Manufacturing Innovation with Glenn Saunders

Steve sits down with Glenn Saunders, Sr. Research Program Director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. They discuss the ARM Institute, MIC, Robotics in Manufacturing, and much more.

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Steve Melito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito.

Today we’re talking to Glenn Saunders, Senior Research Program Director for the Manufacturing Innovation Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. RPI, as Rensselaer is sometimes called, was founded in 1824 in his America’s oldest technological university. Glenn hasn’t been there quite that long, of course, but he does hold a Bachelor of Science and Masters of Engineering degree from this distinguished Capital Region Institution. Glenn Saunders, welcome to the podcast.

Glenn Saunders: Thank you, Steve. Happy to be here.

Steve Melito: Excellent. So Glenn, tell us about the Rensselaer Manufacturing Innovation Center, or MIC. What does the Rensselaer MIC do and how do you help New York state manufacturers?

Glenn Saunders: So the Manufacturing Innovation Center, we’re essentially a research organization. But we operate in the area that’s fairly close to production, as opposed to what’s often considered basic research. What we do is very applied research. So it’s always related to manufacturing and generally related to automation.

We work on problems that are not quite ready to go into production, but the fundamental science is sound, but we haven’t quite solved the problems associated with either a process or a product or new ideas associated with manufacturing that product and so forth.

Steve Melito: Got it. So you mentioned automation and I was wondering if you’d tell us about another entity at Rensselaer, it’s the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, or ARM. And Rensselaer has a relationship with ARM and ARM works with MIC. So in practice, how do all the pieces fit together?

Glenn Saunders: Yes, the ARM Institute, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing is one of the 16 institutes within the Manufacturing USA network. And this is a nationwide network of institutes with a common mission related to strengthening the domestic manufacturing base, both on the technology side and on the workforce development side.

These institutes, they span a whole range of different technology focus areas or specific technologies. For example, some focus on lightweighting fabrication in the biospace, flexible electronics composites and so forth.

The ARM Institute is one of those manufacturing USA Institutes. Like the name suggests, the mission of the ARM Institute is really about robotics in manufacturing. The ARM Institute is focused on helping US manufacturers take advantage of advanced robotics in their manufacturing operations to either become more productive or create new products, create new jobs and so forth. The ARM Institute is really about transitioning technologies into production, into manufacturing.

The ARM Institute works in the exact same technology readiness level that the MIC does, and that is, before helping to transition to technologies out of a laboratory environment and onto the production floor. The ARM Institute does this in a number of ways.

As I said, the Institute is very much focused on workforce development, and there’s a lot of activity in enabling both the manufacturers who are seeking skilled and talented, properly- trained workforce, and also those who are looking to get into advanced manufacturing, to help both of those entities basically find the training that that’s out there, find the training that they need, find the certifications that that industry is looking for, and help connect the workforce with the companies seeking them.

RPI is a member of the ARM Institute. The ARM Institute is structured very similar to all of the other Manufacturing US institutes. So it’s a consortium. It was established about five years ago through some federal funding. It’s primarily funded through the Defense Department. Some are funded through different agencies within the federal government.

As a consortium, the members, they span all the way from large, multinational corporations to startup companies to small companies, universities and so forth. The whole gamut. So there’s a whole range of membership levels. The overall mission, of course, is related to enhancing the manufacturing base within the United States.

So all of the members have different objectives. There are small companies there who have a technology that’s applicable in the advanced robotics space that are looking to further develop that technology and get it into the hands of end users. There are large companies that are looking for ways to supplement or attract the workforce that they need. They also have technologies that they’re specifically interested in developing and so forth.

Our interest, as a research institution, is in the research side of these projects. And we’ve been involved in, I think the exact count is 12 projects within the ARM Institute, most on the technology side, but also on the workforce development side. So the relationship that we have with the ARM Institute is we’re involved in some volunteer groups for helping shape the direction of the ARM institute and contributing to what we believe are the technology areas that the Institute should focus on. But also as a contributor to the specific development projects, and those are the projects that I mentioned, the 12 specifically funded projects that we’ve been involved with since the inception.

Steve Melito: Excellent, excellent. So Glenn, the work that you’re doing can benefit manufacturers directly, but it also has value for a group of companies that are known as systems integrators. What’s a system integrator and how can you help them?

Glenn Saunders: As you mentioned, what we focus on is helping companies, very much focused on New York state companies, solve manufacturing problems within their operations to help make their operations more efficient and more profitable and so forth.

A systems integrator in our space is a company that builds and installs and supports systems involved in manufacturing. Typically, the systems integrator is working for a client. The client is a manufacturer themselves, they’re producing a product or set of products or whatever. A systems integrator is a specialist in developing the automation systems to manufacture that product. So we’ve worked a lot with a number of system integrators, mostly in New York state, but also in other regions.

