Smart factories are on the increase as the manufacturing industry becomes progressively automated. Tomorrow’s plant engineers must have the knowledge to work with robots, controls, networking and software required to effectively run the Smart Factories of the future.
It is precisely this knowledge that Redcar & Cleveland College wanted to share with its students using state-of-the-art automation equipment from Mitsubishi Electric.
The products provided will offer a unique, hands-on experience to students, who are enthusiastic about the opportunity.
Making sure students are prepared for future careers in a manufacturing sector that is becoming increasingly automated was the guiding principle behind Redcar & Cleveland College’s investment in advanced technologies.
Neil Bowen, Head of Department for Construction, Engineering and Service Industries explains: “We believe in the importance of developing pupil skills that will be highly relevant on the job. At the moment, this means ‘industrialising the curriculum’ and making sure students will be proficient in Smart Manufacturing environments by having an in-depth understanding of the equipment that underpins Industry 4.0.”
“We set out to provide the opportunity to interact with these technologies in a supportive and less time pressured educational environment allowing students to learn at their own pace, before entering the workplace with added value experience.”
To achieve this, it was essential to replicate real-world industrial operating conditions, where modern, up to date and widely used automation products are in place. More precisely, the further education provider was looking for PLCs, HMIs and a robot to conduct hands-on activities suitable for students enrolled in different courses.
The request went to Mitsubishi Electric’s factory automation division. Neil Bowen comments: “The existing PLCs at our college belonged to Mitsubishi Electric’s FX3 series and they served us well for a number of years. Our employees were extremely happy with them, as they were long lasting, high-quality pieces of equipment and the GX Works software used to program was particularly user friendly.”
Effective system integration for industry-like settings
The automation specialist set up a close collaboration with the department to specify the most suitable and cost-effective PLCs, HMIs and six-axis robotic arm. In particular, to help students interact with industrial robotic set-ups, Mitsubishi Electric suggested its cooperative system as an ideal solution. This would allow the pupils to benefit from a system that is widely used in factory environments to learn how to program different axes of motion, as well as gain an understanding on how to deploy and maintain the robot.
In addition, the two parties agreed on substituting the current FX3 series PLCs with the latest FX5UC. Steve Pickup, Key Account Manager – Automation Systems Division at Mitsubishi Electric explains: “While the FX3 is still a valuable system, we suggested students would appreciate using one of the latest controllers with more features.”
Mitsubishi Electric then contacted its innovation partner BPX and Helios Precision Engineering to support the supply of compact, highly integrated modules enclosed in desktop panels. In this way, students could truly benefit from an industry-like set-up.
Rob Flicker, Project Engineer at Helios Precision Engineering, says: “We have a long standing, successful relationship with both Mitsubishi Electric and Redcar & Cleveland College and were extremely excited to support this educational project by providing suitable panels. This helped the pupils to be able to use the kit as soon as possible, without the need to create units by themselves.”
One of the main aspects that Mitsubishi Electric, BPX and Helios had to discuss was creating individual compact, bespoke modules that would combine one PLC and one HMI each, whilst being able to fit on the students’ desks. “The use of FX5UC PLCs was particularly beneficial, as this range has one of the smallest footprints available. Furthermore, we worked hard to make sure we would deliver a professional, finished product that would mimic what is found in highly automated factories at an affordable price,” explains Rob Flicker.
Transformed learning experience
Thanks to this project, Redcar & Cleveland College now has an articulated arm six-axis robot with its own PLC, plus 13x PLC + GOT HMI control stations, as well as GX Works software that helps students to interact with and program the equipment. Perhaps more importantly, the systems provided can be easily upgraded to provide a future proof solution.
One of the first projects the students carried out was correctly wiring the PLCs to suitable terminal blocks. They saw first-hand what it means to conduct real-world I/O installations.
As a strong supporter of automation-oriented educational activities, Mitsubishi Electric was able to offer the equipment at a competitive price to support the institute. Furthermore, the company will continue to provide technical support to teachers and students.
As a result of this successful collaboration, the college has decided to standardise on Mitsubishi Electric for all its PLCs. “The outcome of this project is already clear, as it is helping our pupils receive an education that is highly functional and in step with the time. The feedback received from teachers and students was really good. This is why we will rely on this winning team for future projects,” comments Neil Bowen.
Steve Pickup concludes: “We are pleased to see our automation products used at a forward-looking educational centre because it underlines the fact that they are reliable, robust and easy to use. Familiarity with our equipment will also benefit the students as they move out into industry. We always look forward to collaborating with Redcar & Cleveland College to help form the factory automation specialists of the future.”