Working with academia to educate future engineers

Posted on 5 Dec 2014 by Jonny Williamson

Collaboration between automation vendors and engineering education establishments is vital if students are to gain a good understanding of state-of-the-art automation technology and become an asset to any manufacturing workforce. Omron has been working with the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering for more than 20 years – specifically the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) – to ensure that its engineering students remain up to date in the fast paced world of controls, drives and automation.

According to a 2011 study from the Royal Academy of Engineering, British industry needs 100,000 new graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and a further 60,000 technicians and apprentices every year until 2020 just to maintain current employment numbers.

The report ‘An insight into modern manufacturing’ identified engineering skills shortages as being one of the main constraints on the ability of UK manufacturing to grow and compete with the rest of the world.

“The issues surrounding education have been a concern since publication of ‘The Leitch Review of Skills’ in 2006, which stated that the UK was almost becoming a third-world country for manufacturing and engineering due to an engineering skills gap,” said Karl Walker, Omron’s Marketing Manager for Automation products.

Alan Thorne, Technical Officer for the Automation Laboratory and MET course lecturer, demonstrates an Omron PLC to a student
Alan Thorne, Technical Officer for the Automation Laboratory and MET course lecturer, demonstrates an Omron PLC to a student

Omron has identified a general deskilling trend among many of its own customers over the years, often resulting in the need to outsource skilled engineering services. “I believe it is vital that automation technology companies are actively involved in upskilling their customers to ensure that engineers have a good understanding of the latest automation technology and how it can help manufacturing companies to achieve productivity and efficiency goals,” comments Karl.

The relationship between automation technology suppliers and engineers needs to start early – while the engineers of the future are still in education – to support manufacturing sector growth by ensuring a competent workforce for the future.

At the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering the IfM takes a cross-disciplinary approach to bring together expertise in management, technology and policy to address all the industrial issues that students will face when entering the workplace.

The relationship with the IfM began with Omron presenting an annual lecture to the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (MET) students, in the final year of their Masters Degree in Manufacturing Engineering. Omron has also recently become involved in Industrial Systems, Manufacturing and Management (ISMM), which is one of the most over-subscribed post-graduate courses at Cambridge.

Dr Ken Platts, former Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (MET) course Director at the University of Cambridge
Dr Ken Platts, former Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (MET) course Director at the University of Cambridge

“The IfM’s relationship with Omron has evolved over the years,” said Dr Ken Platts, University Reader in Manufacturing and previously Director of the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos course at Cambridge.

The IfM includes a simulated manufacturing environment – the Automation Lab – in which all control is achieved via donated Omron PLCs, vision systems, RFID and safety products.

“For the University of Cambridge, relationships with automation suppliers are essential to ensure our students gain a good knowledge of the latest technologies and to provide students with hands-on experience of these technologies.” said Dr Platts.

Omron has also benefitted from the relationship as it can gain access to the combined problem-solving knowledge of the IfM professors and students. Karl explains further: “Omron is also involved in sponsoring the projects of final year MET students. The projects this year were both very impressive. One was based around the Automation Lab, looking at the reconfigurability of manufacturing automation software systems. The other project looked at the issues surrounding industrial control systems training – focusing on the requirements for, and delivery of, training to manufacturing production control engineers.”

“Omron is proud to be an active participant in raising engineering skills level and ensuring that engineers and engineering students are kept abreast of ever-changing automation technologies”, concludes Karl.