Volume 3 No.3, Fall 1999

ISSN# 1523-9926



Cynthia L. Tomovic
Purdue University


 The development of collaborative university-government-industry partnerships becomes increasingly important as universities and industries, alike, seek ways to offset rising costs associated with a number of new challenges, and as our nation seeks to increase their margin of technological advantage over international competitors.  In this case study, a description of a partnership formed between The University of Michigan, several industrial organizations, and the US government is reported.  In particular, this paper describes the establishment of The Center for Reconfigurable Machining Systems at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. 



Conflicts between ‘university types’ and industrialists have more than sufficiently been addressed in the literature (Tauguiri. 1965; Kerr, VonGlinow, and Schreisheim, 1977; Badly, 1973; Harrison, 1974). Based on an analysis of the conflicts, however, it has been determined that such conflicts seem to occur along four dimensions:  control, standards, authority, and loyalty (Connor, 1984).  In essence, these conflicts can be related to differences in industry and university attitudes, values, and objectives toward research:  1) short- versus long-term goal orientation; 2) profit-driven motive versus the development of a scientific and technical acumen; and 3) application of knowledge versus the advancement of science.  Though not obvious, until an attempt to work together is made the question that arises is, can the boundaries of different organizational types be successfully merged for the benefit of both parties?  The answer is, it depends.  It depends on whether a common interest in the entities involved can be identified. 

There is ample evidence in the literature that common interests have been found and partnerships formed.  Such entities include:  The Digital Equipment Corporation/Georgia Institute of Technology Experience (Jones and Rupnow, 1992); The Whirlpool Corporation/Purdue University Experience (Tomovic, 1995), Ford Motor Company/General Motors Institute (Nasr and Nour, 1995) and many others.  Involvement by the US government, via National Science Foundation funding, can also be cited.  Such projects include:  the development of various control systems laboratories (Gedeon and Kolla, 1995; Tang, 1995), establishment of non-destructive testing facilities (Collins and Alexander, 1995) investigation of flexible assembly (Erevelles, 1995), and other projects.

In this paper, a case of mutual interest between academe, industry, and government is described.  It involves an internationally known research university located in the heartland of North America, several internationally recognized industrial organizations, and the National Science Foundation.  The focal point of this joint venture involves the development of a center for basic research in manufacturing in the US.  The primary goal of the facility is to:  develop the science base required for a new generation of manufacturing systems that can be quickly designed and configured according to an application, and then be upgraded and/or reconfigured to accommodate changes in production specifications all the way down the production line, rather, than be replaced. 



How fast can a company design and build a machining line…then upgrade it to reflect new technology…then reconfigure it to accommodate changes in specification…then make the necessary changes down the line?   The answer…months, even a year or more, which results in lost revenue.  What is the future for reducing cycle time, flexible manufacturing.

Partnerships.  Funded in part by a $12.4 million, five-year grant from NSF, the RMS is the largest center for basic research in manufacturing in the US.  According to Yoram Koren, director of RMS and Paul G. Goegel, Professor of Engineering, the development of the center stemmed from dialogue between the University and industry on the future of manufacturing.  The need to become more responsive to change, changes in market and changes in technology, dominated the conversations.  After many hours of continued discussions, a proposal was developed to establish a center for the study of flexible, reconfigurable systems.  Providing more than words, $10 million in cash and in-kind contributions were made by a group of manufactures from the automotive, aerospace, and heavy equipment industries, along with their key suppliers.  The state of Michigan pledged $1 million as well to the College of Engineering.

In popular terms, reconfigurable manufacturing means building flexible factories which can grow and adapt according to product needs and advances in technology.  Based primarily on the concept of modularity, the center conducts basic research on the development of standardized modular components that can be readily assembled, updated, and reassembled.  Manufacturing based on this concept, for example, could reduce down time as new components are added or subtracted as needed, or reduce overhead based on expensive instrumentation, or reduce warehousing costs as a function of holding outdated equipment.  All in all, the flexible manufacturing results in numerous cost savings.  However, reconfigurability at this level, must be designed and built into the system.  Research conducted at RMS plays an active role in this regard.



  The development of research on flexible manufacturing systems is dependent, in large part, on the development of successful interdepartmental relationships.  Primarily, faculty and select students from three departments in the College of Engineering –Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Industrial and Operations Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics—as well as the department of Operations Management in the Business School, will form specialized teams responsible for research.  Each member is expected to contribute a specialized skill set to the team.  Where as Electrical Engineering faculty are involved in the development of sensors and controls, Computer Science faculty are involved in the development of modular software.  Mechanical Engineering faculty are involved in the areas of designing modular machines, machining processes, and tooling.  Operations Engineering and Operations Management faculty, statistical experts, are involved in determining whether reconfigurable manufacturing makes good economic sense.

Working with industry, the Center has established a research agenda which concentrates on five areas:  system design and integration; software architecture; measurement and control; mechanical design; and process and tooling.  With significant support from one or more industry partners, the following list of projects attests to the breadth of activity:  life-cycle economic modeling; remote diagnosis and reliability; open-system principles and distributed control architecture; modular control:  integration of discrete and continuous modules; hologram-based optical inspection; process planning for reconfigurable machine tools; machining process sensing and monitoring, and parallel machining and tool-wear prediction.

All projects funded by the Center must fit into the strategic plan which is semi-annually reviewed by the stakeholders—education, government, and industry.  During the life of the Center, the staff expects to develop and produce the following:  a set of theories applicable to the synthesis of RMS; computational algorithms that can implement these theories; system software and hardware; and functional modular machinery, complete with sensors and controls.


Educational Opportunities

To date, the Engineering Research Center (ERC) has approximately thirty graduate students from Engineering and the Business School assisting faculty researchers.  The first class of undergraduate, approximately twenty to thirty students, was recently accepted to the RMS program.  The education of these students will differ markedly from traditional students in that they will receive extensive exposure to the manufacturing environment.  In fact, one on the major goals of the Center is the development of a new generation of manufacturing engineers, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  The educational program is built primarily on the following three recent successes in innovative education:

Greenfield Educational Coalition in Manufacturing Engineering.  This coalition is a NSF-funded consortium of six universities and Focus:  Hope in Detroit, which has pioneered modular manufacturing education at the associate and bachelor’s degree levels.

The Program in Manufacturing (PIM).  This consortium unites the manufacturing interests in eight University of Michigan engineering departments into interdisciplinary, team-based, mission-oriented manufacturing engineering education and research.

The Tauber Manufacturing Institute (TMI).  This joint venture between the College of Engineering and the University of Michigan Business School supports engineering/business interdisciplinary education and research in manufacturing enterprise, team project experience in industry, interaction with industry partners and the development of joint engineering/business curricula.

At the graduate level of education, the ERC has been working with industrial partners and alumni in developing a new Master’s of Engineering in Manufacturing degree that requires industrial experience for admission.  Students are required to take 70-80% of their courses in the College of Engineering and 20-30% in the Business School.  Furthermore, these students are expected to participate in industrially-relevant team projects in an industrial facility, and to regularly attend manufacturing seminars.  A similar Doctor of Engineering degree program has recently been approved. 

At the undergraduate level of education, the design and manufacturing activities of the ERC permits students to take a design and manufacturing option.  New courses to develop this option are being developed and will be available through various engineering departments as packages of technical electives.  In addition, integrative design and manufacturing courses at each level of the undergraduate curriculum are being developed.  At the sophomore level, for example, an industrial operations management course is presented which provides an overview of the industrial system within which machining systems operate, including global business climate, economic analysis, production systems, safety and ergonomics.  Laboratory courses will be redesigned to emphasize real engineering systems, rather than the tradition laboratory setups.  The laboratories, themselves, will be developed based on the fundamentals of reconfiguration in order to make them easy to upgrade.

There are several highlights of the undergraduate curriculum.  New courses will be developed as a direct result of research conducted at the Center in the areas of manufacturing systems design; production systems; and controls.  Other courses to be developed will include an integrated quality course that teaches statistical quality control and total quality management.  Participation with the Greenfield Coalition, who pioneered modular manufacturing education, will provide the ERC with the necessary skills to develop content-specific modular education course in response to technological advancements, which will ensure an up-to-date- curriculum. 

In addition to course innovation, students will benefit from ERC activities as they engage in research projects in industrial settings.  Internships, as well, will be available, where students will work on numerous real-world manufacturing challenges such as system failures, machining operations, and other diagnostic problems.



While the Center for Reconfigurable Machining Systems is only in its infancy, it is projected that it will create state-wide benefits, make a country-wide impact, and have world-wide implications.  Poised to develop a uniquely qualified group of manufacturing engineers, RMS is worth taking note. 



Badly, M.K. (1973).   “Bureaucracy in research:  A study of the role of conflict of scientists,” Human Organization, Vol. 32, pp. 123-133.

 Collins, S.A. and Alexander, H. (1995). “Establishment of a non-destructive testing facility,”  American Society for Engineering Education Conference Proceedings, pp. 688-693.

 Connor, PE (1984).  “Professionals in organizations:  Some research suggestions,” IEEE, Transactions on Engineering Management, Em-311, pp. 7-11.

 “Education at the Center for Reconfigurable Machining,” http://erc,engin.umich.educ/education/default.html

 “The ERC for reconfigurable machining systems,” The University of Michigan Engineering Alumni Magazine, Spring/Summer 1997, pp. 7-10.

 Erevelles, W.F. “Implementing a flexible assembly cell (FAC) – phase I,” American Society for Engineering Education Conference Proceedings, pp. 711-714.

 Gedeon, D.V. and Kolla, S.R. (1995).  “Instrumentation and Process Control Laboratory Development,” American Society for Engineering Education Conference Proceedings, pp. 658- 669.

 Harrison, R. (1974).  “The management of scientists:  Determinants of perceived role performance,” Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 234-241.

 Jones, AC and Rupnow, R.F. ( 1992).  “A new model for industry-university partnerships:  The Digital Equipment Corporation/Georgia Institute of Technology Experience,” College Industry Education Conference Proceedings, pp. 198-202. 

Kerr, S., VonGlinow, MA, Schreisheim, J. (1977).  “Issues in the study of professionals in organizations:  The case of scientists and engineers,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Vol. 18, pp. 329-345.

 Nasr, K.J. and Nour, BA (1995).  “An experience on industry-university collaborative research,” Frontiers in Education Conference Proceedings, pp. 317-320.

Tauguiri, R. (1965).  “Value orientations and relationships of managers and scientist,” Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 10, pp. 39-51.

 Tang, J. (1995).  “The control systems laboratory at Alfred University,” American Society for Engineering Education Conference Proceedings, pp. 665-669. 

Tomovic, C. and Silva, L. (1995).  “Overcoming organizational culture clash:  University-Industry partnerships,” Sixth World Conference on Continuing Engineering Education Conference Proceedings, (CD ROM).


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