One of the values of having a systems integrator involved with the work that we do is, as I mentioned, we work in that space that’s just still in the laboratory, but it’s pretty darn close to getting to production. But actually making that step from the laboratory onto the manufacturing floor still can be a tough road. What we need to do is, we need to connect with systems integrators so that they can help us with making that transition. We’re looking for systems integrators to actually make that transition from the work that we do in the laboratory to installing it in a production environment, and that’s really our goal. Also that’s the goal of the ARM Institute, really it’s getting these technologies into production so that they create the benefits that we’re all looking for. Really, the benefit to a systems integrator is in identifying projects that are technologies that are ready to make that transition into production.

The ARM Institute, for example, I did a quick count this morning, there are about 90 some- odd technology development projects that have matured through the ARM Institute. And many of those are ready to transition onto the factory floor. So an involvement of a systems integrator with the ARM Institute provides an opportunity for that systems integrator to be in close contact with these development projects and be in a very good position to help those projects transition into production.

Steve Melito: Absolutely. So you’re going to have a final demonstration for a couple of research projects at Rensselaer. When is this happening and what are some of the projects that you’ll be showcasing?

Glenn Saunders: We’re involved in two technology projects with the ARM Institute right now. One is a safe robotic handling of energetic materials; that’s a really lovely euphemism for things that go boom. So we’re working on technologies to help make the handling of these materials safer and remove some potential hazards that could affect human operators by putting some automation in place.

The second one is optimized robot motion programming for tracking complex geometric paths. And both of these projects are year- long project. We’ve been working on them since about a year, started about a year ago. And we have two final presentations coming up in the next couple of weeks, both here at RPI on our campus. So again, this is an example of the laboratory setting of these manufacturing processes prior to making that transition.

The second project that I mentioned, the robot programming for a complex geometric paths, the manufacturing process of interest in that case is a cold spray application. The partners in that project are GE Global Research, Watson Technologies, and Southwest Research Institute.

The story behind that project is that there is a process required for manufacturing the fan blades in a modern jet engine that involves spraying a material onto the leading edge of the fan blades.

Fan blades are extremely high value. They’re also complex curves. There’s a lot of really stringent process parameters associated with the cold spray. It has to be done at very tight tolerances in the standoff distance between the spray head and the material, the speed that you spray it on. The coverage, of course, you need to end up with a uniform layer. So it’s a really tough problem. And right now this is being done with two robots; one is holding the fan blade and one is holding the spray head, and there’s coordinated motion between the two robots, all within the tight tolerances of the process parameters that I mentioned.

And programming those two robots to carry out that process is really, really tedious, if you can imagine it. Conventional programming of an industrial robot through with teach pendant for these complex paths and maintaining the velocities and the velocity variation and so forth is really, really tough.

So what we’re working on is automated ways to develop these complex paths, coordinating these two robots to carry out this process so that generating these paths is a lot more efficient than the technologies that are used today.

The other project, the safe energetics project, is related to, essentially, keeping a piece of process equipment full of an energetic material that’s used in manufacturing Defense- related project and demonstrating that the automation can maintain the integrity of the material as it’s being dispensed or poured, minimize the dust that’s generated by pouring, because that’s a safety hazard, and in general, demonstrate that a robot can be used to dispense this explosive material, cost- effectively, at the production rates, and in a way that enhances the safety of that operation.

Like I said, both of these are going to be demonstrated here on our campus. The ARM institute will be sending a number of people from their organization to observe the final demonstrations.

Ironically, the way these two projects worked out is that they both require the same robot in the same work cell for both projects. So one of our demonstrations is on Friday and then we have to tear that down and the following demonstrations is on the next Monday. So we have one weekend to tear it down and set up for the following demonstration, but we’ll get it done.

These final demonstrations are typically to demonstrate the technology and demonstrate the adherence to the requirements of the project and the key process parameters that we’re trying to match for executing the project.

Steve Melito: So these sound like some great opportunities for a system integrator to learn more. How can they get in touch with you to do that?

Glenn Saunders: If they’d like to call me directly, it’s ( 518) 276-6696. That’s my number at the MIC on the RPI campus. Through our website mic. rpi. edu, there’s a contact us link there, as well.

Steve Melito: Okay, excellent. Glenn, many thanks for taking the time to be with us today on New York State Manufacturing Now.

Glenn Saunders: You’re welcome. Thank you for the invitation, Steve. Appreciate it.

Steve Melito: You bet.

Hey, we’ve been talking to Glenn Saunders, Senior Research Program Director for the Manufacturing Innovation Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Whether you are a manufacturer or a systems integrator, I hope you’ll avail yourself for the opportunity to learn more about what’s going on there. If you haven’t got time to reach out to Glenn just yet, or if you’d like more information about ARM or the MIC, you can always reach out to FuzeHub. Our manufacturer’s solutions program provides you with guided access to a host of New York State Resources, including the MIC and ARM at Rensselaer. To get started, just visit www. and click the Speak to an Expert button, it’s right on the homepage. Then complete the short online form and one of our manufacturing experts will contact you.

So on behalf of FuzeHub and New York State Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Melito, signing off.

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