Fantastic story from the Providence Business News about how New England Tech is training students for today’s manufacturing jobs.
(Updated Jan. 19)
Stephen Koester, 23, prepared last fall to intern this academic quarter at the Providence office of Woodard & Curran, by using equipment in New England Institute of Technology’s updated electrical engineering lab.
The Portland, Maine-based environmental engineering firm is one of a handful that has a longstanding relationship with the school and hiring NEIT graduates, said NEIT alum and Woodard & Curran controls engineer Jeff Souza.
“When we go to the job fair, we look for people with good technical background [and] hands-on experience,” Souza said. “The equipment in the new lab is very up to date. The graduates come in and can do more things than graduates from other programs at other schools right off the bat.”
Launched about four years ago, the revamped Electrical Engineering Industrial Automation Lab has been upgraded with equipment to give practical, real-world experience, said assistant professor Michael Eggeman. Koester, a senior, has used the lab and is eager to see what he can do.
“We got to see the different type of controllers, like the Proportional Integral Derivative, [in which] the system tries to recalibrate back to a set point number,” explained Koester, likening the effect to that on a cruise-control system in a car. “The lab has a lot of up-to-date, relevant technology; it just gets us more used to what we might see when we graduate.”
NEIT installed equipment for the lab’s second phase of development last spring, and Koester was one of the first students to use a so-called process-control training rig, in which he and his peers could learn how to control the pressure, flow and level of fluids.
While the students use water in the hands-on lessons for safety, the control rig has applicability in such areas as pharmaceuticals and water treatment systems, where chemicals are used, Eggeman said.
About 50 students a year are enrolled in NEIT’s 18-month electrical engineering bachelor’s degree program, which is undertaken following completion of the 18-month electrical technology associate degree, the professor said.
In addition to the process control training rig, Eggeman said, there are six workstations that give hands-on experience, and four others called the Flexible Manufacturing System, or FMS 200.
Up and running in fall 2014, the six workstations provide real equipment, like a motor, for instance, instead of so-called “trainer cases,” which hold devices in a suitcase-like container and only simulate the effect of correct electrical engineering coding.
So, when a student correctly writes and programs electrical code to control the function of a pump or motor, instead of a light turning on the way it does in a trainer case to show it’s working properly, the pump or motor at a workstation will kick into action, he said.
While the trainer cases are still in use, Eggeman said, “Slowly but surely, we’re rolling the workstations into the classes and the curriculum.”
Students also learn how to communicate over several industrial automation networks.
Built about eight years ago, the FMS 200 more realistically simulates the manufacturing environment in which component pieces are assembled into a final, though still simulated, product. It is used primarily for troubleshooting exercises by testing for 48 different potential bugs, Eggeman said.
Originally located on the Warwick campus, these stations were underutilized by associate degree students and consequently moved to the East Greenwich campus in early 2015, he said.
“It completed the lab,” he explained. “It allowed us to have a system in there so I could go in as the instructor and flip a couple of switches behind a locked door and all of a sudden the system doesn’t work anymore and students have to troubleshoot why.”
Eddie DiPasquale, 22, of Mahopac, N.Y., is an NEIT senior who has been writing code for programmable logic controllers, where a computer controls product production. The lab provides experience, not just textbook knowledge, he said.
“It gives you a real-world application in a classroom setting,” DiPasquale said. “We’re using equipment that gets used in the field. I think it gives us a competitive edge, because we actually get to use the equipment hands-on.”
Souza’s firm and Eric Freitas, president of the Control Automation Group in Warwick, say they’ve hired several NEIT graduates over the past few years. Souza has hired 20 for a staff that numbers about 40, while Freitas has hired five for a staff of about 20.
“All the components I use to design a machine, [NEIT students] are exposed to that in the lab, so they already know what it is and what it does,” Freitas said. •