University of Alabama opens new manufacturing program

Published 7:25 am Saturday, October 2, 2021

The manufacturing environment was once a hot and dirty place, but the workplace is being transformed into a high-technology environment, requiring advanced education and training. That idea put forth by Mercedes-Benz U.S. International President Michael Goebel forms the foundation of a new degree program soon to be offered by the University of Alabama.

In a ceremony Thursday, the UA College of Engineering introduced a new bachelor’s degree program in manufacturing systems engineering, which will be available beginning in fall of 2022. Simultaneously, the university opened Alabama Initiative on Manufacturing Development in Education (IMaDE), an educational partnership between the university and the state’s largest manufacturers to facilitate the new degree program.

“When I joined the (UA engineering) program three years ago, I realized there is a manufacturing potential here in the South especially with companies like MBUSI (in Tuscaloosa County) and Honda (in Lincoln) and so many others,” said Nader Jalili, the mechanical engineering department leader for UA and the director of the Alabama IMaDE program.

“I saw the talent and the potential that we could form a situation like they have at the University of Michigan for automotive research. So what we tried to do is bring automation like the next generation of engineers will use to build the future,” Jalili said.

The idea behind the program is to turn out engineers who can work in a high-tech environment, encompassing all the technology that is necessary in the modern factory from high-tech assembly devices to predictive maintenance systems that will reduce down time.

Next year, Goebel said MBUSI will be manufacturing two new electric SUV models at the Tuscaloosa plant, a process which he said will place a high demand upon the workforce.

“I think it is building together the future. We need so many young folks being interested in the manufacturing environment,” Goebel said. “We need to get over the belief that manufacturing is something dirty or hot. It’s a pretty cool environment with all the digitalization which happens and with the transformation into the electric car business, which starts in Tuscaloosa in just a couple of months.

“We really need this young generation coming to us to be a part of our team. Having the university next to us is for us a great opportunity,” he said.

Goebel added that students who graduate from the program will be well-equipped to help their employers immediately.

“We are absolutely convinced that people coming out of this program will understand not just the technology of systems surrounding the manufacturing (process) where we overhaul the system, but can get it improved and can run more efficiently,” he said.

The need for highly-skilled people in the manufacturing environment creates recruitment challenges for manufacturers in Alabama, according to Dirk Lotce, chief operating officer of EBZ Systec Inc. His company builds the robotic and high-tech assembly lines used in automotive manufacturing. Finding qualified people to work in his company has been challenging.

“We are in a kind of struggle to find and hire new employees with the knowledge, education and experience in our industry. We are building the (assembly lines) for companies like Mercedes-Benz in Alabama. We are struggling to find in this region, proper employees to work for us. We are thinking this new direction at the university will support us to find employees which are able to run automation line projects,” Lotce said.

During the past couple of decades in manufacturing, a major shift has occurred away from heavy labor environments and into integrated technology environments, featuring an array of digital manufacturing processes and robotics. Lotce said the university’s program should help them address their needs for those highly-skilled workers more quickly.

Rather than taking a completely untrained person and having to put them through extensive training before they can go to work, Lotce hopes the new program will provide his company with people ready to step from the graduation stage right onto the manufacturing floor.

With those needs in mind, UA began by first listening to the needs of industry and then entering into a partnership with them. The new partnership has poured more than $3 million from manufacturers into the program, along with untold hours of cooperation between the manufacturers and UA to create the new degree track.

Jahlili said UA’s program will have a series of courses to equip the students.

“We finish with the normal engineering background courses, but what we are doing that is unique is we listen to our industries to see what they want from graduates from this program. We train our students in the modular aspects of manufacturing, so instead of taking like a three-hour course, we break it down into smaller steps to teach them more in a modular way,” Jahlili said.

“This is a hands-on program. Students will walk into a robotics laboratory instead of going into a boring classroom,” he said.

This partnership between industry and education is exactly what Donny Jones knows the state needs in order to recruit more industry to Alabama and open up the job market. Jones is the chief operating officer of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama and he leads the West Alabama Works program.

“This program is going to make a difference for our workforce for years to come. That is so crucial when it comes to recruiting new and innovative companies to the state of Alabama. It is also crucial to retaining the students who come here from all over this country. I think this is the first stepping stone with modern manufacturing and advanced manufacturing,” Jones said.

University of Alabama President Stuart Bell said, “Industry has invested in this facility and really what they are expecting is great graduates who will have an impact on their industry and see this new technology being brought to life on their manufacturing floors.”

Bell, who has a degree in engineering, said he was excited about the role UA will be playing in enhancing the manufacturing industries across the state.