CORVALLIS - The College of Engineering at Oregon State University is developing new educational and research programs to explore a concept they call "lean automation" - trying to make complex, automated manufacturing and assembly processes more flexible and reliable.

High tech industries fight constantly to reduce costs while their products become increasingly sophisticated, OSU educators say. Right now, one of the key problems is the use of automated systems that are so interdependent on each other that a problem or necessary changeover in one area can idle dozens of other machines or people further down the manufacturing process.

"Modern technology companies can now mass produce their products by the millions," said Richard Billo, professor and head of the OSU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. "But they produce a wide range of frequently changing products, and depend on a complex system of automated equipment operating at high levels of production.

"With frequent product changeovers, experiments with new products under development, or equipment malfunctions, the time to manufacture and deliver a product can become unnecessarily long, cumbersome and expensive," he said.

A group of Pacific Northwest electronics manufacturing industries came to OSU last fall with their concerns in this area, and as a result the College of Engineering is ramping up both its research and student instruction in the field. Ultimately, the goal will be to develop improved systems of automation and robotics, along with students trained in how to deal with these problems and solve them once they enter the workforce.

The university subsequently has hired new faculty to conduct research specifically in electronics manufacturing, automation, and lean manufacturing. It's creating a new "Lean Automation Laboratory" for student education and just received a $185,000 grant from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation to support this effort.

"The SME grant will allow us to continue to improve our manufacturing engineering program to meet the changing needs of industry," said Ron Adams, dean of the college. "The electronics manufacturing industry is the largest base of employment for our graduates. Improved research and educational programs in this area will benefit our students, and also be another important step towards our college reaching its goal of becoming one of the top 25 engineering institutions in the nation."

According to Billo, the ultimate challenge is automated production systems that are more flexible and easily changed to accommodate new products. The work at OSU will be targeted to support the Pacific Northwest high technology companies and their suppliers.

"You will never completely eliminate problems with equipment flexibility, reliability or the need for product changeovers," Billo said. "But what we have to do is make sure that when repairs, process experiments or product changeovers need to be made on a production system, they can be made much more quickly and the manufacturing process doesn't stop for very long, or have as wide an impact on other areas of the system."

As one approach, the researchers say they will try to combine automation with some of the concepts of "just-in-time" production, which uses technology to develop efficient production work cells, reduce manufacturing set-up times, and reduce work-in-process inventory. This allows a manufacturer to reduce manufacturing cycle time, improve product quality and lower product costs.

Fundamental research on robotics, equipment design and improved student education in this area will also be part of the solution, they say, so that when OSU engineering graduates move on to work in the private sector they are fully aware of the problems and techniques that can best be used to address them.

Officials of the SME Education Foundation said the new OSU program will address needs for greater skills in microelectronics and electronics assembly, including manufacturing, machine automation, and computer engineering. The grant was awarded to the OSU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The group's contribution to research and education in this area was one part of more than $14 million it has given to college and universities throughout North America since 1979.

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Richard Billo, 541-737-2875