Perspective: Digital Thread Woven Into Manufacturing

By Brett Conner and Darrell Wallace 

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The roots of manufacturing run deep in northeastern Ohio and at Youngstown State University, as evidenced by its name in 1921: the Youngstown Institute of Technology.

Today, manufacturing has evolved into a field far different than when steel mills dotted the landscape. The production of physical products is now inexorably linked with cyberspace. A digital thread is woven into each step of the manufacturing process. Product design for manufacturability, materials development, process selection and production are all tightly interconnected by digital data, a trend so impactful that it’s been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.

This new kind of manufacturing requires a new kind of engineer. In 2017, YSU began enrolling students into a new manufacturing engineering degree program. Students learn skills that cross the traditional boundaries of mechanical, industrial and electrical engineering. With an arsenal of new tools – 3-D printers, embedded sensors and advanced robotics – these students learn how to design products, processes and manufacturing systems that perform better, last longer and cost less. These skills are in high demand because they help American companies compete more effectively.

With more than $15 million in manufacturing research funding over the past five years, YSU has become a national resource for advanced manufacturing research and education. Our Advanced Manufacturing Research Center is conducting research in additive manufacturing, robotics, metal casting and the industrial internet of things (IIoT). As part of this initiative, our Center for Innovation in Additive Manufacturing is conducting ground-breaking research in the integration of wireless quality-control sensors into 3-D printed metal casting molds, bringing a venerable industry into the digital manufacturing age. And YSU is leading teams of aerospace manufacturers and research universities in exploring the boundaries of metal printing to enable rapid and cost-effective replacement of aircraft parts.

In 2012, YSU helped to found America Makes, the first of the nation’s manufacturing institutes. A public-private partnership with an initial investment of more than $70 million, America Makes was established in Youngstown to promote additive manufacturing. More than 200 companies and organizations are members.

YSU is also a close partner with the Youngstown Business Incubator, which has been rated the No. 1 university affiliated business incubator in the world. To ensure a next-generation workforce aligned with industry and advanced manufacturing needs, YSU collaborates with schools across the region and the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition.

Together, these partners are working toward a shared vision of creating the most agile, competitive advanced manufacturing ecosystem in the world and developing a model that shares valuable resources. As a first major step, YBI recently converted the former Vindicator building into a manufacturing entrepreneurship center. America Makes, YSU and YBI have placed advanced metal and ceramic 3-D printers into this facility where they are available to support education, workforce development, research and industry production.

Finally, on behalf of a broad partnership in the region, YSU is launching the Mahoning Valley Innovation and Commercialization Center. There students from various institutions will work with industry professionals in a manufacturing environment.

About the authors: Brett Conner is the director of YSU’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Center and associate professor of mechanical engineering. Darrell Wallace is an associate professor and leads YSU’s manufacturing engineering degree program.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.