Robots play integral role in  Technology Department’s training

When the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Caterpillar Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory was held in Turner Hall, it was not President Al Bowman or College of Applied Science and Technology Dean Jeff Wood who cut the ribbon. The honor was given to a robot. Its orange mechanical arm picked up a pair of scissors and swiveled to cut the ribbon with a precise snip.

Guests left that 2007 ceremony with a box of chocolates. The assortment was packaged by a team of robots with pneumatic actuators working in unison. Creation of the chocolate assembly line was one of the first challenges Technology Department faculty members Kevin Devine and David Kennell gave to their laboratory students.

They responded by creating an entirely automated system, with robots programmed to pick up a plastic tray, set it in a box, place specific chocolates on the tray, secure a lid, and label the package. The result was far more than a box of sweet treats. Illinois State students gained the experience of using automation to solve problems as they would in industry.

Such real-world opportunities are what make the $1.2 million lab a significant learning tool for students and faculty alike. Devine and Kennell conceptualized the lab, which was made possible through the Caterpillar Foundation. Caterpillar’s gift allowed for a lab that resembles what students might find in industry.

Devine and Kennell formed an advisory board of industry professionals, ensuring the lab design and equipment would contain equipment used in the workplace, helping students build necessary skill sets. They toured other labs and visited trade shows. Their goal was to have the ability to create challenges—such as the candy assembly line—which enable students to realize the value of teamwork and the challenge of technology.

“The problem is more involved than just programming a robot to pick up a piece of candy,” Devine said. “Students must decide what tooling is needed, how the robot will locate the candy, how to verify it was put in the right place, etc. There are a lot of different layers students need to examine to see the big picture.”

Other students designed and machined molds, and formed the plastic trays. All involved gained an understanding that automation demands more than programming and understanding hardware.

“Our mode is to get students designing and building in the engineering graphics and machining classes, and to have students pull all of that together in automation classes,” Devine said. “Automation doesn’t happen by itself. Someone has to design the tooling, the packaging, the product, and ways of handling that product. There’s a lot that goes in there.”

That lesson has been taught creatively since the lab opened three years ago. The installation took two years. A year of testing was completed before an additional nine stations were installed—a move of caution as each station costs approximately $60,000.

Stations consist of ABB robots, a conveyor belt, machine vision, sensors, a computer network, pneumatic valves, actuators, and programmable logic controllers (PLC) that coordinate the work of the station components. These components play a major part in assignments, as stations can be used separately or integrated to accomplish a single task.

“One of the things going on with modern automation is the communication between controllers. The controllers not only talk to the robot and the master controller, they also talk to each other. The whole lab can be focused on one task if that is desired,” Kennell said.

While designing tools and learning how to use PLCs are the most visible part of the robotics lab experience, safety also plays a major role. The lab meets industry safety standards, and includes presence-sensing devices, safety barriers, and emergency stop buttons.

“As more equipment comes into play, the safety level needs to go up,” Kennell said, explaining that robots at each station are capable of running in manual or automatic modes. The various modes demand different levels of safety. “Our solution was a state-of-the-art, PLC-based safety system that could meet different levels of safety and the ways these stations interact with each other.”

“Our mode is to get students designing and building in the engineering graphics and machining classes, and to have students pull all of that together in automation classes.”

With the PLC safety system, Devine and Kennell can control what components in the lab are being operated.  Industry visitors appreciate the team’s efforts to promote safe work habits, which are important in the workplace as well as at ISU. The lab has a flawless safety record, and has proved to be an invaluable learning tool.

Illinois State’s technology students have the opportunity to work with the hardware, software, and safety features in the lab. They in turn acquire a depth of knowledge that gives them a competitive advantage when they enter the workforce. Even those who seek positions in project management, process control, quality control, product design, and technical sales benefit from the foundation of educational experiences created in the Caterpillar Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory.

The lab also has a community presence through an exhibit at the Children’s Discovery Museum in Uptown Normal. Visitors move a marble through a maze shaped like the Redbird head, trying to beat the robot in a race.

Since the exhibit was installed last summer, the maze has been run more than 10,000 times. Users have a good chance of winning against the robot on the easy and normal modes, but a win on hard mode is nearly impossible because of the robot’s speed and accuracy.

Cheating is not even an option, as two sensors in the maze must be triggered by the marble for the race to be considered valid. One person has been rumored to have beaten the robot on hard mode, though anyone who has seen the robot’s speed would have difficulty believing it.

Adapting an industrial exhibit for children comes with extensive safety precautions. The robot is separated from museum guests by a locked enclosure. When the door is open, a sensor will not allow the robot to run. An inner lock on the enclosure engages when the robot is on, making it impossible to open the door while the robot is operating. Two lasers continuously scan the floor to ensure that if anyone enters the area while the robot is running, an emergency stop triggers, halting the robot.

The success of the exhibit has inspired Devine and Kennell to find new ways to use the lab for youth outreach. A summer camp for younger students is under consideration, as well as a seminar to recruit high school juniors and seniors.

“We try to leverage the lab in any way we can. We are constantly asking ourselves how we can make the lab have as big of an impact as we can on students,” Devine said.

In the meantime he and Kennell work to hone their own skills and pass that knowledge on to students in an industry where technology is constantly changing.

“We keep up with changes by training, attending conventions, and anything else we can. The technology has developed quite a bit since I’ve been at ISU,” said Kennell, who joined the faculty in 2000. “We prepare our students to learn about new technologies and keep up with the changes that are coming. It’s a very dynamic industry.”

Editor’s note: Gifts to support the maintenance of the Engineering Technology Program and the Caterpillar Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory can be made online at Designate your gift to the engineering technology program, or the Caterpillar Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory.