Skills gap: Northern Illinois University partners with AutomationDirect for new lab

As automation changes, educators need to maintain pace in the classroom to produce well-qualified graduates to teach advanced hands-on concepts. Northern Illinois University (NIU) is opening a new AutomationDirect Automation Laboratory on its campus. See photos.
By Control Engineering Staff October 16, 2008

DeKalb , IL and Cumming, GA – As automation changes, educators need to maintain pace in the classroom to produce well-qualified graduates to teach advanced hands-on concepts. Northern Illinois University (NIU) is opening a new AutomationDirect Automation Laboratory in its Department of Technology. AutomationDirect’s donation of $100,000 over four years also makes it possible to name a term professorship.

NIU Department of Technology gets an AutomationDirect Automation Laboratory.
Cliff Mirman, chair of the NIU Department of Technology, describes the setup of the newly named AutomationDirect Automation Laboratory. Source: Renee Robbins, Control Engineering

NIU’s Department of Technology, which has more than 400 students, evolved from vocational education and is now a component of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET). The new lab will aid student in programs such as electrical engineering technology, manufacturing engineering technology, and industrial management and technology.
AutomationDirect has a working relationship with about 15 schools and continuing education centers,with all the technology [that exists.] There’s not enough awareness of technical careers in grades K-12, and not enough exposure at this level to the high-technology solutions that exist. We want to help change that.” The company is also actively involved with education at the primaryschool level with local robotics team sponsorships and as a kit-of-parts sponsor of the FIRST robotics program. 

NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology partners with industry.
Promod Vohra, dean of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, explains the purpose of industry partnerships in engineering education. Source: Renee Robbins, Control Engineering

Also speaking at the opening ceremony, Promod Vohra, dean of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, said, the engineering college is there “to stimulate innovation. With this new lab, our students will know what it means to be an engineer and a technologist.”

AutomationDirectith. Welty had graduated from NIU with a Bachleor of Science degree in electrical engineering, and she said she remembered “too well the difficulty of scavenging equipment to practice on.” When NIU administrators approached the company about a larger partnership role, “it seemed like a natural progression,” she said.

The NIU laboratory supports courses in PLCs and automation.
The NIU laboratory supports the Departmental Programmable Logic Controller course and the automation course. Source: AutomationDirect

Vohra himself comes from industry. He worked for Philips Electronics for five years, then entered NIU and became the first graduate student in the CEET electrical engineering program. Upon completion of that degree in 1988, Vohra became an instructor at the college and worked his way up the ranks. As acting dean of the college, he was instrumental in launching initiatives that secured more than $8 million in funding to jump-start research in areas such as acoustics and vibration control and fuel cells. He also helped launch programs devoted to nano and micro electronics.

Vohra did that by building on his association with various boards and professional organizations to further a key goal of his:stry partners including Harley-Davidson and Baxter. “We want to be engaged in economic development of the region, and create graduates that can fair well in a global environment,” he said. “This is one way we can be a showcase of innovation.”

As a final project, NIU student teams design automation systems.
As a final project, NIU student teams design automation systems, which sort parts, integrating vision, PLCs, sensors, and pneumatics. Source: AutomationDirect

The laboratory supports departmental courses on programmable logic controllers and automation. Professors Andrew Otieno and Cliff Mirman teach PLC programming, as well as
Said Vohra,“This is, a level of experimental interaction that produces graduates who can excel in industry.”
Northern Illinois University

AutomationDirect

Renee Robbins , senior editor, and Control Engineering News Desk
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