Gov. Henry McMaster calls South Carolina the center of the new industrial revolution. The state currently ranks in the top five in manufacturing in the United States, and McMaster says companies are lining up to do business.
Helping lead that revolution has been the Office of Economic Engagement at the University of South Carolina. Bill Kirkland, executive director, has taken what was a presumed failure in Innovista, and rapidly revamped it into an asset that some of the world’s top companies are praising.
Kirkland’s latest partnership with Siemens looks to continue the trend of companies looking at USC as a research and development destination.
Kirkland said the renaissance began with USC’s partnership with IBM. Since then, companies such as Michelin and Boeing have come on board, and now Siemens has announced a $648 million grant that will continue to bolster its research investments.
“The partnership with Siemens grew from what we have done with IBM; they brought Siemens to us,” Kirkland said. “When you get a big one, and have some success it begins to grow, and right now we have a pretty good track record.”
The in-kind grant will provide Siemens’ product lifecycle management software to USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, and a combination of Siemens automation and controls hardware in a digital factory innovation lab at USC’s McNAIR Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research.
“By leveraging Siemens software, we hope to improve the way composite parts are made, enhance curriculum to further prepare students to have maximum impact in engineering and computing careers and build a digital engineering lab that will consist of equipment found throughout global industry,” Kirkland said.
The university-based Digital Factory would be the first of its kind in the United States. Raj Batra, president of Siemens Digital Factory Division, U.S., said the grant gives back in all different forms.
“With this investment in software and hardware, students and faculty will gets hands on experience with the same state of the art design engineering platforms that are used by leading manufacturers around the world,” Batra said. “The digital revolution that swept through music, travel and retail is now changing the way we design and manufacture complex products such as aircraft, cars, ships, medical devices and electronics.”
Hossein Haj-Hariri, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at USC, called the grant a chance to see the future of engineering by giving students a new way to learn and grow.
“What we would normally do is teach students by introducing concepts in context of simple problems they can understand, but engineering problems today involve complex systems,” Haj-Hariri said. “There’s a huge disconnect with how a simple beam bends and the construction of a smart building or aircraft. It’s a leap that students need to make.”
Haj-Hariri said most undergraduate students don’t make that leap in their studies, but rather are introduced to the fundamentals. The students who are then hired must be trained by the companies, sometimes taking a number of years before becoming mastering the job. With the new equipment, students will be able to take a more active role in the learning process.
“The time students need to pick up the baggage of math and physics can now be done in parallel to doing worthwhile engineering,” Haj-Hariri said. “Things that would have required a building of engineers, one kid could do today with the suite of software we are acquiring from Siemens.”
USC President Harris Pastides called the grant important in the modern history of the University of South Carolina.
“This lab will be a place where South Carolina companies, U.S. companies and global companies thinking of locating to our state can come and see the world’s leading software applied to robots and other machines in real time,” Pastides said. “Our graduates will have experience in Siemens software, ready to take the leading jobs in our state and around the world.”
“We’re the fastest growing manufacturing state in the country, we should strive to be the smartest manufacturing state,” Kirkland said. “We can bring companies to see what we’re doing with our students, recruiting to the state with ready-made workforce.”
With over 150 industry-sponsored projects taking place at the College of Engineering and Computing, companies will get a first-hand look at potential employees.
“Students work on these projects for nine months, it’s in essence an extended interview,” Haj-Hariri said.
As the software continues to evolve, and jobs become scarce, Haj-Hariri realizes how important it is for his students to show the ability to move right into the workforce.
“It’s like a pyramid, as things become more efficient the bottom of the pyramid gets replaced,” Haj-Hariri said. “By innovating our curriculum we are placing our students at the top, and positioning them with the tools they will need. If you’re at the top you will be creating the companies that we don’t even know about. Google, Facebook, they will continue to innovate, peeling away the nonsense.”
Eventually, Haj-Hariri visualizes a day when middle school children will have the opportunity to become acquainted with the software, using STEM programs, and sparking an interest towards engineering.
“Obviously middle school kids will not be able to use the whole suite of software, but some of the basic stuff they can understand now,” Haj-Hariri said. “You can add future layers during high school, and students who come to the university will have first-hand knowledge before they step on campus. It will be hard work, but it will pay off.”