Dr. Khalid Mirza
Building and maintaining a quality workforce has been a longtime struggle for the industrial manufacturing space, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the need for highly skilled engineers. In this episode of Manufacturing Matters, TECH B2B’s David Dechow sits down with Dr. Khalid Mirza, director of the Immersive Center & Robotics Lab at Oakland University, to share how the school’s industrial robotics program is graduating well-rounded engineering students who are prepared for careers in advanced manufacturing.
Oakland University’s industrial robotics program began three years ago and includes partnerships with several major robotics companies, who advise curriculum and provide equipment. The program includes general engineering theory education, combined with hands-on labs for students to learn the skills needed to excel in today, and tomorrow’s, manufacturing applications.
David Dechow: [00:00:06] Hi, I’m David Dechow, and welcome to another episode of Manufacturing Matters. I’m here with Khalid Mirza, Dr. Khalid Mirza, of Oakland University, where he’s the director of the Immersive Lab — Immersive Center — and the Robotics Lab. And being a longtime Michigan native, I have a soft spot in my heart for Oakland University. Your Golden Grizzlies, the basketball team, always gives the big guys in Michigan a run for their money, don’t they? But we’re here to talk about the wonderful things that you and Oakland University have done for quite a while now in educating students on industrial automation, the use of industrial automation. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your labs and what you do with the robotics and immersive technologies.
Dr. Khalid Mirza: [00:01:07] Absolutely, thank you, David. So, yes, the industrial robotics program we started almost 10 years ago, and I have to credit the A3 conference here to get that rolling and get it out to the industry that we are doing something like this. And that resulted in a collaboration with the big robotic companies. We have FANUC, Kuka, companies who are on the advisory board for the program, along with creating, helping us out with the curriculum and creating a robotics lab. The whole idea was that anybody getting a bachelor’s degree, let’s say with electrical engineering, have now an opportunity to specialize in robotics and automation. So they have an opportunity to take robotics courses, machine vision courses, and even automation courses. And this is with a degree in electrical engineering. So the idea was that what companies are looking for out there for fresh graduates, we are already giving them a skill set which they don’t need to train, and that saves them a whole lot of time and it gets the students motivated to look forward to the type of jobs they can be doing in the robotics and automation industry.
David Dechow: [00:02:35] And we hear so much about the need for well-educated engineers and the lack of educated engineers. I have a feeling that your program is really doing something to solve that need.
Dr. Khalid Mirza: [00:02:56] That’s an excellent point, David. There is a need for a well-rounded engineer which has this added skill set. That’s what we have identified, that getting a bachelor’s degree is nowadays bare minimum. So you need to have a full engineering degree. But on top of it, if you add these specialized skill sets, it just makes it so much better. When I teach the robotics course, for example, to seniors, they understand the foundation, the math, everything behind it, and then on top of it, they get hands-on experience with industrial robots. They get to try industrial vision equipment, and everything starts connecting. And that’s the feedback I get from them that there is a point where you learn all the theory, which is great because you need to as a good engineer, but when they start connecting it with the real things and how real things work with that theory, it’s an eye-opener really, and they start enjoying what they have learned. So from my side, it’s the best feeling to give them that experience.
David Dechow: [00:04:09] So one of the things that’s most interesting I think about what you have done successfully over the over the years is to get industry involved, both financially and in terms of helping to supply the labs. And tell me a little bit more about how that has really moved this forward for you.
Dr. Khalid Mirza: [00:04:30] Right. So, David, we look at the industry who has helped us financially, give us the equipment, resources to launch our robotics lab, which has robotics vision equipment. And without their help, we couldn’t have jump-started this program. But more important than that is the advice we get from them. We try to meet with the advisory board, which constitutes of the industry members, once or twice a year, and we update them with what’s happening in our program. Where should it go? And we get their feedback. And to me this is extremely important because we want to be current with what’s happening in the industry, what are their needs, what skill set they are looking for, so that the engineers who graduate from our program have the right skill set. And I’ll give you an example of one of those is that in the machine vision course I teach, in the middle of that course about a few years ago, we saw a deficiency of introducing AI and machine learning. We were not teaching that to electrical engineers who are graduating. So we introduced that in the machine vision course and connected it with vision. This was a great opportunity for students to graduate with that skill set and also learn how vision can use machine learning. So this came from advice from industry and looking at what currently are the needs.
David Dechow: [00:06:07] And one of the most I think important things, and if I were a student, the most exciting thing, is that this is all hands-on learning. It is in a lab, right? And they are learning these technologies hands-on and being ready to go out into the workforce. Isn’t that true?
Dr. Khalid Mirza: [00:06:27] Absolutely. So we do both things. I think a good engineer is someone who can solve real world problems, and you can’t solve it sitting remotely with no hands-on experience. So we have to give them extensive hands-on experience. The way we give it, we have to make sure that they are very good in theory and foundation, because they are after all engineers. We don’t know what problems they’re going to be facing, and they have to use all that skill set to solve those problems. But whatever we are teaching, we give them the opportunity in the lab to have hands-on experience with the latest robot or the latest version of paint. And moreover, we give them open-ended projects where they have to come up and build something and make it work and demonstrate to everyone. And the nice thing is that we invite industry members to join those presentations, look at it, and give feedback to the student. And so far the response has been tremendous. The industry loves it because they see what’s happening with these kids and the students who are going to be coming out. And the students also love it when they get this feedback from well-established industry members.
David Dechow: [00:07:44] And speaking of the industry in general, where do you see a program like yours in the future? And how can industry help you and help Oakland University and others move these types of programs forward?
Dr. Khalid Mirza: [00:08:04] Great question. So one of the things I personally believe is that more and more universities should be doing this. I can only count a handful of universities who are actually doing the way we are doing connecting academia with the industry and getting their advice in actually constructing the curriculum and the labs. So that’s one thing. The second thing which I note is the importance of cross skills. So what we are trying out is the future problems are not very narrow, niche types of problems. If you get a skill set which is more diverse and cross-functional, those are the engineers which are like the unicorns, which the industries are looking for. So with this idea, we did start a new center, which is immersive technologies. We call it the Augmented Reality Center, and that’s a collaboration between engineering and design. So we are mixing design with engineering because I think what you come out with is out-of-the-box thinking, and with proper engineering, and also creative. So we are actually testing this program out with the art and design school, collaborating with them, and the response from the industry, which is tied to us, which includes GM, which includes Epic Games and Magna Continental, is tremendous. They said this is the right way to go, where you have to have well-rounded engineers who can think outside the box and understand the other side of it. So this is some of the things which you will see in the future, and it will become more and more important.
David Dechow: [00:09:53] That’s wonderful. And I know firsthand what great work you and Oakland University are doing. And it is unique. It really is very unique, and we’re thrilled to have you join us. Thank you, Dr. Mirza, for talking with Manufacturing Matters. Really appreciate it.
Dr. Khalid Mirza: [00:10:12] My pleasure. Thank you.