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“Age of Variation” comes to life in new engineering building

Throughout history, eras have been characterized by the types of materials, machines and technology we’ve created: The Iron Age. The Industrial Revolution. The Information Age.

In the complex world of product manufacturing, a UWindsor engineering professor believes we’ve already entered a new era.

Hoda ElMaraghy

Hoda ElMaraghy.

“This is the age of variation,” says Hoda ElMaraghy, a Canada Research Chair in Manufacturing Systems and director of the University’s Intelligent Manufacturing Systems Centre. “Change is here to stay and we have to embrace it.”

Dr. ElMaraghy is a firm believer in the need for product manufacturers to be more responsive to increasing consumer demand for greater variety and customization of their wares. The new paradigm to meet this challenge is changeable and reconfigurable manufacturing, and nowhere is it more evident than in her lab, located in the University’s new $112-million Centre for Engineering Innovation.

The IMSC is home to an iDesign Studio and iFactory  which provide students and researchers with the capability to create new products from the design through prototype, measure, inspect, and manufacture. They can study how manufacturing systems evolve as products are introduced, and most importantly, find new ways to prolong the lives of those systems to become more economically sustainable.

“There’s nothing else like this in North America – a truly reconfigurable factory in a lab,” said ElMaraghy, a panellist at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference, being held in Windsor this June. Delegates who attend the conference will also get to tour the IMS centre. “This is a teaching and research environment, but it’s a very real environment. It has the latest industrial equipment and it offers a unique experiential learning opportunity.”

At the back of the lab, there’s a large 70-inch multi-touch flat screen monitor, where students can interactively design and make modifications to the new products they plan to create.

“It encourages discussion at the design and innovations stage,” she said. “You can have several people working together on component and product design.”

Post design, plastic models of the products are built in a rapid prototyping room that uses a fused deposition system, before being sent off to check their specifications in the Coordinate Measurement Metrology room.

From there, they go into production in the iFactory, a highly-automated, modular assembly line that can make just about anything you can imagine would fit on a 6.5 x 6.5 inch pallet. The first product the engineers made is a desk set, which holds pens, paper clips, a thermometer, a clock and other items. The line can make up to 200 variations of the set and has the capacity to produce up to 300 pieces an hour. The next product they’re considering assembling is a tensioner for automotive serpentine belts.

The system’s most important feature is its ability to respond quickly to consumer demands for different product variants and order quantities, ElMaraghy said.

“If the product changed we can reconfigure the entire assembly system in a very short time,” she said. “We can add modules or take others out if the production volumes change, and they have intelligent systems built in that automatically recognizes when the line has changed and reconfigures its controller, which addresses concerns about change-over time when ramping up for new products. So this new paradigm adds a great deal of efficiency for the manufacturer.”