Education That Works

National Science Foundation


The success of supply chain management and agile manufacturing shows that manufacturing cannot be considered primarily in terms of transforming raw materials into finished goods, says Eugene Wong, former director of NSF's Directorate for Engineering and currently professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. Rather, manufacturing should be thought of as a "system function" that serves as the core of a modern production enterprise.

"In a larger sense," says Wong, "the distinction between manufacturing and service is not useful. Modern manufacturing encompasses inventory management, logistics, and distribution—activities that are inherently service-oriented." Wong suggests that this blurring of the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy constitutes a paradigm shift with profound implications for the future. That is why NSF continues to invest not only in the development of manufacturing processes and systems, but also in new approaches to engineering education. As NSF Deputy Director says, "It's not just the discovery of new knowledge, but the education of workers in that new knowledge that is the fundamental—and maybe unique—mission of NSF."

The education of both scientists and engineers has been a goal of NSF since 1950. During the economic turbulence of the 1970s and 1980s, however, it became clear that industry and academia had become estranged from each other in the critical area of manufacturing. Manufacturing-related scientific research at the universities wasn't making it out into the real world quickly enough, if at all, and companies were complaining that their young engineering hires, while capable of scientifically analyzing a problem, couldn't produce actual solutions in a timely fashion. So NSF began looking for ways to nurture mutually beneficial partnerships between companies seeking access to cutting-edge research and students and professors looking for practical experience in putting their ideas to work.

In the early 1980s, NSF spearheaded what was then known as the Engineering Faculty Internship Program. The program provided seed grants—to be matched by industry—for faculty members interested in spending time in an industrial environment. A decade later, the internship model was included as part of a broader program aimed at creating opportunities for universities and industries to collaborate on long-term, fundamental research. Eventually, the expanded program, called the Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI), spread throughout the whole of NSF.

Research funded through the GOALI program has led to such advances as more efficient chip processing and improvements in hydrocarbon processing, which allow previously unusable heavy oils to be transformed into gasoline and chemical products.

"GOALI enhances research," says NSF's GOALI coordinator, Mihail C. Roco. "The program has unlocked a real resource in academic and industrial research. GOALI promotes basic research that can provide enormous economic benefits for the country."

Another effort by NSF to bridge the gap between industry and academia is the Engineering Research Centers (ERC) program, launched in 1984. The ERC program supports university-based research centers where industry scientists can collaborate with faculty and students on the kind of knotty, systems-level engineering problems that tend to hobble innovation in the long run. Companies get a chance to conduct cutting-edge research with a long-term focus while faculty and students (both graduate and undergraduate) become more market-savvy in their approach to problem-solving. In the end, ERCs shorten the path between technical discovery and the discovery's application.

"The basic goal of the ERC program is to form partnerships within industry to advance next-generation technology and to develop a cadre of students who are much more effective in practice," explains NSF's Lynn Preston, ERC program leader. "Because of the sustained support that we can give them, the centers focus and function with a strategic plan."

ERCs focus on relatively risky, long-term research—the kind that industry, coping with an increasingly competitive marketplace, is often reluctant to chance. "It's about really big, tough challenges that industries can't take on their own," says Preston.

A prime example with regard to manufacturing is the Center for Reconfigurable Machining Systems (RMS) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Since its establishment as an ERC in 1996, the RMS center has aimed to create a new generation of manufacturing systems that can be quickly designed and reconfigured in response to shifting market realities. Working with about twenty-five industry partners, the student and faculty of the RMS center seek to develop manufacturing systems and machines with changeable structures.