At Ohio University (OHIO) in Athens, OH, a team of professors is undertaking the creation of a virtual factory thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The project’s purpose is to create a virtual reality factory for an apprenticeship training model. Students in the program will receive a professional-level experience using digital tools without the need for or the expense of a physical factory.
Particularly in manufacturing, workforce education has not been technology-based. It traditionally takes place in the field and involves in-person instruction, one-on-one apprenticeship, and printed manuals. There exists a growing skills gap in trained, qualified workers. To solve this, higher education institutions are stepping in to fill the gap and programs are being developed that employ augmented and virtual reality to teach workers new skills.
The team developing the virtual factory at OHIO is led by Dr. Jesús Pagán, an associate professor in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. The grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded Pagán and his team $295,643 toward their project, which aims to benefit the Appalachian region of Ohio and will promote accessible career-oriented training. Plans are for the virtual factory to be available for students in Spring 2022.
“The project planning stage has been completed,” said Dr. Pagán. “We are reviewing some documents and started the analysis and documentation process for the design and creation of our CAD models. All necessary digital twin components will have to be uploaded and verified before a functional virtual smart factory can be integrated. We expect to have a prototype ready by the beginning of the Fall semester 2021 that we can use for curriculum piloting and then deploy it in a course for the Spring semester 2022.”
The technology involved in establishing the virtual factory will allow students to receive high-level training from virtually anywhere. “The work and development [of the project] are being done here on the Athens campus, but students can access the system remotely. The application being used is a cloud-based emulation platform and multiple devices using various communication protocols can connect and control the virtual smart factory,” Pagán explained. Although the need for this type of software existed before the pandemic, “COVID-19 has accelerated the implementation and use of digital tools in order to solve manufacturing issues,” he added.
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