A shortage of skilled manufacturing engineers and a slump in the Pakistani manufacturing industry have emerged as a significant challenge to Pakistan’s growth and future. Thousands of qualified engineers are unable to enter the manufacturing industry because the knowledge gap between the manufacturing industry, academic institutions and modern international standards. Unfortunately, Pakistani policy-makers fail to focus on the root causes of this problem, as a result of which the manufacturing industry is in shambles, while engineers are unemployed and the brain-drain of Pakistani engineers to Europe or to North American continues.
“Manufacturing has been — and still is — one of the greatest contributors to the nation’s economy,” states Wilkistar Otieno, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The National Association of Manufacturing estimates that for every dollar that is invested in manufacturing, about two dollars are injected into the economy.” It is evident that manufacturing makes or breaks the nation’s economy, because it not only creates direct jobs and enhances exports, but also because it facilitates to supporting industry indirectly.
The government must bridge the gap between what is taught to the students and what is required in the industry. When we talk of a ‘skills gap’ it means the difference between the skills the industry requires and what is taught to the students in academic institutions — the gap reflecting the unavailability of high-quality college education in Pakistan and the galloping pace of the country’s requirement for an export-driven economy. If measures are not taken soon enough, we will not be able to prepare and plan for the growth targets required for our survival in the years to come.
Bridging the gap between academic institutions and the manufacturing industry could be beneficial for both
There is a critical need to evaluate and reassess the existing engineering education system, implement fast-track changes to bring our education system in line with industry requirements and international practices, and to build active liaisons with the manufacturing industry. The result would be a profitable and sustainable future.
Before discussing the solutions, let us take a brief look at modern manufacturing techniques which, if added to the academic curriculum of engineering, could be utilised by our industry.
NUMERICAL CONTROLLED MANUFACTURING
Traditional manufacturing is manual-based, in which the machinist decides the machining sequence, controls the removal rate and tolerance. But that takes too long and there is a chance for error. To add to this, there is an acute shortage of such experienced technicians. Therefore, we need a solution that relies on the machine’s intelligence and ability to do the machining work accurately, based on a set of instructions. The solution is a family of machines called Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines.
The CNC machinery performs tasks in sequence, based on a set of written instructions called a programme. Once the programming is complete, the machine is loaded with material and the rest of the job is done by the machine. There is no need of any expert machinist or craftsmen to measure the dimensions and accuracy; the machine will complete everything and the finished product taken out of the machine.
The CNC machines have close tolerance, high accuracy, high speed and require minimum manpower.
3D PRINTING/ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING (AM)
In traditional manufacturing processes, even with CNC machines, the machining process has to be planned in a sequence and is based on starting with a raw material and then cutting-away unnecessary metal from the raw material into a desired final shape and size by a controlled material-removal process.
There are, however, some drawbacks with this method, i.e. not all of the features of the product, especially the complicated ones, can be achieved with this approach. Engineering today is moving towards more complicated shapes to achieve better stress distribution, lesser aerodynamic resistance and lighter products and all such constraints become a challenge to achieve with the traditional manufacturing approach. Therefore, a new technique known as additive manufacturing or 3D printing has emerged.
Just as a regular printer produces a document on paper based on the soft copy which can be seen on the computer screen, 3D printing is a family of processes that prints or produces objects by adding material in layers that correspond to successive cross-sections of a 3D model. 3D printing — also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM) — is the next generation of manufacturing processes, which is required by the industry to stay in the competitive market. AM has transformed the old/obsolete judgment-based manufacturing processes in favour of accurate and fast digital-based manufacturing techniques, bringing about efficiency and digital flexibility in manufacturing operations.
Currently, the more common materials used in 3D printing are metal alloys and plastics. However, with the advent of modern techniques, 3D printing could potentially be able to handle all sorts of material and could be applied to manufacturing, construction and even biomedical applications. The reason for the widespread usage of additive manufacturing is the inherent strength of additive manufacturing to create stronger, lighter and durable components.
Unlike traditional manufacturing, which starts from raw material and uses milling, machining, carving, shaping, etc. to produce the final product, in additive manufacturing data computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners are used to deposit layer upon layer of the material with each pass of the machine, thus forming a precise geometric component from a base layer. This successive layer deposition results in strength, accuracy and simplicity of the manufacturing operation.
The terms “3D printing” and “rapid prototyping” are used interchangeably and actually are subsets of additive manufacturing. Although many people are still unfamiliar with additive manufacturing, it is swiftly replacing traditional manufacturing. The sooner existing manufacturers shift to this, the better it is for their survival, because AM provides a perfect combination of performance, the handling of complex geometries and simplified operations. Those who embrace this technology are sure to get great opportunities in future.
REVERSE ENGINEERING (RE)
We import a lot of machinery that should ideally be developed in-house to control imports expenditures. One solution is to design and develop the machinery as the original manufacturer has done. But this journey would take decades, which we do not have the luxury to wait for. The workable solution is to quickly manufacture imported products in-house without starting the design process from scratch. This can be done by the innovative technique called reverse-engineering (RE).
