Step Inside My Lab: Flexible Manufacturing

Charlotte Collins

Wax, acrylic and brass are all materials used to make parts and prototypes in ISE’S Flexible Manufacturing Lab. It’s a different kind of flexible, lab assistant Jigar Patel explains.

“Today, flexibility is all about producing a customized product at a reasonable price and getting it to a customer in a relatively quick manner,” says Patel. “What that means is we are capable of producing many different parts, types of products without having to retool, for example if we need a milling operation and a turning operation, we have the two machines so we can do it really quickly rather than having to only mill and then send it to another process, maybe another company.”

Patel says the setup of the lab facilitates prototyping for student research projects as well as testing out some of the different materials available in the lab for certain parts. The introductory freshman-level engineering design and graphics course  SE101 spends some time in the flexible manufacturing lab to see their CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) designs come to life in a physical product.

Flexible manufacturing lab assistant Patel works in the background
Flexible manufacturing lab assistant Patel works in the background
The lab is used in the curricula of other ISE courses, but Patel also noted that the space may become more accessible to those who are not taking classes directly related to it.

“We’re trying to get it to be more of an open system so if you need to use [the lab], you can use it, that’s the whole idea,” says Patel. “At this point, the access is kind of limited, but once we get a more robust system of signing up, we want to open it up to more of the students here.”

The classes are geared to preparing students for work in real industry. Students get to see the timeline of a product manufacturing order deconstructed and Patel says this kind of insight is critical to an ISE student’s education. 

Traditional classroom learning can be learning can be too theoretical for some, but the lab offers the kind of practical experience students can expect to see when they start internships and jobs. Integrating this kind of system into the curriculum is aimed at getting students familiar with the kind of systems many of them will be working with closely as professionals.

“When [students] go into real industry, not only are they going to be well-versed in how to take a customer order and make it into a manufacturing order, but they’re well-versed with the supply chain of things, they know how to manage the inventory of a product so they have enough raw material, they know how to manage the inventory, the finished goods, seeing if they’re meeting customer delivery times,” says Patel. “They can really see the whole encompassing manufacturing process with this system.”

A block sitting on its base bearing the 'ISE' name, made in the flexible manufacturing lab
A block sitting on its base bearing the 'ISE' name, made in the flexible manufacturing lab

In working so closely with the lab’s students, Patel has found that the setup offers something engaging for the broad range of interests within ISE.

“They have a wide variety of questions,” says Patel. “Someone might be interested in looking at the supply chain of things, whereas someone else might be interested in looking at the machining part of things. So I get to explore a wide variety of topics in this domain with the students, that’s my favorite part.”


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