A plan to strengthen Illinois manufacturers

Aug. 31, 2021
Students can engage with all aspects of engineering design and industry practice.

To strengthen small to mid-sized manufacturing companies in Illinois, Northern Illinois University’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET) and the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC) have received a grant to develop and adopt Industry 4.0 technologies that will strengthen and maintain national and international competitiveness in a cost-effective manner for Illinois manufacturers.

The grant, from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), enables the university to add a new staff position to work hand-in-hand with IMEC and seek out Illinois manufacturers needing additional resources to stay competitive. The manufacturers will be paired with teams of enterprising senior engineering students to solve technology and engineering challenges.

Ray Zignato, CEET’s manufacturing director who joined in July as a result of the grant, explained that through this partnership companies get solutions to real-world challenges that help grow and improve their businesses.

“We are excited about this collaboration. Student teams, small and mid-sized manufacturers, and experienced manufacturing leaders will be learning and working together to boost productivity,” said IMEC President David Boulay. “This is important work for manufacturing success and tremendous learning experiences for our future workforce.”

For a small investment, the companies present their technology challenges to multi-disciplined teams of 3-4 senior engineers selected to meet the unique needs of the challenge. Through a two-semester course called Senior Design, the teams will work in NIU’s 35 state-of-the-art engineering laboratories to develop prototypes, products, systems, automation, algorithms and smart technologies that solve the challenges presented by the companies.

“The first thing manufacturing companies in Illinois will gain is awareness of the phenomenal resource that is available through NIU and IMEC,” said Zignato. “And they get access to some remarkable engineering talent that will be available for hire in the spring. It’s a true win-win.”

Throughout the Senior Design program, teams meet weekly under the mentorship of an industry-experienced faculty member whose role is to keep the teams progressing. In addition, a representative from each of the client companies is invited and encouraged to attend the weekly meetings to answer questions and ensure that the projects are on track to meet the desired objectives. At the end of the spring semester, the teams will exhibit their completed projects in an open event called Senior Design Demonstration Day.

“The experience students gain is comprehensive and reflects all aspects of engineering design and industry practice, including how professionals communicate ideas, how intellectual property impacts day-to-day engineering operations, and how ethics influences engineering decisions,” said CEET Dean Donald Peterson, Ph.D.

As an additional side benefit, many companies find the program is an opportunity to expand their workforce with talented next-generation engineers.

“It is a win-win situation since the participating companies in this program will also gain unbridled access to a proven engineering talent pool to advance their workforce development needs,” said CEET’s Senior Associate Dean Mansour Tahernezhadi, Ph.D. “This is an outstanding opportunity for our students to further strengthen their engineering skill sets and knowledge in working on real-life engineering products with our industry partners.”

Companies can apply to be a client in the Senior Design program and submit a proposal here.