Reverse engineering involves duplicating the existing artefacts of engineering with minor design and metallurgical changes to adapt to a different desired operating environment. One of the challenges in the RE is to accurately replicate the existing components, which was not possible before the development of laser scanning techniques. Laser scanners read the design information from the component and transfer the geometric data describing the physical object to a software known as solid modelling software. This then reconstructs the scanned information to workable manufacturing drawings.
Considering engineering applications, the main goal of the RE process is to extract information from the acquired raw data to reconstruct a proper parametric CAD model that is as close to the original design of the object as possible. The composing CAD features are specifically required to be correct in dimensions, combinatorial structure and in the existing relations (i.e. geometric constraints, symmetries, regularities) between them.
The practical usefulness of the model obtained at the end of the RE process depends on multiple factors — the most important being the ability to understand the design intent of the designer and, if some dimensions or material need to be altered, that it should be done in a seamless fashion. The intent of reverse engineering is not to blindly make a duplicate object of exactly the same dimensions, material and features. In fact, it is a technique which couples the available information to be used constructively and adapts it to modified environment and design parameters.
Once the product or machinery is reverse-engineered, it can be manufactured easily, either with numerical controlled machines or additive manufacturing.
PROBLEMS/ISSUES WITH OUR ENGINEERING ACADEMIC SYSTEM AND MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY
Low knowledge levels of engineering instructors
Unfortunately, instructors in engineering institutes usually have no experience of the manufacturing industry or of modern constraints in the international manufacturing market. In addition, the widening gap between their salaries and cost of living frustrates them. They are barred from entering the industry because the industry discourages people from academic background, giving least importance to his teaching experience.
Low knowledge levels of working engineers and entrepreneurs
Life in the industry is fast and rewarding but, after a certain time, the learning process stops and repetitive work starts. Professional engineers become complacent about old techniques and do not have the will or energy to switch to better techniques. They become disconnected with modern research and latest developments because their sole goal is to please the boss, earn a salary and learn to survive the work environment. If any of these engineers wish to develop or learn by switching over to academic institutions, the industry experience is not considered important at engineering institutes.
Part-time employment of engineering instructors in the manufacturing industry
Instructors should be motivated to work in the industry and be paid for it aside from their teaching responsibilities. This can be scheduled during summer programmes when the teaching load is light or as a percentage substitute of the existing teaching load. The benefits for instructors would be as follows:
They will earn more through teaching.
They will learn about the industry and practical constraints, which would augment what they already know.
They would appreciate the benefits of teaching, such as relatively easier schedules.
It should be mandatory for all industries to hire teachers from universities on a short-term basis and to give them remunerations equivalent to their skills and equivalent industry personnel. Later on, the industry would start realising the benefits, through an intellectual analysis of their existing approaches by an outsourced party at a lost cost.
Weightage to industry experience in engineering institutions
• Normally, very few industry personnel wish to join academic institutions because the pay is low. An industry veteran is normally considered a “starter” if he/she wishes to join an academic institute. However, it is important for a certain percentage of industry personnel to be in academic institutes to not only boost teaching standards but to produce graduates acceptable to the industry.
• Therefore, if industry professionals are to be attracted to academic institutions, then certain weightage must be given to the time spent and the skills learnt during their tenure in the industry. This way, veterans could be brought back to academic institutions, and it would change the landscape of our academia.
Following benefits are envisaged with this arrangement:
• Instructors with an industry background could go convey concepts in a better way to students whereas a traditional teacher will go about solving questions and deriving formulas but would be unable to highlight industry-related problems such as installation, operations and maintenance. A field-returned instructor would easily be able to teach practical concepts required by the industry in a single sitting.
• An industry-background instructor would be able to explain job atmosphere and prospective employer’s expectations in a better way.
• An instructor with an industry background will explain how to get things done and give quick solutions rather than dwelling on convoluted paths to the solution.
Academic liaison with manufacturing industry:
• Industry and academic institutions have different mindsets. Industry wants solutions no matter what theory lies behind it, whereas academia wants theory, whether a solution is reached or not. So the focus is quite different.
• There is a need to bring both these opposing schools of thought to a compromise, and this can be achieved by making academic liaisons between engineering institutes and industries. The result would be productive for the institute as well as industry in a number of ways as mentioned below:
• Academic institutions will study and reassess the manufacturing techniques on a regular basis and suggest improvements to the industry.
• Academic institutions will study international practises, cost comparisons and feasibility of better methods at low cost, and thus yield better quality and publish regular reports.
• Every industry has issues with raw material cost and profitability. Additionally, every industry has to multiply in order to survive. All these are difficult decisions and inputs from academia can be quite vital and would lead to a better future of Pakistan.
The writer is Assistant Professor in the mechanical engineering department of NFC Institute of Engineering and Technology, Multan. He also works as consultant for new products and concepts development.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 28th, 2019