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Case Study: The smart lab that mimics the smart factory

June 1, 2021
An inside look at how one technical college teaches advanced automation skills.

The Racine campus of Gateway Technical College sits in the middle of a booming manufacturing hub in southeast Wisconsin. Apple-supplier Foxconn just built new facilities down the road and, presently, visitors to Gateway’s campus can watch bulldozers lay the foundation for many future new plants outside.

Gateway Technical College is already an important feeder school for businesses looking to install, operate and maintain Industry 4.0 technology on their productions floors. At their state-of-the-art manufacturing training facility outside of Racine, Gateway’s Industrial Internet of Things Technologist David Aguirre designs projects that help educate others about advanced manufacturing technology and data analytics.

“We have set up a lab that mimics a real-world smart factory,” he says. “Here, we are teaching the future of manufacturing through the production process of making 3-and-4-way valves, either created from acrylic or aluminum.”

The smart factory lab has five FANUC LR-Mate robots, which help move parts through the production cycle. A mobile robot as well as a series of conveyors assist the robots. Additionally, a virtual ROBODRILL is in the lab connected to a FANUC CNC Simulator, which helps students learn how to operate the machine tool.

“The FANUC integrated platform of industrial robotics, data-analytics software and professional technical services serves as our foundational training in smart machine applications for careers in advanced manufacturing,” says Bryan Albrecht, president and CEO of Gateway Technical College.

Gateway’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology associate-degree program teaches students about different mechanical, electronic and information technologies. This broadens the knowledge base of advanced manufacturing technicians and their ability to understand mechanical and electrical principles as well as how to implement data analysis to optimize the manufacturing process through intelligent automation.

Gateway students have access to FANUC robots, actual ROBODRILLS, as well as FANUC CNC Simulators for hands-on experience working with real-world industrial equipment. In one of the computer labs, ROBOGUIDE teaches how to program simulated robots before they program actual FANUC robots on the floor. In the Fab Lab, students learn how to design CNC projects.

“We teach them about 3-axis movement,” says John Zehren, Fab Lab coordinator at Gateway Technical College. “The students learn that way of thinking and to envision their material moving through the space of a machine tool, and how it will be cut. That’s the basis of modern manufacturing.”

In addition to technical lessons, students learn about the Industrial Revolution and its different stages. Teaching about the industry’s progression from using steam power to mass production assembly lines to automation and computers shows how each movement helped increase the efficiency of factory floors.  

“In the smart factory lab, we show students how, in lights-out manufacturing, all the equipment is connected by implementing that connectivity here,” says Aguirre. “FANUC’s MT-LINKi connects and monitors all the equipment, including our PLCs, ROBODRILLS, robots, etc.”

FANUC’s MT-LINKi allows the students to watch real-time machine tool and other manufacturing equipment’s operational data. Screens on the lab’s wall show the machines and robots performance, and students learn how to analyze that data when problems occur, just as they would in a real factory. Instructors have placed QR codes around the facility to bring up the MT-LINKi dashboard on students’ cell phones, so they always have access to manufacturing data.

“It’s important students learn manufacturing-data analytics, and MT-LINKi uses MONGODB for database management, which we also use at Gateway,” Aguirre says. “MT-LINKi also uses OPC UA, the machine-to-machine communication protocol used widely for industrial automation.”

When completing the Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, students must be able to analyze automation data within a complex manufacturing system, in addition to knowing how to manage an entire advanced-automated system to maximize efficiency and control costs.

And it’s not just students learning at the facility; Aguirre conducts tours with industrial executives. “People come in and see things like MT-LINKi and ask about it,” he says. “We love MT-LINKi because it’s so affordable, which is important for smaller companies that need Industry 4.0 data, but maybe they can’t afford an expensive monthly fee. MT-LINKi doesn’t have that.”

To monitor and gather preventive-maintenance data on the FANUC robots, Gateway uses ZDT, which stands for Zero Down Time. All of these FANUC products add up to an excellent showcase of what is possible in this Industry 4.0 age and how Gateway is using them all to create the next generation of the manufacturing workforce.

By Debra Schug, FANUC America communications specialist