately $10 million for the chosen projects. 

“We look forward to driving business practices, enabling technology and smart-manufacturing capability and workforce development through this investment,” said Jim Wetzel, interim CEO of CESMII. “Each project demonstrates a strong partnership between industry, academia and government that will provide unequalled results.”

The New Kensington-led team’s project is titled “Factory 4.0 Educational Toolkit.”

“The project is to build some educational toolkits, whatever form they become, but the key component is that it has a piece of machinery as well,” explained Cuiffi. “We will be developing a curriculum around this machine that teaches people how to think about smart manufacturing concepts and things such as large data sets, machine learning and decision augmentation as part of the learning environment.”

The proposed simulator will include machinery and software aspects that imitate a functioning smart manufacturing system. Building upon a machine already being developed by MIT, and consulting with Arconic for industry expertise, Cuiffi will introduce the toolkit in an educational setting with EMET and business students in an integrated spring 2019 class, but the project has potential to go beyond a classroom.

“There are pieces of this out there, but it hasn’t congealed or come together,” said Cuiffi. “I’m hoping that working with CESMII will allow us to network with everyone and create this common platform that everyone, including industry, can have access to.”

Advanced manufacturing is a topic at the minds of many industry leaders in western Pennsylvania, an area of the state that has seen the rise and fall of certain industries and has an aging workforce. While the simulator and curriculum will be important for future students and professionals, current workers in manufacturing settings will also benefit by gaining awareness of how the industry is changing and how they can build upon their skillsets.

“Sometimes industry is behind with some technology, even compared to what we have in our pockets with our cellphones, but there’s reasons for that, and some of the ways we manufacture is just a generation behind when it was built,” Cuiffi said. “That doesn’t mean we need to replace it; it’s more about augmenting it, adding on smart decision tools with sensors and data gathering, along with machine learning and smart decision-making.”

“The more that we’re able to bring it home to people in their own workplaces, the better,” added Snider.

The CESMII grant allows the New Kensington campus and its EMET program to be a leader in smart manufacturing education, however, Snider plans to spread the Industry 4.0 discussion into other realms to benefit Rust Belt communities like New Kensington.

“I think this grant with CESMII is in some ways a game changer for us,” said Snider. “It allows us to really take the lead in some areas and become the campus and region for workforce development with Industry 4.0. We’ve never had an opportunity like this. We can do some really great things for people and our communities.”

In fact, Snider hopes to have New Kensington become a replicable model for reinventing small towns affected by industrial downturn.

“Our first goal is to ensure that we are preparing students for a world that is changing in a way we can’t yet predict and prepare them to survive and thrive in that world,” said Snider. “The second goal, which is related, is to try and find a way for towns around us to become part of and thrive in an Industry 4.0 world. We have a chance here to really establish a niche, a mission, and create a value to towns like New Kensington that are throughout Pennsylvania and throughout the country — Rust Belt cities that will be left behind if we don’t get them integrated.”

It’s an endeavor that Cuiffi is excited to usher in through his work.

“I really do think the exciting part of this isn’t just getting this grant, it’s making Penn State New Kensington the home of this and really getting on the map for it,” said Cuiffi.


Corinne Coulson

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